ACAMS Today had the privilege to speak with Lisa W. Wardell, president and CEO of Adtalem about her background, professional experience and what it means to break boundaries as the only African-American female CEO in the S&P 400.
Wardell is a philanthropist, mother of six, wife, mentor, sponsor and CEO. She was appointed president and CEO of Adtalem in 2016 and has been a member of the board of directors since 2008. Wardell has made notable improvements to the diversity of the board and leadership team since she took the role; Adtalem’s board is now 67 percent diverse in gender and ethnicity combined, and Adtalem’s leadership team has 80 percent combined gender and ethnic diversity. Adtalem’s stock is also up approximately 250 percent during her tenure.
Wardell earned her bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and her law degree from Stanford Law School. She earned her master’s degree in finance and entrepreneurial management from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
Wardell serves on the board of directors for Lowe’s Home Improvement (NYSE: LOW), a Fortune 50 company, as well as THINK450, the innovation engine of the National Basketball Players Association, supporting NBA players and their development away from the game. She is also a member of The Business Council, the Executive Leadership Council, and CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion. Among numerous recognitions, she was recently selected by Black Enterprise magazine as one of the “300 Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America” and has been featured on Savoy Magazine’s Power 300: Most Influential Black Corporate Directors list. Wardell is often featured for her strategic insights by media outlets, including Bloomberg, Fortune, Politico, Investor’s Business Daily, Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others.
ACAMS Today: This year the theme for International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter. How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Lisa W. Wardell: As a first generation college graduate my early life experiences helped me to understand the power of rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. I had my first job at 14 and worked through college. These experiences helped me understand how to be a servant leader and lead by example, not to mention how to multi-task, be a quick study and learn to adapt as situations change. It also helped underscore the notion that you can pursue a dream and that anything is possible if you have a plan. I have a team approach, I don’t like a lot of hierarchy, and I try to listen more than I speak. I know from experience that sometimes the most junior person knows the most about the customer, or in our case, the ACAMS member, because they are closest to what that person needs from us as a membership organization to provide value to them as they pursue their career.
AT: As a female CEO, mother, and philanthropist, how do you transform challenges into opportunities to break barriers and the proverbial glass ceiling?
LWW: We all have busy lives, but what helps me is my focus on being intentional. To me, that means purposefully putting thoughts into actions to drive measurable results. I have attempted to be intentional in my career by performing well in my current position first, exceeding expectations, and then looking at the next role. I consistently seek feedback and incorporate that guidance into my professional life. I seek out mentors to help me build my leadership skills, and I found sponsors throughout my career to assist in my development—sponsors are those individuals who can speak for you and about you when you are not in the room. I also set goals for one, three and five years out and regularly revisit those goals to keep myself on track. Being intentional has helped me stay on track with what I want to accomplish and is helping me build Adtalem into an organization that is a truly diverse meritocracy.
AT: From the student to the business owner, we all have a responsibility to be proactive. How can women use their current role to ignite positive change that is sustainable and not just a fad?
LWW: I always stress the importance of mentoring and sponsorship; they create the foundation for long-term success. Mentors teach people new skills, provide feedback, offer advice and can be outside your own company. Mentors help you to really understand what it means to digest and use constructive feedback, so that when you receive feedback from your superiors you can embrace it and act on it for positive change. Sponsors, meanwhile, are internal to your own company. They provide you the exposure that you need to the individuals who count. Sponsors are your advocate in the room when you’re not there. When I worked for The RLJ Companies, I was given the opportunity to build portfolio of companies from the ground up. I was empowered by mentors and sponsors to make decisions—good and bad! And I was given exposure to other senior leaders, helping me gain experience beyond the purely functional side of my role to help me develop the strategic capabilities that a future CEO would need. If you’re in a junior position, seek out sponsors and mentors. And if you’re in a senior position, give back! No matter what stage you have reached in your career, you can always be a mentor. Being a mentor helps you understand what you need to provide to your own mentor to make the relationship more valuable. Become a sponsor or mentor. Create a culture of mentoring and sponsorship at your own business.
AT: Who are the women that have influenced your journey?
LWW: : I admire Mellody Hobson (president of Ariel Investments), Richelle Parham (former CMO of eBay and current managing director at Camden Partners), Ursula Burns (former CEO of Xerox), and Carla Harris (vice chairman and managing director at Morgan Stanley) because each are pioneers in their fields, but they don’t stop with their particular industry; they also make sure that they are giving back to their communities and to society as a whole. They understand that the perch that they have in corporate America provides them with the opportunity and ability to speak on issues that affect all of society. These women seamlessly combine doing well in the business arena with giving back to those who need experience and exposure, which is my ultimate goal, and why I admire them so much.
AT: Women account for less than 10 percent of the CEO positions in S&P 500 companies. What do you think organizations need to put in place to empower women and how can companies be more inclusive in a holistic manner? Can you share a little about your own experience at Adtalem?
LWW: Change begins at the top, with board direction and the direction of the CEO and their direct reports. Boards hire CEOs, so having a diverse board is imperative. If the CEO makes diversity a priority, then others will, too. During my tenure, Adtalem and ACAMS have become much more diverse organizations, reflecting their global reach and the diversity of their students and member base. It’s simply the best lens with which to make decisions. In addition, our pipeline of talent for future leaders is deep and growing.
AT: What are some of the things you focus on at Adtalem and ACAMS to help empower women and ensure that there are no barriers to growth?
LWW: I focus on three areas that drive growth and empower our colleagues at Adtalem and ACAMS to succeed in their careers: creating a performance culture, effecting diversity and inclusion, and solidifying our mission-driven focus. And it’s making a difference. Our stock price is up, which is important; but also interest in pursuing a career at Adtalem and ACAMS is up. Talent is everything, and we’re increasing our talent pool. We now see a much more diverse slate of applicants for new jobs—across both gender and race. Because we have a performance culture and a diverse leadership, applicants know they’ll get a fair chance to grow and succeed in a global organization with a strong mission of education and empowerment. It’s exciting to see these changes happen; we’re really setting an example for how a modern, global organization should be run.
AT: What would you consider is the key to your success in life?
LWW: At this point in my life, I’m often asked that question and for advice on how other women can advance their careers. The recommendations I make to women are: 1) find a mentor and/or sponsor who can help you navigate corporate America and your own personal career journey; 2) listen to and act on the tough feedback; 3) you can have a career and a great family; I’ve found my children learned to be very independent at an early age, and they’ve been around what I do so much that that they are able to appreciate it and learn from it themselves; 4) The best thing you can do for your future career is to do the job you are in right now the best you can. Know that you are strong, capable and empowered, and that you belong in the room. Every job is worth 100 percent of your effort.