Leadership Lessons from Justice Sotomayor

Recently, the wonderful  business book club Cornelia and I belong to did something for the first time--we read Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World, went to hear her speak about her book, and then discussed the book!  It was an amazing experience to hear her tell some of the stories I had already read in her book and then to discuss what we'd heard and read with our book club colleagues.

I could go on and on about the lessons learned from hearing her tell the stories – but one thing stood out from all the others and that applies to our 2014 focus on organizational culture.

The facilitator for the event was the president of Martha's Table in Washington, DC.  She brought along some teenage members of their book club who had read the Justice's book.  Several times during the evening, she asked a student to read his/her favorite part of the book to the audience.  Now, you have to know the event was being held in Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University which holds 1,000 people (the event was moved there because it sold out in a few minutes – and, there were over 300 people on the waiting list!) so, imagine you are a teenager and you have to get up, walk to a microphone and read to an audience of a thousand people including a Supreme Court Justice—and don't forget the many security people stationed around the room!

As the first student approached the microphone to read, the Justice stood up and walked to where the student was standing so that it appeared the student was reading her words to her!  It changed everything – and not just for the reader but the rest of us as well.  When the teenager finished reading, the Justice talked directly to him or her about what they had read.  We all listened but I couldn't help think about the impact she was having on that young person as she held what appeared to be an intimate conversation with them.

What does this have to do with corporate culture, you ask?  Well, leaders set the culture and the example of the Justice physically moving to where the student was standing and speaking directly to them is a powerful reminder of how a leader's presence can affect and define the culture and the workforce.  One-on-one encounters are extremely impactful for employees.  I spent much of my HR career with Marriott International and the last two years I worked at corporate headquarters in Bethesda, MD.  When I first went to corporate, many people shared stories of personal experiences they’d had with Bill Marriott.  He was famous for eating in the employee cafeteria by himself and taking his tray and approaching a table with Associates (Marriott's term for employees) and asking if he could join them.  Once they recovered from the shock of eating with the Chairman and CEO, they said they relaxed under his warm, approachable style as he asked them questions about what they did, what they liked about their job and the company, and if they had suggestions for him!

Mr. Marriott also spoke to people in the elevator and the hallways.  He was, and is, approachable and personal – exactly what Justice Sotomayor did that night with the students.  She created a warm and safe place for them to perform the task before them.  And, isn't that what you want your corporate culture to be – a place where the great people you’ve hired can use their skills to the best of their ability in an environment where they feel comfortable?

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