This interview is the twenty-third in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership.
Linda Caradine-Poinsett, MJ, MBA, PhD, Executive Director, American College of Prosthodontists and ACP Education Foundation
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
I grew up in a single-parent household and on welfare. So, the notion of being able to pursue higher education and be in a leadership role at organizations that are predominantly Caucasian didn’t resonate with anyone in my immediate sphere. Being able to achieve the positions I’ve held is a testament that if you try hard enough you can achieve it. It has to be in you and in your vision. (Linda Caradine-Poinsett pictured at right.)
I believe that the time I have spent training through all of my academic pursuits helped equip me for the rigors of being in a leadership role – the joys, challenges, physical and mental drain. Leadership can take on different forms; as much as it can be exhausting, it can be equally rewarding.
What are some of your career highlights?
One mentee asked me why I decided to pursue a doctorate degree. My response was, “I always knew I was going to be a doctor. Originally, I wanted to be a medical doctor, but learned early in my career that I could not stand the sight of blood.” For years I was a secretary for a doctor and he encouraged me to go back to school and pursue my undergraduate degree. I couldn’t afford it, but wasn’t going to tell him that. He persisted in terms of revisiting the topic of continuing education. Over time we shared our personal stories of growing up and it turned out that we didn’t grow up too far from each other on the West Side of Chicago – a pretty rough neighborhood. I remember explaining to him once again that I couldn’t afford to go to college. Then, one morning I came into work and there was an envelope on my desk. Inside the envelope was a check for $15,000. I asked, “What is this for?” He said it was for me to go to school. I told him I couldn’t afford to pay him back, and I’ll never forget his response. He said, “I don’t want you to pay it back, I want you to pay it forward.” That was the impetus to my academic journey. I enrolled at one of the City Colleges of Chicago called Harold Washington College.
Another moment in my career that stood out was when I was turned down for a manager position because I didn’t have a degree. When the interim hospital administrator informed me, she said that one of the things to be cognizant of when applying for a job is the academic requirements. I was disappointed but I wasn’t angry. I made a mental vow that never again would I be turned down for a position because I didn’t have a piece of paper – a degree. The world will never have the opportunity to reject me on the basis of a lack of academic training for position. Sometimes I think education became an addiction. At my undergraduate graduation, I saw people getting their Masters degrees and I wanted to do that next!
As my career progressed, I aspired to move up the corporate ladder so I started pursuing my MBA. I didn’t want to just understand how businesses were run, but how business and law intersected. My passion was in healthcare, so after receiving my MBA, I decided to pursue a Masters of Jurisprudence in Health Law.
Another career highlight came to fruition when I decided to pursue a doctorate degree. I have always known I wanted to be a doctor. A colleague told me that his wife recently pursued her doctorate in Theology which reawakened in me that I wanted to pursue a doctorate in some context.
My life came full circle when I decided to pursue a doctorate degree in organizational leadership. When I contacted my former boss to let him know that I would be graduating with a doctorate degree, I could hear the joy in his voice. He said, “You finally got to be that doctor after all.” He reminded me that I had always had these insights. I hadn’t looked at it that way. Either God provides the clarity or He puts people in your life to help provide clarity.
Given everything that we have discussed, I would say achieving my doctorate degree and pursuing the leadership role I currently have as executive director are the highlights of my career. I always saw myself at the helm of an organization, whether as CEO or executive director. I have managed to stay in a space that means the most to me, which is helping people. A big component of what I do in this leadership role is developing people, helping my team to grow and develop as professionals.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I think it’s important to help people see and recognize their potential for a greater good. Organizational leadership and change resonate with me. My current organization is going through some change, and that involves guiding the team and volunteer leaders through what change may look like in the organization. I can help them realize or see that there is a vision with a greater context. It’s rough sometimes, but I come out as a better teacher and better advisor for the board, for my staff, and in some cases, for myself.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
There are two, both by Kathleen Reardon: The Secret Handshake: Mastering the Politics of the Business Inner Circle and It's All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren't Enough.
These books helped me learn that there are politics and dynamics in organizations regardless of which level. As my journey in leadership continued, I realized that people have different agendas. It’s necessary to identify those agendas as best you can, understanding that on some level there are politics. I will sometimes re-read these books to reset. Instead of focusing on the minutiae, I look at who the players are and how the chess pieces are moving around in the organization.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
I remember stepping outside of healthcare because I wanted to try something different. I worked with a national organization where they were supposed to be “all about kids.” This would be a good thing, so I thought. At that time, I was in a development role raising funds from corporations. While the focus of the organization was children, I didn’t feel that what we were doing was for the kids as I was understanding it. The environment was very cutthroat and corporate…all about the money. I had secured over $1 million from a major funder for an event and didn’t think enough of the funds went to the affiliates for programming. A lot stayed in corporate to cover operations. From that standpoint, I decided that was against my values and decided to leave the organization. I lasted there about a year before deciding that health and law were where I needed to stay.
When you recognize something, your gut or your intuition usually tells you. When you continuously go against that intuition, it doesn’t make for good days at work. When you have that tension, it’s best to step back, analyze what’s going on, and make adjustments accordingly instead of trying to make it fit.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
It’s related to the previous question. Reclamation of my time was getting back on track for myself. I didn’t let others’ perceptions force me to stay in a place that didn’t work. I needed to figure out that I was headed down a path that was just not where I was supposed to be. I figured out what I was doing wrong and fixed it by getting back on course with something that really resonated with me: healthcare and law.
Suffice it to say when people looked at my resume and saw that I was only in the position with the youth development organization for a year, they had questions. My answer was that I tried something different, it didn’t resonate with me, and I desired to return to the healthcare space. There was nothing else to be said. It worked out well. I found the space where I need to be.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive?
I work out with a personal trainer. I avoid working on Sundays. I grew up in a religious household. Sunday was always the time to reset – spiritually or emotionally. I remember years ago I had sought professional counseling shortly after a divorce and one of the things the counselor suggested was finding a day in the week just for me. I continue that ritual today. Interestingly enough, I met my husband on a Sunday, so it’s our day to spend time together.
On Saturdays I may spend time doing something like getting my hair or nails done. It’s time that I do not allow others to push in on my space unless I invite them to.
I tend to get massages monthly since I carry tension in my shoulders. I need to do that to stop my body from deteriorating. I also work out five days a week; sometimes it’s just a walk.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
As I started to pursue leadership roles, I had to learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s tough being your own advocate, but if you’re not comfortable with pushing the envelope a bit, then things won’t happen. You may be fortunate to have sponsors to push for you, but that was not the case for me and probably not the case for a lot of women of color. You still have to be the person who sells the world on you.
Sometimes taking risks requires being bold with what you say and not worrying about whether people think it’s too forward. I learned from male mentors that they don’t give a second thought to being too forward. I didn’t grow up with team sports, so learning the nuances of competition was a bit of a struggle. I’m a natural introvert, but had to learn to be an extrovert. It’s never any fun when I’m in a room that is full of older white men. I have had to learn to get comfortable with pushing back, saying what needs to be said in a professional and diplomatic manner, and not being dissuaded when I know I am right about something.
Expect you’ll be uncomfortable and be challenged. At the same time, be willing to walk away when people are not respectful of who you are and what you bring to the table. Once I was in the midst of negotiating a salary for a new position, and it really annoyed me that they were lowballing the salary (I’m not even just talking about fair.) I ended up walking away from that position.