Jacqueline A. Berrien has been the chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) since April 2010. A Harvard Law School graduate, Berrien practiced civil rights law for many years, assisted underrepresented groups as a program officer for the Ford Foundation, and came to the EEOC from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she served as associate director-counsel.
How do you keep your employees engaged and motivated?
One of my favorite books on leadership is The Mentor Leader , by former football coach Tony Dungy, that takes the position that the best leaders are always thinking about how to develop the best in others and how that is contagious. As you invest in others and their development, they are more likely to invest in others around them and that’s what builds really strong teams.
I also try to make a connection between the origin of this agency and its mission. For me, that is a tremendous motivating force. I recognize the EEOC was born in the civil rights movement. I was also born in the civil rights movement. In many ways, I gauge the work of the agency and its contributions not just in an abstract way, but in a very personal way. I believe my life today is different because an agency like this was created and because the civil rights movement was launched to create it.
What do you see as your primary goal at the EEOC?
The ultimate measure of our work is a very long-term measure. Will the workplace be more inclusive and discrimination less common when my children, my godchildren, or my nieces and nephews enter it? It is the kind of long view that is responsible for the fact that my education, my career, my life opportunities, and chances and choices were all better and more expansive that those of my parents and grandparents. The essence of the work of advancing and protecting civil rights in this country is very much something where our ultimate success will manifest in decades. It will be measured by how different life is for someone who is a child today.
Do you have advice about managing an agency with many locations outside of Washington?
In my first year and few months here, I have visited almost half of our 53 offices. My goal is to visit them all during my tenure. The work being done across the country is just as important to the agency and the ability to serve the public as the work done in headquarters. I think it is important that they hear and see the leader of the agency, not only the Charlie’s Angels voice on the other end.
That said, obviously budget constraints and scheduling make it difficult to spend as much time as one might want, so technology is important and we make as much use of it as we can. It’s not unusual for me to have a meeting with senior staff in the headquarters and have on the phone the leadership of our field offices as well. I am committed to trying to continue to do that, because I think there is a benefit in having all of our leaders hear the same things at the same time from me directly.
What leadership lessons did you derive from your experience at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund?
I learned from a very experienced lawyer at the Fund who was known for being a tremendous lawyer and teacher. He believed that you can learn something from everybody and it’s important to never stop learning. Even though he had decades of legal experience, he was receptive to the ideas of legal interns who were still in school. He was widely recognized as just having this incredible depth and knowledge of civil rights and yet he didn’t think he had all the answers.
Can you identify a critical event that contributed to helping you become a better leader?
I started studying music when I was a child. Eventually I went from piano lessons and emphasis on solo performance to playing and studying flute and singing in ensemble. After a long hiatus from music, I came back to join the church choir about eight years ago and what I realized over time is that, in music, even the best soloist is not able to stand alone. There is an ensemble accompanying them or there is an individual accompanying the soloist and then there’s a conductor. I really think there are a lot of analogies and lessons that apply to leading an organization, to leading a team.
Music taught me the importance of striking a balance between being a soloist and being part of an ensemble. It taught me the importance of the conductor being knowledgeable but using that knowledge to lead others to their best collective product. It taught me to fully appreciate diversity, because at this point in my life, I appreciate just about every kind of music and it has to do with listening to all kinds of music. It made me comfortable with being in front of the room for solo performances and the beauty of working together well. I think there are a lot of lessons I learned from being a part of music ensembles and learning how to work with other people in that way.
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