As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Dughi.
Lisa Dughi is Chief Executive Officer at NAF, a national network of education, business, and community leaders who work together to ensure that traditionally under-invested in high school students are college, career, and future ready. She oversees all functions and the strategic vision of the organization, which is responsible for supporting a network of over 600 college preparatory, career-themed academies serving over 120,000 students in 35 states, plus DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Lisa graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Policy Analysis and Management and received her MBA in Marketing & Operations Management and Strategic Management from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and has vast experience in implementing strategies, quantifying results, and effecting change within organizations, large and small.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Thank you so much for having me. The idea of a career path always makes me chuckle because I never would have predicted that I would be where I am now in a million years. It was certainly not a path I charted but a confluence of many experiences, decisions, and opportunities.
I went to college focusing on a career in healthcare and was also an athlete. After trying to balance athletics and a pre-med course load, I changed my major a couple of times. Ultimately, I graduated with a BS in policy analysis and management, with a consumer management concentration and a textiles and apparel minor, which is a fancy way of saying that I was a marketing major with a fashion minor.
My career started in fashion — analyzing Chanel’s customer database to understand consumer behavior and develop marketing plans and strategies. It was a fascinating role that allowed me to use my analytical and creativity skills to lay the groundwork for the thread that would tie together my future trajectory. I then went to business school, where I met some of the smartest people I have ever known, many of whom had a background in management consulting. That led me to pursue a career in consulting, which leveraged my ability to understand complex data, systems, and problems and to develop actionable procedures and solutions. This opportunity also exposed me to different industries, functions, and companies, enabling me to leave them better than I found them.
After a few years in management consulting, I wanted to use the skills and experiences I had gained for something more purposeful and meaningful. I came to my current organization, NAF — a national network of education, business, and community leaders who work together to ensure under-invested in high school students are college, career, and future-ready — as a consultant to assess the data they had recently started collecting. The data drew me in, but it was NAF’s mission and purpose that inspired me to stay. During my time at NAF, I have filled many roles in numerous functions, including research, program expansion, marketing and communications, and operations. I became President in 2019, and in July of 2021, I became CEO. I couldn’t be more excited to lead NAF into our next phase, ensuring that more students have access to opportunities for successful futures.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
It is no surprise that networking is the most important proficiency you can sharpen to explore career options and find new opportunities. Networking can come in many different forms. In fact, my dog was to thank for my job at Chanel. He was walking with another dog in my apartment building and when I met the other dog’s owner, it turned out she worked at Chanel and told me about the open position on the marketing team. The rest, as they say, is history.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.” — Babe Ruth
I am so fortunate to work at a high-performing and forward-thinking nonprofit in the education space that has existed for over 40 years, with staff members who are so full of heart and make this work their life’s mission. In education, it often seems that the “new, fancy thing” is what gets the most attention. However, NAF has a proven track record of success that enables us to continue to provide successful futures for students. Babe Ruth’s quote really resonates with me because while it is those many years of impact that have kept our partners and schools engaged, we must continuously improve and evolve with what is happening at the current moment and where the future of education and the workforce are headed. We are consistently hitting home runs and we are a winning team every single year.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
A book that had an unexpectedly significant impact on my career was one that I somewhat randomly picked up in an airport before a long flight to Asia when I was a management consultant. It was Screw Business as Usual by Richard Branson. I read the whole book in one sitting. It underscored how important it is to think about the impact we have on society through our work. This concept inspired me to use the skills and experiences I had gained in the corporate world for something more meaningful.
More recently, after learning the story of the 2000 British Olympic Men’s 8 Rowing Team, I read Will It Make the Boat Go Faster? by Ben Hunt-Davis. The focus is on how an underperforming team of outstanding individual athletes were able to row their way to gold at the Sydney Olympics by channeling all of their training, planning, and strategizing on one question, “Will it make the boat go faster?” Since starting my role as CEO, this has become something of a mantra for the NAF team — “Will this (program, project, relationship, effort, etc.) have more impact on more students?”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
NAF is an incredible organization that is focused on creating access to successful futures for the students who need it most. We work with leaders in education, business, and the community to bring the high school experience to life and create a real connection for what students learn in the classroom to what their future career can be. We currently serve over 100,000 students across the country per year and the real power is in the stories of our alumni who not only end up in great careers, but so often give back and become mentors and employers for current NAF students. NAF’s work has never been more important. We are at a critical moment that demands accelerated and significant progress towards addressing inequalities for people in under-served and under-resourced areas, particularly children of color. I am not only aligned with how important it is for us to help to lead the country into the future of education and workforce development, but I personally feel fulfilled by the fact that it is hard to have a bad day at work when you can step back and remember the stories of the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been transformed by NAF’s work.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Don’t get married to one idea or path. When I started college, I thought I was going to be a doctor. When I graduated from college, I thought I was going to have a long career in fashion. When I went to business school, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. The willingness to explore new opportunities, learn from people I admired, and push myself to try new things has enabled me to get to where I am today. I would have never had these opportunities and experiences if I was closed off to exploring, learning, and opening up to new things. Initially, my role at NAF was expected to only be a few months in a consulting capacity but allowing myself to learn and grow from the project led me to this unexpected opportunity to lead the organization.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I heard very early on in my career to put my head down, do good work, and expect that it will be recognized. While I can understand the sentiment of this “advice” it does a real disservice to any young person in a work environment, but especially to a young woman. It led me to start my career unwilling to speak up, advocate for myself, or enable others to see my good work because I wasn’t doing much to show it. Fortunately, I had a colleague who provided me with an eye-opening conversation that has stuck with me to this day. When I lamented about not getting an opportunity for a stretch assignment, they said, “Well, did you ask?” That seemingly innocuous question helped me reevaluate how I approach the presentation of my capabilities and capacity at work — this started a long list of requests I asked for, and secured, in future roles!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Always remembering that people are people: I have been lucky enough to be in the room with people who are top CEOs or celebrities or otherwise notable and impressive people. Reminding myself that they are all people with lives outside their titles, helps to not feel intimidated by the gravitas they might be bringing to a conversation or meeting. Very early in my career a CEO of a large company was on stage at a conference and the whole room was transfixed by what he was saying. I looked over at his teenage daughter who joined for the final evening’s event, and she was clearly not nearly as impressed with what her father had to say. It was a great reminder that everyone has family and friends who know them for who they are and not what they do — everyone has made mistakes, misspoke, and embarrassed themselves. Always reminding myself of everyone’s humanity makes it much easier to comfortably walk into a room, regardless of who might be in there with me.
- Staying calm under pressure: Perhaps it is from a lifetime of competitive sports or just something I was lucky enough to be born with, but I am not someone who gets easily rattled. When circumstances are heightened or when people around me are stressed, I find it easiest to operate from a place of calm and start problem solving, instead of getting pulled into the disruption or concern. An example of that was when I was a consultant in a meeting with all the C-level executives of our client company. They were not happy with how the project was progressing and things got so heated that people were yelling and eventually a notebook was thrown across the room. The room was on the verge of truly descending into chaos when I made a joke about the notebook thrower having a career as a pitcher for the Yankees and immediately the tenor in the room changed. We were then able to shift the conversation to how to solve for the issues they were most concerned about and actually had a productive meeting focused on outcomes versus issues.
- Compassion: It is important to me to always remember that it is people who make everything possible. Being a leader can often require tough decisions that are not personal, however, oftentimes it is people who are impacted by those decisions, and I believe in ensuring that the impact is a part of the decision-making process. This has certainly been the case as a leader during COVID. There has never been more focus on the future of education and the future of work and NAF sits at the intersection of both. Amplifying and accelerating our work and support of our schools and students who are so deeply impacted by the pandemic is paramount. However, also recognizing that our team is navigating their own experiences and challenges during these uncertain times and figuring out the best ways to be supportive of both has been critical to our ability to have deeper impact.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
As cliché as it is, the buck stops with the CEO. Having a trusted and strong leadership team is extremely important, but at the end of the day, your staff, the board, and your stakeholders will all be looking to the CEO for the final answer, reason, and result.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The CEO has all the answers — that’s definitely not true! Getting to the role of CEO happens by learning from others around us and constantly growing. That doesn’t stop just because we have this fancy title. In fact, I find it increasingly important to expand my network and continue to learn all I can from those around me and ensure that I am fully informed to make decisions and set the vision for the organization. I don’t always have the answer, but I have learned how to try and find it.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
One of the worst mistakes is not trusting the experts or those who have institutional knowledge on the team. Every new leader is eager to make their mark but coming in and trying to change things too quickly or assuming that everything needs to change can happen at the expense of the existing team. This rush can often alienate the people who could potentially be your biggest champions and help you to make a bigger impact by building off what was working well.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The most underestimated component of leading anything is the complexity of the human component. It is easy to make decisions on paper or write the best plan or strategy, but if you don’t have the team behind you, it’s impossible to execute. The most brilliant ideas can be brought down by not having buy-in from the team, or not having sufficient communication with your team, or even not having the right team. During the pandemic, this challenge has been exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding every single one of us and the varying impacts the environment of the past two years has had on employees. The human experience must be considered in all aspects of leadership.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Talk less, listen more: One of the most interesting facets about rising up through the ranks is the way that people listen to you and react to what you have to say. As I have gained increasingly senior titles, I noticed that it became more difficult to just participate in a conversation or discussion without my contribution becoming “the way” or the decision. That made me realize that I needed to sit back and listen to the voices around me and ensure that I contribute factors in the perspectives of others in the room. I always want to hear from all voices, regardless of title, but also realize it is easy for me to say that and I need to make sure I show it.
- Make a decision and own it: It is so important for a CEO to be decisive, but that can be easier said than done, especially when coming into the role. There is the desire to be fair and thoughtful and invite input, but also a need to decide and stick to it. It is important to me to always elicit feedback when appropriate, but that often means that I know ahead of time that my decision isn’t going to align with everyone’s perspectives. And that’s life — being able to own it, and explain, if necessary, is all part of the role.
- You can’t be too transparent: There is nothing more frustrating for an organization than not understanding why something is happening. I worked at American Express (AMEX) during the financial crisis of 2008–09 and witnessed a masterclass of transparent leadership. Then CEO, Ken Chenault, held regular town hall meetings for all 70,000 employees and was so forthcoming with information about Amex’s position, that all changes in strategy and impacts were expected and understood. It is Chenault’s example of transparency that I often think about when communicating at NAF — ensuring that everyone understands why things are happening helps people feel heard, understood, and more confident in the direction of the organization.
- Consistency is key: Nothing creates chaos more than erratic behavior or inconsistent actions. I have worked at organizations where you never know how leadership would react to opinions or new points of view, or where policies change on a dime or don’t exist at all. This instability creates a sense of uncertainty and confusion for all. Bringing a sense of consistency as a leader is so important — from how you communicate, to how you act and react in meetings, to your expectations for your employees. Leading by example in a clear and consistent way and working towards being predictable in the mechanics of your responses and actions helps to create a sense of comfort for the organization and often enables people to bring their true thoughts and perspectives to the table.
- It’s ok to say “I don’t know”: There are certainly plenty of times that I don’t know the answer to something. Actually, saying out loud that I don’t know instead of coming up with a circular response or changing the subject is another way to build trust and show that we are all human and we are all learning and growing. It is definitely something I’ve learned to get comfortable with, particularly before I was a CEO and was worried about people thinking I knew everything (which is so unrealistic!). Now, I am much more comfortable just saying “I don’t know” but also making sure that I follow it up with how I plan to find the answer.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Making sure that everyone knows that they have a voice, regardless of title or tenure. Everyone in the organization has been hired for a reason and has something to contribute. Valuing your employees’ input leads to a more engaged and enthusiastic work environment. In 2017, when I held the position of COO, one of the first policies I enacted was scheduling quarterly check-ins with every single person in my reporting line. Having the opportunity to talk to everyone at all levels of the organization helped me to learn more about the staff, while also making sure that everyone knew that they had access to me. It was an effort that continues as CEO to create that “open door” policy without putting the onus on others to come through the door.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
I would love for every organization to have a compassion requirement. There is a saying that “You can’t expect what you don’t inspect,” and if every employee of every organization had compassion as part of their review process, I think there would be a large shift in how we all operate. Even organizations that have compassionate missions that drive them could benefit from putting that at the center of how they operate. For example, if all nonprofits with similar missions truly focused on who we are impacting and how we could work together to do more, versus how we compete against each other for attention and resources, we could all put ourselves out of business because we would be collectively focusing on solving the world’s problems.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can connect with me on LinkedIn, but more importantly can follow NAF’s great work on all the socials: @NAFCareerAcads.