How Tiffany Dufu Is Achieving More By Doing Less
This is part of a series of profiles I’m writing on black women in leadership this February in honor of Black History Month.
Tiffany Dufu is picking up the conversation where Sheryl Sandberg left off. In lieu of leaning in, however, Dufu’s message emphasizes how women can achieve more by doing less.
I’ve long been a fan of Dufu’s approach to leadership — one founded on maintaining a laser-like focus on your purpose and delegating everything else. I had the pleasure of speaking with Dufu about how she developed this philosophy and what lessons she learned from her own career path that have informed her advice for others.
Emilie Aries: You often say you already know what’s on your tombstone — that your life’s work is advancing women and girls. I hear from so many women who are still struggling to clarify their purpose. When and how did you come to identify yours?
Tiffany Dufu: Truthfully, that statement is an articulation, an amalgamation of my purpose. Identifying your purpose is really about making a commitment, and that commitment is inspired by my experiences.
For me, it’s really connected to my relationship with my mom. She found out she was pregnant with me when she was 19 years old, and my parents were living in LA Watts at the time. It was a rough place and it was a rough time. But she wanted something different for her family, and for me. So she convinced my dad to join the army and I was born at Fort Lewis army base in Tacoma, Washington.
My dad went on to college on the GI bill and wound up with a PhD in theology, and I grew up in a nice house with a white picket fence, not knowing anything about the vicious cycle of addiction, poverty and violence that my parents had extracted themselves from.
There’s a fundamental truth that my parents taught me and that is if you want something you’ve never had before you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before in order to get it.
And that, frankly, is why I’m the most patriotic person on the planet. Because despite all that’s going on in our country right now, we’re the most powerful, strongest country because where else is a story like mine even possible? These two people who were living in that environment, were then able to raise a daughter that just released a book that could make the New York Time’s best-seller list. Only in America, really.
Aries: You remind me of Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC speech when he proclaims, “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story…and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.” Speaking of such patriotism, I want to talk about your rise into leadership at the White House Project. That’s where you served as President from 2010 to 2013. What did you learn during your years spent advocating for getting more women into the political process there?
Dufu: I was mentored and sponsored by the founder of the White House Project, Marie Wilson, who essentially sponsored me into that leadership role. I likely would not have gotten that job had she not seen me and invested in me. After I became President, I was often asked by well-meaning people, “Where did she find you?” and I would just say, “Marie Wilson has her eyes open.”
That’s something I learned from Marie: to keep my eyes open — to people, to talent, to ideas, to resources. Because really, there are plenty of resources out there, which we need in order to tackle the big problems of our day. The role of a leader is to bridge the gap between resources and the people and problems who need them.
But to be honest, I didn’t always feel that way. In the beginning of my leadership journey, I was frustrated over the lack of resources. We were always tasked with doing so much with so little, especially in the nonprofit sector.
I learned, however, that’s where leadership can make all the difference. To me, the most important definition of leadership comes from Marshall Ganz, a professor at Harvard who says that leadership is about taking responsibility for enabling others to achieve a shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.
Aries: Indeed. I studied with Ganz at Harvard and I’m so glad you bring that definition up, as these times call for a reminder of what power and leadership can look like at all levels.
Dufu: If we don’t have uncertain times now I don’t know what this is, really. Now is when leadership matters most. It’s when we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the people, we don’t have the strategy. Sometimes all you have is yourself and your ability to persuade and inspire, and the trust you’ve built with your life’s work behind you to be able to say to people: you know why I’m here. You know what’s important to me. You know what my purpose is. I just need you to follow. I need you with me.
Uncertain times like now are when people stepping up and creating power by galvanizing others can have the biggest impact, and I think we’re certainly seeing that with women in the world today. The most important leadership quality that can help make that kind of trust possible is authenticity, because you need people to believe you in order to get behind you.
Aries: I couldn’t agree more. So let’s talk about your new book, Drop the Ball. To me, your message is really about ambition in the face of overwhelm. Why do you feel like this is an important topic right now, especially?
Dufu: Well, first of all, this topic came from the fact that I spend a LOT of time with women. I make time every Tuesday and Thursday morning for connecting one-on-one with women who reach out to me, and have spent countless hours that way over the past five years. I’ve listened to their stories, zeroed in on the challenges I kept hearing from them over and over, and one of the things that stood out to me is how much women saw leadership at the highest levels as such an overwhelming commitment to aspire to, while they already felt like they were struggling to just get through the day in entry-level or middle management positions.
I think it’s part of what explains women’s waning ambition in the years after graduation, and it’s why so many women get stuck in middle management.
I think it’s difficult when leadership at the highest levels is so demanding. It’s so much work. And for a lot of us, adding anything more to our plate feels impossible. I hear over and over again that this is a pain point.
Aries: So what’s a woman to do when she’s trying to lean in, but feeling overworked and overwhelmed?
Dufu: The first priority is getting clear about what matters most to you. Then figuring out what your highest and best use is in achieving that. For me, what that means is the ability to focus on what you do really well with minimal effort, combined with what only you can do. But even before getting clear about your highest and best use, figuring out what matters most to you is really important.
One of the things that matters most to me is raising conscious and global citizens. So when I think about the swirl of my ‘TO DO’ list and what might be on it any given day, I might have to ask myself if scheduling doctor’s and dentist appointments is really part of my highest and best use in raising conscious global citizens.
One of the things I do well with minimal effort is helping others achieve clarity through guidance and encouragement. One of the things that only I can do as a parent is instill values in my kids, it’s not something I can outsource.
So if you combine those things, my highest and best use in raising global conscious citizens is actually engaging my children in meaningful conversations every single day.
Learning how to apply that filter to everything on your own TO DO list is one of the secrets behind how to Drop the Ball.
Aries: What advice do you have for women who are questioning whether they can sustain their ambition in light of all the competing roles we play in our lives to others? What happens when we want to be a good mom, a good friend, a good boss, a good employee, and a million other things? How can we keep all those goals alive amidst the chaos?
Dufu: By redefining what a good sister is. By redefining what a good mom is. By redefining what a good worker, and a good daughter is.
One of the things I did when I was workshopping Drop the Ball was I asked women to list out all the roles they played — daughter, mother, friend, worker, etc.. Then I asked them to put the word “good” before it, like you intuitively did just now already, and I asked them to define exactly what a good daughter, or a good mother or a good friend does. How do you know when you’ve achieved that “good” status?
More often than not, I’d start hearing from women that this was an example set for them by others. By the women who came before us, that’s what we saw on television or in the media. And let me tell you, I was certain I was going to be Claire Huxtable. High-powered partner in her law firm, involved mom, always looking perfectly put together, the whole bit.
When we recognize that these are inherited (and often impossible) expectations, we can start to peel back the layers and redefine our own expectations for ourselves.
Aries: How does all this apply especially to women of color? Does your message differ at all for black women?
Dufu: I think it does in that there’s additional pressure — it’s not just being a good daughter, worker, sister, and all that. It’s that feeling of being responsible for your entire race. And I do not say that to be dramatic.
I know it sounds crazy, but I just walked into a room full of high-powered literary people for a book signing in New York, and as a black woman walking in I thought to myself, “I better perform, and I better smile real pretty, because if I make one little mistake, no black woman will ever get invited to give a talk like this ever again.”
I think women of color know that pressure. The stakes feel even higher for perfection.