Speaking truth to power – reflecting on the 2017 Hazelett Forum

As we begin a new year at the Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence, we find ourselves reflecting on a main message from Alecia A. DeCoudreaux, who served as the keynote speaker at the 2017 Hazelett Women in Leadership Forum.

Speak truth to power, she said.

“I think many institutions fail, even ones that have been around a long time, because history and tradition can blind people to hard truths, and too few are willing to address them head on. While speaking and hearing those truths is one of the hardest things to do, they’re also among the most important requisites for leaders and the organizations they lead.”

Started in 2006, the annual Hazelett Forum provides a public arena for knowledgeable and creative speakers to celebrate the achievements of women leaders. The forum honors the memory of its namesake, Susie Hazelett. Hazelett was a former executive director of the Randall L. Tobias Foundation, and she was instrumental in the founding of the Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence. Past Hazelett Forum speakers include Susan Brooks, Tamika Catchings, Angie Hicks and Ora Pescovitz, among others.

At the 11th annual forum, Alecia DeCoudreaux, who has served in numerous, high-profile executive leadership roles across the country, discussed three constants that have been an integral part of her journey.

1. Maintaining a sense of self-worth, and listening to the inner voice that stems from it.
2. Speaking truth to power.
3. Providing service to others, which is key to a fulfilling life.

“You can’t speak truth to power unless you believe in yourself and have a strong sense of self-worth,” she explained. “And I believe my third principle [service to others] can make the most profound difference for both your leadership and your life. Find ways to serve that coincide with your interests and passions. You’ll be a much more effective and a better leader by serving others.”

I strongly encourage every leader to find a way to serve. The need is overwhelming. If not us, who?

Alecia A. DeCoudreaux

DeCoudreaux served most recently as the 13th president of Mills College, and she’s held a number of leadership roles at Eli Lilly and Company, including vice president and deputy general counsel.

DeCoudreaux began her career in private practice with Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, a San Francisco-based law firm. She received her law degree from the Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington. Her career also saw extensive involvement in the communities where she has lived and worked.

“Given the importance of this forum, I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage all of you to continue to nurture women leaders in any way you can,” she told the audience. “Numbers do not reflect our strength across many fields. We still have a long way to go.”

DeCoudreaux reflects on growing up in a family of strong women, who imparted many lessons upon her that guided her through life. When she was subject to pranks from older cousins, her grandmother told her: You are strong and smart and as good as the rest of them.

It was this mantra that carried her through much of her professional career. DeCoudreaux recalled thinking of those words when she would get discouraged—first as she worked to get ahead in a law firm with few women, and later throughout her professional career.

“I used to think these circumstances were reserved for women and minority group members of my generation, but while we have made real progress, I suspect many of you in this audience can relate to them. I say to you what my grandmother said to me. ‘You’re strong; you’re smart; you’re as good as everyone else – perhaps better, and you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.’”

Your belief in yourself, combined with preparation and hard work, is the most powerful springboard for overcoming the obstacles that inevitably will block your path.

Alecia DeCoudreaux

DeCoudreaux remembered speaking candidly with leaders in various companies and with company stakeholders throughout her career, particularly when it came to valuing diversity and the value of women in leadership roles in the workplace.

“It’s my experience that leaders, particularly leaders with positional power, are not always spoken to so directly. It’s also been my experience that this kind of candor is exactly what they need to seek in order to be good leaders.”

“Throughout my career, I often found myself in a position of speaking truth to power, and as often as I could, I tried to seek the truth from those who worked for me and with me. I know this isn’t always easy,” she explained.

“It can be intimidating to be straight with the leader of your organization, especially when you’re just starting out or new in a role. After all, your work and just about everything about you is being evaluated, and the leaders to whom you’re speaking are usually in a position of deciding your role, your salary and, quite frankly, whether you go or stay. The best leaders I worked with appreciated my input, respected my candor and, when the stars lined up, took it seriously.”

As a final thought, DeCoudreaux left Hazelett attendees with this message – a message to remember as we embark on a new year with new promise.

“We have to step up and lead, do the right thing, speak truth to power and lift people up. Leadership begins with every single one of us, each in our own way. We can make a difference, and there’s not a moment to lose.”