Denison University Scholar and Ubben Posse Fellow Daweed Abdiel with his host Cecilia Conrad.
Denison University Scholar and Ubben Posse Fellow Daweed Abdiel with his host Cecilia Conrad.

Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Cecilia Conrad

Fall 2017 | National

The Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows Program awards five exceptional Posse Scholars $10,000 each and the chance to spend 4-6 weeks during the summer shadowing and learning from a major industry leader. The interview below with Cecilia Conrad, distinguished professor, Associate Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Pomona, and Managing Director of MacArthur Fellows Program, was conducted by Posse Scholar Daweed Abdiel, now in his junior year at Denison University, who worked with Cecilia Conrad as a 2017 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

DAWEED: Tell me about your early years.

CECILIA CONRAD: For all intents and purposes, I am a southerner by birth. I grew up in Texas in a household that was politically active. My father was the first black to be elected and serve on the school board in Dallas for 10-12 years. Later, my father went on to serve on the State School Board. My mother was also a trailblazer. She was the first woman and the first black to be named as the foreperson of the Grand Jury there.

You had a notion that you were supposed to do well and give back. So, a lot of times I integrated. I integrated creative writing programs at the public library. A painting program at the local art museum. I integrated where I had no talent; fortunately, those who had the talent supported my efforts!

I had a weird perspective while attending public school. I went to schools where I was not well-liked because my family was relatively “well-off.” I carried an outsider perspective at almost every place I came across. I found this quality useful because it helped me negotiate many scenarios over time. It has helped me find common ground with people I may not have much in common with.

When I left Dallas, I wanted to get as far away as possible, so I went to Wellesley, outside of Boston. I studied economics there. Initially, I did not pursue leadership roles because I felt like an outsider there. Not only because I was African-American (I came with the largest class of African-Americans that they have ever had) but I was also a southerner in a place where being from the South was viewed as “you must not be that smart.” I came up with my own social networks, different from my peers. Wellesley, was a place where the expectation is “we are training women leaders” and you’re supposed to find your niche, and make your imprint on it. That is an expectation that I carry with me. It reinforced what I had at home. I had an extraordinary opportunity there.

What was the first leadership position you assumed in your life?

In college, I had a summer internship in Washington through the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. I worked for a former Miss America, but she left two weeks after my start date. There was a period, about a month in a half, where I managed the office. No one knew I was running the office! My main responsibility during this time involved interventions. People would write complaints about trade schools and I would call the trade school from the secretary’s desk. They would immediately give people back their money! There was a recognition of power, that is, that I could actually have an impact. I convened across agency committees to talk about the federal student loan money and for-profit vocational schools. I had people from Veteran Affairs, the education department, and all over to sit down and talk.

I recognized that I could get people to sit down, talk to each other, and listen to me, by not being in the middle. I convened and shaped the conversation while refraining from talking too much. Often, it is not about you dominating the conversation, it’s about guiding the conversation. You can get people to where you need them to be.

Have you learned any important lessons from anybody? Or what are the most important lessons you feel that you have learned.

I think I learned this first lesson from my dad and often find this in the very people I admire. There is expertise in all sorts of places and you should respect that expertise. You should never presume that you understand the job that someone else is doing.

My first example of that is when I worked at the Federal Trade Commission as a junior economist for a year. The administrative support staff were low-morale and begrudging in some of their tasks. Due to my previous experiences (if you want to learn how things work, talk to admins), I understood that the support staff knew a lot and quickly developed a rapport with them. My work would be completed right away and my colleagues started to notice this. Others would have to wait a week before they got their work back. Consequently, they said, I was put in charge of overseeing the administrative support pool. Not in terms of supervising, but in terms of how to improve the job, how to recognize skill and set up new processes and procedures.

I felt good! Morale was better. Across teams, everyone was pleased with the new processes and felt like the workflow substantially improved. We even did a white-water rafting trip with the economists and administrative support staff! It was great for bonding and people shared common interests and experiences. I find this to be true almost everywhere, people undervalue the expertise of others. You learn a lot by asking people what they do and why they do it in that fashion; before deciding that you know how to do things better.

The second one is to listen and let people know that you are listening, by filtering back what you think you heard. When you filter it back, it opens the door for others to recognize that you are making the effort to listen. That is key to building a strong team. I picked this up from watching someone, they said: “I hear you saying this and this is what I think I heard” as a way of summing up a meeting. In the teaching realm, you have to be open. Keep your door open and be available to talk to people.

When you became someone’s boss, what mistakes did you make?

I tried to fix things by myself. If there is a project that was not completed the way you wanted, you need to tell the person instead of repairing it yourself. That is connected to failure to delegate. At times, I think I could do it just as fast as they can. Perhaps, but I should be doing something else.

The other mistake is this culture I have absorbed inside the university and here at the foundation. People always want to make it work. They adapt, create, and redefine jobs. They do all kinds of things and what they really should do is say this is not working. Sometimes I am slow to say that it is not working or too determined to make it work or acknowledge that it is not working. I have gotten better at this. It turns out, I am gifted at letting people go. People appreciate when I explain why things are not working.

What was your most emotional encounter with failure?

At Wellesley, I received a low grade in my biology course and struggled in my French course. I became depressed and retreated too much into myself. I thought I was the only one going through it.

Retreating like a turtle is one response. I also tend to blame myself for things that do not go right. I think it makes me resilient because I had lots of little failures in my mind, even though they were not mine.

Recently, I edited “The Review of Black Political Economy.” It was a journal that I inherited in its troubled state. I was not able to rescue it and I went through a stage where I was defensive and felt defeated about it. I would consider steps that I could have taken, that may have saved it. The truth is I did not have the time or space to save it. I had to give myself permission for the fact that I had to make choice.

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Meet the 2017 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows.