Interview: Monica Sylvain, PhD, EVP, Chief Diversity Officer, IBERIABANK

Monica Sylvain offers reflections on why a hallmark of her career is service to others, how empathy makes her a better leader, and her rationale for eating the same breakfast every day.

This interview is the tenth in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.

Monica Sylvain, PhD, EVP, Chief Diversity Officer, IBERIABANK 

Former Executive Director, Posse New Orleans

Focused. Compassionate. Relentless.


What are some of your career highlights?

I think my career highlights all have to do with me starting things. What I’ve identified over my now thirty-year career (wow, I don’t feel like I’m that old) is that I really love startups, being able to create, having autonomy, innovating and building something from scratch. I never thought this would be. (Monica Sylvain pictured at right.)

The first highlight was as founding director of the Louisiana Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (LA-STEM) Research Scholars program at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. The idea was to increase the number of underrepresented students who earned their PhDs in the STEM disciplines. The program started through a grant funded by the National Science Foundation, but I still had full range to build it the way I wanted to. Within four years we had recruited, trained, and supported at least 100 students from throughout Louisiana, and the underrepresented students persisted and graduated at higher rates than majority students. I left after four years and four years later, all cohorts had graduated and 60% went on to attain their PhD, with a 90% persistence rate for students generally, and a 92% rate for underrepresented students.

Having that kind of impact on young peoples’ lives through STEM was a highlight, and I’ve had a similar experience and impact as the Director of Posse. I have identified that when my career is focused on service to others then that’s when I experience the most satisfaction and when I have the most passion, drive, and energy every single day. That’s really what makes it a highlight for me.

If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?

Servant leadership above all else. That’s it. To me, if you don’t operate from a position of servant leadership then you really have not answered the question “why.” You haven’t answered the question why you exist or determined your purpose. I fundamentally believe that people don’t follow you because of what you do or how you do it. They follow you because of why you do what you do. Simon Sinek said it best in his TED Talk Start with Why.

What are your favorite types of challenges?

I’m all about talent development. Some of my favorite challenges have been with staff members who either need more training to develop more skills or to understand how to be a professional. Maybe they don’t have the kind of maturity around emotional intelligence. It’s typically something to do with helping people grow. I have had these challenges over the years, but I don’t think of them as challenges. I think of them as an opportunity for me to really settle in on what the strengths are that this person has and help them to be thoughtful about how both of us, together, can move the needle on whatever areas might be a challenge for them. In that process I have learned more empathy. I learn things really fast, process quickly, and am a strategic thinker and executor. That’s where empathy has to come in. I’m down the road at 80 miles per hour and my staff member may be farther behind. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t capable; he may learn at a different pace or process differently. Sometimes, I need to understand that and make room for his contribution, one that I have come to learn, most often, will be a real value add.

What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson. This book is all about a person identifying what they are really passionate about and the confluence of what you’re really passionate about that drives you every day and what you’re really good at in terms of your skills. When those two things collide, you will find you are in your element which results in greater impact at higher and deeper levels in work and in the world. I love that book.

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?

In my position with Posse, we were a strengths-based organization and that absolutely aligned with my values and how I wanted to align with other human beings.

In the work we did, there was definitely tension around college readiness, particularly academic readiness, for our scholars during the eight months of pre-college training. The organization would say that we didn’t want our kids to have anything remedial in nature before they got to college. That was a real tension for me because I knew that kids we recruited came from poorly resourced schools and there were different levels of quality even when the course had an Advanced Placement label. My struggle was that we did not have to offer them remedial courses but could introduce Posse Scholars to higher order critical thinking skills and begin moving them beyond rote memorization and recall. We could teach skills like synthesis, application, and evaluation that would prepare them in such a way that would alleviate some of their challenges in the first semester of college. Quite frankly it remains a tension. Posse has strong results with persistence and graduation rates of 90% for 28 years. I believe this kind of shift would positively impact Scholars’ grade point averages and increase their confidence and ability to achieve their long-term capabilities. That has not been reconciled and it won’t be because it is an organizational decision.

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?

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve had to reclaim my time. Throughout my career I have been extremely clear with people about my expectations around my time. For instance, work life balance. I will tell people in an interview that “this is what’s going to happen.” During the interview with the COO for my position at Posse, I said that if I am the right candidate for this role, I will attend every dance recital, cheerleading competition, every activity that my children are involved in. This was at a point in time when my daughters were very involved in extra-curricular afterschool activities. Family is so hugely important to me. I am not going to sacrifice family for career or career for family.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

I have the same breakfast every morning. I don’t want to expend a lot of energy on things that will take away from my brain power needed for other things. I ate oatmeal for years; now it’s freshly squeezed juice and avocado toast. I want to be able to really focus all of my energy on the work in service of others.

The second thing that comes to me is that when I leave the office, I leave the office. This is not something I was able to do immediately at 25, but over the years I have learned to. I wouldn’t say compartmentalize, but I make a decision that when I walk through the door of my home, all of my energy is for home. It’s my refuge; a place of joy, peace, and rest.

The other kind of self-care is that I love to work out. When I was a little kid, I ran track. I am still a runner, do interval training, and some weight lifting. Running really recharges me. I get the physical benefits and it also really clears my mind. I love physical activity.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

I would say become crystal clear about who you are, what you value, what’s important to you, what’s acceptable, and what’s not acceptable. And be willing to step out and take the risk of expressing those desires — those expectations — to whoever the audience might be at the time.

It’s really important to have a strong sense of self and surround yourself with your inner circle. I think about Jesus starting out with 120 disciples, then he had 12, then 3, then ultimately it was John who was laying on his chest. I think of it as concentric circles:  the inner circle supports, encourages, loves, and also corrects you. The people in that inner circle are the people helping you to develop this strong sense of self and helping to really shape you as you grow and mature as a human being. It’s never done by yourself.

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