27 Nov Black Men and Women of The C-Suite: Interview with Vercie Lark By Fotis Georgiadis of Thrive Global Magazine
My parents instilled in me early on that the best way to get out of our poverty-stricken Dayton, Ohio neighborhood was to obtain a good education. I didn’t know what to study until I realized how much fun I had helping my brother build audio speakers and tinkering with appliances, radios, TVs and other items in our home. Taking my passion for tinkering into account, I obtained an engineering degree and started me on a career journey that helped me move up the ranks and eventually become an executive for tech giants such as Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Sprint/Nextel and Embarq (now CenturyLink) where I was promoted to Chief Information Officer. After working at Embarq several years, I started several small businesses, invested in stocks and real estate, and acquired a BP gas station in Dayton before being recruited to join DST Systems as its first Chief Information Officer.
Working as CIO gave me insight into the financial services investment industry and the issues facing Americans who didn’t know how to successfully save, invest, and live with financial security before and after retirement. Five years later, Steve Hooley, DST’s CEO, asked me to lead our financial services business to help position the firm for long-term success.
Leading this business accelerated my understanding of the intricacies related to our U.S. financial system and reinforced my desire to help people successfully save more, invest wisely, build wealth and live life with more financial security. Before retiring I began to write my first book, “Make It Rain,” and begin offering it to people from all walks of life as my way to help others succeed in their finances and solve a growing problem in our society.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I was in my last year at DST Systems and we invited Jeb Bush, hot off the 2016 election campaign trail, to be our keynote speaker for the annual customer conference — a three-day event where we typically feature a high-profile figure to share insights with 400–500 key executives and managers. The morning after his arrival, our paths crossed during a private breakfast of seven or eight customers and top executives.
Many times, guest speakers ask for a list of questions in advance of private meetings so they or their staff can pre-screen and avoid topics. But Jeb showed up without an entourage or pre-screening. He simply engaged with our clients and never shied away from answering everything we asked about topics like business, leadership, politics and even personal topics. He was an open book.
We moved into the larger conference room with 400–500 people waiting for Jeb to speak. He walked in and sat at the table right next to me and we continued having small talk while he was being introduced by our CEO. Then Jeb leaned over and asked me, who he’d known for less than 20 hours, “Vercie, why aren’t there more minorities — people like you — at this company?”
It came as a shock, but clearly Jeb recognized an issue and had the courage to verbalize it to me when so many others eluded the subject. I was impressed by his candor on this and other topics and thought to myself, while he didn’t win the election, he’s a winner in my book. It’s one of the reasons I learned never to judge a book by its cover.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’d just changed careers after two years at Monsanto to pursue IT, eager to learn all I could about the systems, networks and support operations behind the scenes. Coming up to speed in my new job meant spending lots of time in the data center, wiring closets and under the desks of other engineers when things weren’t working.
One day in the Data Center I was talking with a veteran IT professional, Calvin, who was showing me the ropes about starting up and shutting down systems in preparation for weekend maintenance. As he was sharing the process and steps with me, I leaned back to rest on one of the large mini computers — and my behind hit the power button and shut down the entire system!
Calvin could probably tell I was mortified, knowing what I’d just done, and started to smile. Meanwhile, phones started ringing and people poured into the data center to see what was wrong. There I was just a few months into my new role and my bum had taken down the drafting and design system used by hundreds of engineers working on critical projects for the Department of Energy!
With a smile, Calvin quickly moved into action by telling me what to do next. We restarted the system and after things calmed down, I wrote an incident report to detail what happened, per protocol. But naturally, the news had already traveled and everyone who needed to know what caused the outage already did and oh, yes, they were having some fun at my expense. They didn’t let me live it down for a while after that!
Later that day our department director came to my cubicle and let me know he knew about what happened. “No need for a write up on this,” he said. “We know the root cause, you made a mistake, learn from it.”
I learned three important lessons that day: 1) don’t knock the computer with your bum; 2) everyone screws up and most do it more than you’ll ever know; and 3) we can use mistakes to learn and grow and remain pleasant. Calvin could have become critical; instead, he jumped in to help me through the situation by walking me through the startup process on the spot, all with a smile.
Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?
· Perspective. The first and primary reason to have a diverse executive team is to help senior leaders and board members make more informed decisions leading to a higher ROI for current and future investors, customers, employees and suppliers. Decades of research on this topic proves that companies with diverse leadership and staff perform much better than those without.
· Connection. We live in a world full of people with different genders, races, nationalities, values, religions et al, and in the U.S. our workforce is only further diversifying. Having executives who can relate to and connect with a diverse population of future leaders, customers and suppliers is important to the ongoing survival and performance of any growing business.
· Broader talent pool. Hiring and retaining the best talent to work in the executive suite means exploring talent in communities outside one’s own circle of relationships. Firms who truly desire to hire and retain the best are shortchanging themselves if they lack minority leaders’ personal connections with people who aren’t connected to traditional minority executive recruiting firms.
More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?
People tend to follow the lead of their business executives and their political leaders. As we begin to see more diverse executives leading or working in Fortune 1000 companies whose views are valued, who are generating great results, who are offered high impact leadership roles, who they can trust, and who are visibly addressing social and political issues, the more Americans begin to understand what’s expected of us as citizens and respect others who are different as they hire, promote, evaluate and pay people to work with them.
Thousands of the people come to the U.S. from other countries and millions more were born in the U.S. who simply want to be treated respectfully, create a better life for themselves and their family and pursue their American Dream. Many of our citizens will become the new leaders in businesses and as they rise in the workplace and see their leaders support a more inclusive workplace, they have an opportunity to continue advancing change with the firms they lead and across the political spectrum if they choose to pick up the mantle for the betterment of their business and of America.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?
Engage — Board members and C-Suite executives should engage (connect) with non-traditional communities of interest, minority executive leadership groups, and sponsor industry networking events to find and nurture high potential talent. C-Suite leaders need a goal to create a program in their company to cultivate future executive talent and connect with local orgs to improve their success in finding, recruiting, hiring and retaining the best talent regardless of a person’s demographics. To get started, Google communities in your industry or locale and simply add the word “minority” or “women” to the search. You’ll find ample opportunities to engage with diverse executives while cultivating a pipeline of new talent to fill roles in your company.
Invest — For minorities who desire to become a future executive, it’s important to remember to invest in yourself to develop business acumen, financial expertise and professional skills to help yourself perform in your current role and be better prepared for roles that can lead you to the boardroom. Accept roles outside your current profession to develop the broader set of skills you’ll need for a junior or senior executive role one day. For top executives who desire to increase diversity, work with Human Resources to develop a simple system to invest in future leaders. With this program, identify people in your firm to invest in and prepare them for broader and more impactful roles in the future. If you don’t invest in their future, they’ll find another firm that will.
Promote — Many firms also invest in their people with the best intentions of promoting them into executive positions but when the executive opportunity opens up, they select another candidate or hire someone who has “the look” from the outside. Sometimes they say in private they “decided to forgo the promotion to ‘protect’ the person from failure”, or they’ll say “I don’t think they’re ready yet” or “I decided to go external since I couldn’t find a good candidate here.” I’ve learned over time to take more risks, because CIO, CEOs and COOs took a risk on me. No one is ever completely prepared for the executive suite. Everyone who arrives there has a lot to learn. What’s more important than technical experience is their ability to learn, inspire, hire and develop talent, communicate and manage the business effectively. Take risks and promote them knowing that they may fail but can succeed with your support.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Great leaders help people achieve their personal and professional ambitions while inspiring them to work as a team and accomplish more than they knew they were capable of. The best leaders do this while also providing development opportunities to further along upward mobility.
Over the course of my career (especially after joining DST) I realized several of the executives working for me had worked in the same areas of the business for decades. They were experts in their areas, but some wanted to expand their roles and move up in the organization. We developed new assignments where leaders changed jobs or expanded their roles every 18–20 months to give them more insight into other areas of the business. Making the decision to move a subject-matter expert to a completely new was not without its growing pains and some outside of my team often wondered why someone with no experience in an area was given opportunities like that. As with any role change, some worked out well and team members moved on to more fulfilling opportunities; some didn’t work out. Even so, giving others the opportunity to learn and grow was the right thing and it helped us build a team with more diverse skills and understanding of the environments our clients relied on for their success.
Leadership isn’t about the leader or his aspirations at all; it is about developing people and helping others realize their own aspirations whenever possible while working to achieve your organizations’ collective goals to benefit your employees and stakeholders.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Get an MBA degree or hone your business expertise. My advice for anyone who desires to be an executive or reach the C-Suite is be willing to invest as much time as needed to master the basics of business finance. In the beginning, I did just that by reading lots of books and articles about the roles I was growing into. This was a key factor in my career ascent to CIO and later when I achieved the opportunity to lead the financial services business segment of DST.
2. Find a great work-life balance for yourself. It’s okay to work long hours every now but working too many hours for a long time will be detrimental to your work and your family life. I’ve had friends and work colleagues who reached the burnout point mentally and lose it at work from the stresses of the office. I’ve seen team members being wheeled out of the office after pushing themselves too hard, too long and developing chronic illnesses. Manage your time, manage your work, manage yourself. If you can’t achieve balance in your current role, find it elsewhere.
3. Sign up for a conflict resolution class. When I was young, I believed naively that everyone working with me were out for the same thing — to make the company great. As I matured, I quickly realized that sometimes conflicting agendas are at play and the more you know how to manage conflict as a team member or team leader the more effective your team will be. The good news is there’s training available to help you quickly learn to mediate and resolve conflict, so all parties feel good about the situation most of the time.
4. Always say “YES” to new opportunities. I believe my path to the C-Suite was not an accident: my progression continued over the past 35 years because I never turned down an offer to help a colleague who asked for assistance or turned down new assignment from any of my bosses no matter how dismal the job may have appeared on the surface. With each new opportunity I gained experiences and broadened my network of people. Looking back, the more I accepted roles without hesitation, the more I grew and flourished as a businessman.
5. You’re going to fail — what really matters is how you learn from your failures. There are times when minorities on my team tell me they feel slighted because they didn’t get that promotion they believed they deserved. I can tell you from experience I as well as many others, minority or not, have felt the same way. Rather than sulk or place blame, seek out the reasons why you were overlooked and work diligently to rectify those reasons. No one reaches the executive suite without a few setbacks, mistakes and disappointments along the way. Remember your future is in your hands and there’s people who will help you achieve your dreams if you’re open to receiving it and willing to put in the work.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Schools don’t offer mandatory classes on useful subjects such as personal finance, investing, retirement planning or wealth management. As a result, graduates are unprepared to manage their life finances. My dream is to inspire a movement across the country leveraging insights from “Make It Rain” and partnering with financial investment firms to deliver mandatory classes in public high schools, colleges, trade schools, churches and non-profit organizations that teach millions of Americans critical personal finance and investing skills to help them save, invest and accumulate more wealth.
For those Americans who have amassed or inherited great wealth, financial investment firms and banks provide advisers, brokers, and retirement planners to help them keep and accumulate even more wealth to pass on to future generations. Conversely, far too many other Americans continue to work hard and live paycheck-to-paycheck due to a lack of access to basic financial skills or tools. We can help millions of other Americans improve their lives and remove an increasing need for more government aid by teaching our citizens how to apply simple solutions to secure their income needs through wiser money management decisions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are two quotes that have stuck with me over the decades.
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” — Abraham Lincoln
“Carpe Diem.” (Seize the day.)
I have used these as part of my philosophy when making decisions in business and my personal life. They remind me that we have more control over what happens in our future business career and personal life than we know. When good opportunities present themselves, we can either seize them and try to create the life we desire or let them pass us by.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’d like to meet Bill and Melinda Gates, who are what I call “compassionate capitalists.” I would love to pick their brains to spur ideas and potentially partner with their foundation to help me solve two key issues in American society once and for all.
I’d love to brainstorm solutions with them to get financial education and copies of “Make It Rain” in the hands of people who need financial help in American and countries around the globe. Then, I’d love to discuss with them the idea of creating IT call centers, tech support and software development centers in low-income urban and rural communities across the U.S. with the goal of building a talent pool to meet the growing technology talent gaps in our country. I’d like to kick around ideas to bring decent wage IT jobs to American cities in need of revitalization.
How can our readers follow you on social media or on the web?
Personal Blog: https://www.vercielark.com/blog
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!