First in Class

blog Mar 04, 2022

            People told Lisa Wardell they were excited to have a Black female CEO when she was named to the leadership of Adtalem Global Education, a leading provider of education and workforce solutions to the medical and healthcare industry, and they wanted to know what she was going to do for Black women? Her answer may have come as a surprise.

            “I'm going to do the same thing that all of my white male peers who are CEOs of public companies are going to do; I'm going to make the numbers,” she recalls telling them. “I'm going to make earnings. I'm going to make operating income. I'm going to make EPS [earnings per share], and I'm going to be able to talk to the shareholders about how I am driving value.

            “Because if I don't, I won't get to have the retreat to help young Black women and help people get on boards and do all of these other things, because the demands of the Black executive are just different.

            Her bottom-line commitment was because while, yes, there is increasing commitment to issues of social justice in the corporate world—“our customers, our stakeholders, our employees are demanding that we care about more than money, and I applaud that,” she says—“there's not many CEOs who get to not care about profitability and stick around.”

            In her five years as CEO, and then chairman and CEO at Adtalem—she and the board promoted her internal successor last year, and she remains as executive chair of the board—she achieved all that and more. She led a repositioning of the company that included a divestiture of its perhaps best-known entity, DeVry University, and significantly increased gender and ethnic diversity on the board.

            Part of what took her to Adtalem was her awareness of how access to education had provided opportunities in her own world. Neither of her parents nor her older brother went to college; she completed her application to Vassar College in pencil. “But someone obviously saw something in my application,” she says. “I got in and at Vassar I learned to do the things that really you'd need to know before you go to college; how to think analytically and be able to write and analyze both sides of an argument.”

            That experience opened subsequent doors—to Stanford University (her law degree) and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business (an MBA)—but she believes those kinds of opportunities have yet to be available at scale. “We need 200,000 students across all of our land-grant universities, in Chicago State and all of our HBCUs and HSIs (Hispanic-serving institution) and the organizations that we have at Adtalem, in order for this dream to really work.

            “Education is absolutely the key, I would say, to all of the problems that we all encounter and that is why it's such a travesty that it’s a scarcity in our communities.”

 

Scaling up

             The changes Wardell has led at Adtalem (a Latin word meaning “to empower”) have seen a greater focus on medical health care education. “We produce physicians, nurses, social workers—all of those folks who are solving really hard workplace and workforce staffing solutions in health—and we do that with lots and lots of graduates who are diverse. We graduate the most Black physicians, as an example, of any other school in the country, every single year.”

            Adtalem’s services help relieve a bottleneck: Wardell says 20,000 prospective medical school students don’t get accepted each year. “That has to do with just the scarcity of spots for MD degrees.” Almost 1,000 graduates of Adtalem’s medical schools went into residencies in the U.S. health care system in 2020. “We’re really providing health care at scale,” Wardell says, “because it’s our communities—Black and brown communities—that do not receive the same number of health care workers per capita as other communities.”

            Wardell’s achievements have seen her recognized as a business powerhouse, named to Black Enterprise magazine’s “300 Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America” list and profiled in The Washington Post under the headline, “Lisa Wardell walked into a meeting with 14 white, male bankers — and she ran the room.”

            Much of what she has learned she attributes to her time working with Bob Johnson, the founder of BET Networks and America’s first Black billionaire. She was COO at his RLJ Companies investment group for 12 years before moving to Adtalem.

            “The biggest thing with Bob is that he has extremely high demands and expectations of the executives who work for him, and I say that in a positive way because it allows this sort of no excuses space where you’re able to really grow in yourself and also demand that of others,” she says. “Because as you get to a certain point, really what’s valuable about you is obviously your skills, but that’s table stakes. What's valuable is can you really spot and assess talent who will also have high demands and expectations of themselves and their teams.”

            Look at some of the graduates of Johnson’s “academy,” she goes on: Thomas Baltimore (now Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Park Hotels & Resort), Leslie Hale (President and Chief Executive Officer of RLJ Lodging Trust) and WayMaker founder Louis Carr (President of Media Sales at BET Networks). “There's only a handful of Black CEOs out there; half of them came through Bob’s shop. And not even just CEOs, but really successful people.”

             While having high expectations, Johnson also gives people room to take initiative, which means there will be mistakes. “I’m not saying he likes mistakes,” Wardell adds,
“but he absolutely will help you learn from those mistakes, versus never branch out and do anything again.”

            She also speaks of Johnson’s ability to treat everyone the same. She tells of an occasion leaving a restaurant with him when his car was pulled round, and a woman got into the back seat, assuming he was the chauffeur. “He just said, ‘Hey, I'm sorry, this is my car.’ No indignation, just absolutely a response that let that person really think about their lens, versus an inappropriate response. And that’s just one example; I have seen him do that over and over.

            “That has helped me, because everyone gets frustrated. Everyone has bad days, you know… you got a really bad seat on the plane type of thing. It’s helped me really remember that everybody, everybody needs to be treated exactly the same and everyone's had a bad day, just like I might have.”

 

Stepping up

            Johnson isn’t the only person Wardell credits for helping her on her journey. She also speaks warmly of William Kennard, who was general counsel at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) when she went to work there fresh out of law school, and who went on to become Commissioner at the agency.

            “He suggested I go to business school. I'm not sure if that was because I was such a bad attorney,” she says, smiling, “or if he saw something in me in and around deals and negotiating and things like that, and he actually wrote a personal recommendation for me to go to Wharton.”

            Not surprisingly, there have been particular challenges along the way as a Black woman in a largely white corporate world, but Wardell is philosophical about them. “The first challenge is also the greatest strength,” she says, urging young people to remember this point from the interview if nothing else.

            “The greatest challenge is the constant underestimation of your skills, your intellect and your impact, but that is also a really great strength because each and every time you go out there and perform the way that your non-Black peers or your non-female peers perform, people are surprised, and you get benefits from that.” Whether it’s understanding financials and audits or managing and communicating effectively in a board room, those capabilities are “all things that get underestimated each and every time.”

            Wardell offers three pieces of advice to young people starting out today that she wishes she might have been given at the same age. First, take networking seriously. Make it a “singularly focused piece of your job, not an aside,” she says. Don’t ignore it because you’re an introvert and it doesn’t feel comfortable.

            Rather, see it as an essential part of your career-building: “Have a spreadsheet or a place to organize who you've talked to and follow up and not in a way that's, ‘Hey, what can this person do for me?’ but in the networking ecosystem, ‘How do I develop very early on skills and, and things that I can offer?’”

            She uses technology as an example: you could go to someone who is older and who may be less tech-savvy and teach them how to use something like Slack. “They'll forever be indebted to you, right? Some things that come first nature to you can help you in that.”

            Her next piece of wisdom is, to be willing to take risks and accept “the difficult, messy assignments.” She attributes much of her success to that attitude. “It sounds super cool, right, to be CEO of a public company like Adtalem? The bar was low; I mean, there was nowhere for the stock to go but up, and as a result, I was able to triple that stock and show performance. Obviously, you still have to perform, but it's taking on those risky assignments.” She points to Marvin Ellison, now CEO of the incredibly profitable Lowe's, who took on JCPenney at a time that “people thought he was insane to, CEO or otherwise.”

            Demanding as her first two suggested steps might be, she calls the last one “really hard,” acknowledging it was not something she did in her 20s, and maybe not even into her 30s. “Seeking and taking constructive feedback,” she advocates.

             “Most feedback is constructive,” she asserts. Even if the person doesn’t like you and is being nitpicky, “you can still learn from that. Being able to take feedback and really understand there are things that you need to change and modify and do more of and less of—if you get that early on, the sky's the limit.”

 

Speaking up

            As someone who obviously believes in the value of education, what would she say to young people of color who, through the coronavirus pandemic and racial tensions of the last couple of years, have given up on pursuing further schooling because they just don’t feel it’s worth the effort?

            “First, from an empathic place, I get it. Sometimes you just feel no one is listening. Take time to be gracious to yourself and think about, Gosh, why do I feel that way? And why am I here? You can't just say, ‘Well, you can't feel that way, march on.’” At the same time as some feel like “there's just no place to go,” she notes that there as many students who have been “so inspired and have just demanded that things change.”

            Her encouragement: look at leading brands, some of those that “we all know have not done a lot for diversity and sell almost everything they make to diverse people… see where they have shifted and gone over the last year and a half and you see that you have a voice and that your voice is being heard.”

            Remember not only George Floyd and Breonna Taylor but “all the names we don't know,” and think how “all of that would be in vain,” she says, “if we all just say, ‘Hey, it’s just too hard.’ We have to think about what that opening makes for us, because there has never been a time in this country, from my perspective, where we have more options and there's more possibility for communities of color.

            When friends first heard about Wardell’s recent transition at Adtalem, they called to check she was OK, unaware of the back-story to the changes. About 18 months earlier she had gone to the board to initiate a succession plan, which included having a diverse CEO—then-COO Stephen Beard—take her place.

            She didn’t have a new thing to go, she told inquirers. “What I did was I stepped aside to make way for somebody… because it was the right thing to do, and it was the right time for me. I had done everything that I needed to do to turn Adtalem around.” One lesson she passes on from her transition: “If you're at a point where you know the timing is right for somebody else and you know that you've got the tools you need to do the next step, do it. Don't wait. The first person who reached out and said, ‘Tthat’s the way to leave the CEO role, well done,’ was Bob Johnson”

            So, what’s next? “I'm not sure yet,” she says. “I think I've got another run in me. I learned a lot being the CEO of a couple-billion-dollar company… What I do know is I have to go somewhere where there's a mission, where there's a real diversity and inclusion imperative, not just one on a shiny piece of paper, and where I can make a difference.”

 

From an interview with Louis Carr