Women Shaping History 2013
Nan J. Morrison: President & CEO, Council for Economic Education
What has inspired your current career path?
Paying attention to deeper inclinations in myself and grace, or serendipity. I was a management consultant and senior partner at Accenture when I was asked by [former] NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to partner with his team on a project. It was highly unusual for Accenture to allow a senior partner to work on one project for several months. And, this is where listening to myself came into play. My family’s focus had always been on both education and service. Economic and financial education was the perfect fit. We had always emphasized the importance of good husbandry — the care of your own human capital (education) and the care of financial resources in order to build a fruitful life for oneself and extended community. Now, as CEO of the Council for Economic Education (CEE), I am working to help K-12 children acquire the skills to make informed decisions, think critically about what those decisions entail, and create their own paths to fruitful lives.
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced?
Throughout my career, I chose to lead organizational change. Almost every project generated change with the goal of creating stronger and more resilient organizations. I suspect that we all prefer even a suboptimal status quo to the unknown. Leading a non-profit organization from the inside, rather than advising on change from the outside, posed new challenges. I had to dig down into everything I had learned beyond management consulting. Yes, the basics hold — set clear goals, work to create buy-in around those goals, communicate honestly and openly, say what you are going to do and do what you say to build trust. But there is also something indefinable about leading an organization forward — something beyond the business school training. I found myself turning to my experiences with triathlons. It’s about running your race when you are entirely spent; it eclipses the training and the preparation; it brings you to a new level of understanding in yourself and of others. It requires courage and stamina; then it comes back to building a good team, whose members you can rely upon for their best work and for whom you will always give your best.
What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?
It is more about the individuals with whom I have worked than building a new marketing channel, successfully completing a merger, or turning around an organization. The people stay with you; the rest falls away. For example, I was visiting a client several months after we had developed detailed plans for reshaping some of their transportation operations. One of the people with whom I had worked closely came running down the hall, threw his arms around me, and dragged me into the operations center to show me what they were now doing and what had been accomplished. This gentleman had not finished high school and he was transformed. Previously, he was just doing a job, now he was leading as well as creating value for himself and his organization. It was so inspiring. I was so happy to see his sense of fulfillment. His thank you and his smile will always stay with me. Today, I want that same experience, that same sense of fulfillment and pride, for our nation’s next generations. The country feels worried, unsure of the path forward. Polls show our people losing trust in key institutions from civic, to political, to financial. As the child of a family who saw and embraced American opportunity, I don’t want that sense of an open vista and unlimited prospects dimmed for our children.
Who have been the most influential mentors in your life?
We rely on networks of people and those networks change over time with changing demands and needs. There are, however, two touchstones. My Dad, Herb, and his “Rules to Live By”: Act with integrity, be nice, and don’t forget to be happy. My second touchstone was a member of Mercer’s Management Committee. It was my first presentation with him for a client. He warned me to be “serious.” My personal style had tended to the humorous and playful. So, I was serious. The presentation was going over with a resounding thud. I could feel it. I switched gears back to my more normal and personally authentic style. Suddenly, dynamics in the room were transformed for the better. But what stayed with me is what my boss said to me afterwards: “I was wrong to advise you to move away from your natural style.” This taught me an important lesson about humility with junior staff and about staying focused on what works, not on who wins the points. The challenge is not to just learn from your mentors and supporters but from those who are less than fans. CEOs often surround themselves with people who will mirror back what they want to hear. The most important person in your circle (or outside of it) is the one who will tell you the truth — hopefully, while following Herb’s rule to be nice about it.
What would you describe as a turning point in your life?
About three years after business school, my group was reorganized at the firm where I was working. I decided that I needed a better perspective on my life — and that half way around the world and two miles up in Nepal should give me the bird’s eye view. I took a two-month leave of absence. No one in my firm had done this before, but I knew it was the right thing. When I returned, I told the CEO what I intended to accomplish, including making partner in two years. No one was more surprised than he was when I did just that. The big lesson for me is that nothing is worth unhappiness; whatever the risk, at some point you must take up the reins of your own destiny.
What are your goals for the future?
The CEE is exactly where I want to be right now at this critical juncture for our nation and our nation’s children. Restoring optimism for our people and opportunity for our children requires new skills, a keen appreciation for both the challenges and the opportunity of globalization and undimmed faith in our potential to meet those challenges. There is so much work to do to bring economic and financial literacy to young people. We need to get requirements and standards passed in every state, and CEE’s local affiliates across the country are working hard at it. We need to provide a framework in every school district to successfully integrate these lessons into the everyday life of the classroom. We need to raise the bar on financial and economic literacy. There is strong bipartisan support for this, and it is our intention to keep that alive and push it forward.
Along the way, I hope to learn to bake a flakier piecrust, see more of my friends, savor more sunsets and maybe complete another triathlon or two.#