Power Of Service and Vision: Center of Public Integrity CEO Leads With Purpose
“I am not CEO Susan; it sounds like a new version of Barbie,” says Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.
As keynote speaker at the recent Journalism & Women Symposium annual Conference and Mentoring Project in Williamsburg, Va., Richardson, the award-winning former editorial director of Newsroom Practice Change at Solutions Journalism Network and former editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter, spoke on the value of using your power in service to fulfill a vision.
“We’re at a moment of disaffection with institutions, intense disinformation and demographic change,” Richardson says. “Those three D’s are profound at this moment in time.”
The first African American CEO of the center, Richardson says, “The definition of who is American is being affected. The fights we thought we had settled a generation ago, are front and center again.”
Considering her decision to become CEO, Richardson says, “I thought the moment required it and it was important. So I became the man.”
She adds, “The man becomes the stand-in for power. It all centers around a genderized, racialized and otherized view of what we can do.”
The shift that is possible as more persons of varying identities and backgrounds enter into leadership positions across industries begs the question. “Are we going to be the man or something different?” asks Richardson, who has been an editor at Texas Observer Chicago Tribune and Sacramento Bee.
She has an answer for herself.
“I didn’t come here to do the same old thing. I came to disrupt.“
According to Fortune, on the most recent 2019 Fortune 500 list, “33 of the companies on the ranking of highest-grossing firms will be led by female CEOs for the first time ever.” That is only 6.6 % of the whole. “Bed Bath & Beyond’s Mary Winston is the first black woman to serve as a Fortune 500 CEO since Xerox’s Ursula Burns stepped down two-and-a-half years ago, although Winston is in an interim post.”
The efforts in corporate culture to drive for diversity and inclusion are often muddled and achieve uneven results.
Dana Brownlee writes in Forbes, “Most organizations have a senior level executive of Equity, Engagement, Culture, Belonging, Fairness etc., but the most common phrase is ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ (D&I) – which sounds great, but what does it really mean? The truth is that too many companies make the mistake of assuming that diversity and inclusion are synonymous or that one automatically implies the other…and that mistake is arguably a risky one.”
Brownlee writes, “Gallup’s 2018 report “3 Requirements for a Diverse and Inclusive Culture” highlights the importance of acknowledging D&I as two very different concepts. The report concludes, ‘Gallup's research indicates recognizing that diversity and inclusion are very different things is the first step in the journey toward creating a uniquely diverse and inclusive culture.’”
The systems in place in a myriad of industries from corporate to nonprofit are needing to shift for a world that demands change in leadership and behaviors.
As a community activist and later a journalist over the last three decades, Richardson, who was named one of the most powerful women in Chicago media, and was a fellow at The Nieman Foundation and also Shorenstein Center, says she was always trying to figure out the systems around her. “I was always very clear about who had the power and who was represented.”
In conversations today, Richardson says, “We talk about not having inclusion and equity but that was always the struggle. Most of the time, if you want to make change, you have to take the bitter with the sweet.”
In arenas of journalism and far beyond, Richardson says, “If we are going to move forward, we have to see power in the service of a vision. How can I be of service in trying to lead an organization?”
Richardson says being aware of the utility of the power she holds as CEO is critical. “I have to take the power I have to transform who matters in the news.”
After years in positions of mid-level management, her new title offers new opportunities and consequences. “I am in a position with a level of power and with that comes responsibility to reimagine.” She adds, “I don’t have all the answers.”
But she does have more questions. Richardson says she wants to know, what can we do on a big level? “I want to interrogate the assumptions of what is normal. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable,” Richardson says.
As more work cultures shift to address how their environments handle race, gender and more, she says, “We have to deeply understand the value of inclusion and equity.”
Before receiving a standing ovation from journalists attending the conference, Richardson says, “Everybody doesn’t want to be a CEO of a legacy organization. I think about my mother and my grandmother and the limits of history and time put on their lives.”
She adds, “When the changes are made, these are driven by an understanding that this is how we need to do business today. We are more than individuals. You need to think beyond your own instance and act accordingly.”