This interview is the fourth in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.
Vernetta Walker, Vice President of Programs and Chief Governance Officer, BoardSource
Strong. Opinionated. Compassionate.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
That’s such a good question. I’m not sure if this is a headline, but it’s what came to mind: I’ve always understood my strength, but not my power. In terms of my strength, I mean my willingness to engage, put in the work, and never think anything will come easily. People call it “on your grind.”
What I didn’t understand for the longest time was my power – I just never understood that. The way I define power is not the traditional way with a capital P, but a small p. The power to change hearts, to change minds. I never understood my power to advocate for myself. The power to really own a room and make things happen. It’s something I had to truly grow into. (Vernetta Walker pictured at right.)
What are some of your career highlights?
It’s funny but I think every position I have had I can see the highlights in that position. Where I am now is the cumulative effect of those experiences. My first job out of law school in Orlando, Florida . . . I think I was the first African American attorney the firm had hired, and it was a large firm. I come from humble beginnings, so the interview process, clerking, and landing the job was pretty amazing. I didn’t have dreams of being an attorney growing up. I didn’t know any attorneys growing up. The dream of going to law school was an idea planted by my older brother and it worked out!
My introduction to the nonprofit sector was through the role of director of the Administration of Justice Grants Program for the Florida Bar Foundation. I had the opportunity to see organizations that are community-based changing lives and making a difference. I have a deep, abiding belief that there should be equity, fairness, and justice in the world. How that doesn’t play out always touches me deeply. Moving from the firm, to the foundation, and then the nonprofit sector allowed me to build on each experience. The Florida Bar Foundation opened my eyes to the social sector. It’s been step by step from there.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
Probably people challenges, which I’ll phrase as culture. How do you change culture? The technical and strategic work is doable, if you can really address the culture. Those unspoken rules, practices, habits, traditions – all of that [stuff] that you have to untangle is my favorite challenge. It requires getting to know people, understanding them, and listening. Then it’s about what’s going to resonate – what’s that vision that we can paint together that will help them move forward. It’s more the art of what I do rather than the science.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
This is the hardest question. For me, whatever book I read last is my favorite. It’s a continuous arc. I read a variety of books, and what resonates most with me is storytelling related to our need to be compassionate as human beings. Part of me is very interested in justice, equity, and fairness. Even early books that I read showed society sometimes at its worst and humanity at its best.
I will go back at least a couple decades. I remember reading the book, Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America by Nathan McCall. The author was incarcerated and then went to write for The Washington Post. He told his story of growing up as a Black male, and so much of it I understand. I grew up in D.C. and have two older brothers.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. There are sections where I become very emotional.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. As the author followed three lives of individuals who migrated from the South, I could see my family in those stories.
Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips. This is about the whitening of Forsyth, Georgia.
These books have a lot to do with race and racism, which taps into a deeper part of me that makes me very emotional and reminds me to connect with humanity in a way that shows — regardless of a person’s station in life — people deserve respect. And perhaps, for others who don’t understand what we face as African Americans, how can we at least open the door for a conversation…for those of us in a position to have the conversation to help others understand. So much has happened over the last year that we have to keep trying, and can’t throw in the towel. I can’t stop reading the stories and can’t stop being open to thinking that we can change this in a broader sense.
Your question was about leadership? I’m constantly reading articles, research, and other materials about leadership, but there are three books I read recently that might fit this category: Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman comes to mind and emphasizes how leaders can make others bring their best; The Power Presenter: Technique, Style, and Strategy from America's Top Speaking Coach by Jerry Weissman is a favorite for how to connect with an audience; and The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer, which was helpful for my international engagements last year.
Other books have been helping me find my voice, and in finding my voice, I feel a lot of internal conflict and emotion. I have to really figure out how to continue being authentic and also how to open the door for others to make whatever discoveries they need to make about themselves and our society. This internal turmoil is me continually questioning myself whether I am using my gifts appropriately. Is the work that I’m doing serving a deeper purpose? If not, how do I execute on it in another way?
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
There’s only one time I can recall where I had to think long and hard about my next move due to conflict with a leader. The situation did not involve anything illegal, but from an ethical standpoint, I totally disagreed with this person’s actions. I needed to figure out how I could lead without compromising. I didn’t feel like I was in the best position to expose the individual, but I wasn’t going to cave in either.
My brother used to say, “Don’t fall for the okie-doke.” The tension was that I could walk away or help others get through. Walking away wasn’t an option for me. Resolving the tension required me looking at the big picture. The issue was resolved because, as is usually the case, all things come to light, though looking back I wish it had happened a little sooner.
In Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
I know what I know. I have been in situations where people want to challenge me and I have to figure out what’s the root of the conflict or resistance. Is it personal? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it that I’m Black? Is it substantive or philosophical? I know when I’m on solid ground, and I don’t have a problem standing firm. I can recall engaging in a two-hour conversation with a colleague who wanted me to back off of a position I knew to be true. It wasn’t a matter of interpretation. It was factual, and you’re not going to pull the wool over my eyes. I lead with my values. I operate with high ethical standards, morals, values – there is no compromise there. We can battle over strategies, approaches – that’s a whole different thing – but doing the right thing, no.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
Shopping. There are a few of us out there for whom that is really fulfilling. I don’t have rituals. I try a lot of new things. It’s most refreshing to connect with nature, whether beach or mountains. It rejuvenates me. I have been known to go off and do a retreat by myself in the woods. I like having that down time surrounded by natural beauty.
When my children were in elementary school, I connected with a group of African American women who scrapbooked. What was so amazing about this experience was this group of women. At the time I was associate general counsel for an association; another member of the group was a pediatric surgeon – and at that time the only African American one in the country; another was an executive at a private sector firm; another was a co-owner of a business with her husband, and the fourth also was an executive. We all had young kids, and everyone was busy and overachieving, but we would make the time to come together and make the connection. The way we shared our bond and supported each other was -- and continues to be -- really special. This gathering was something that we’d look forward to. My self-care was being able to bond and connect with each woman and we are still in touch now.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
1) Accept that you do have power, which starts with the individual. Know it. Accept it.
2) As I look back on my earlier development, there are things I make sure my son and daughter know now about networking, connections, relationships, and mentors. I was a first-generation college graduate raised by my mother. There were gaps in terms of my professional development perhaps compared to what more well-off peers would know. Take the short cut and find a mentor. Don’t wait for someone else to find you a mentor. When individuals see others trying to achieve they are willing to help. Don’t be afraid to talk to others.
3) Know your strength. Own your power. Pursue your purpose.
4) When you think about balance, work-life or whatever else, don’t ever think it will be 50/50. You put in time when and where you have to, but plan for down time.
5) Don’t be afraid to negotiate for what you need and ask for what you need. Negotiate on pay. That’s something we really don’t do as women.