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Student Experience

‘Leadership Gems’ From TIAA CEO Thasunda Brown Duckett

Filling your life with what’s important, taking your shot, and leading with empathy

By Paul Smirl

February 21, 2022

crest and Weikel title on graphic

TIAA Chief Executive Officer Thasunda Brown Duckett lives her life like a diversified portfolio: there’s only 100% of her at any given time and she has to allocate her time, effort, and energy strategically to make her life as a high-performing professional, mother, wife, sister, and daughter work. 

To do this, Duckett says write down everything that’s important to you and figure out how to fill your life with those things. On a particular day, you may not be great at every single role you play in life, but over time you will be great. React to market conditions, says Duckett, and over the long haul, you’ll outperform this thing called life and have utter joy because everything that matters to you is present.

A life of leadership leads to TIAA

Duckett is no stranger to reacting to new conditions, facing challenges, and developing solutions. In 2020, she was CEO of Chase Consumer Banking and oversaw 50,000 employees in local branches across the U.S. 

When COVID-19 hit, those 50,000 people were immediately impacted, as were the millions of consumers who banked with Chase. As protests erupted in the wakes of George Floyd’s death and Jacob Blake’s shooting, Duckett’s leadership was further tested, and a career built on preparation and hard work was suddenly met with challenges with no prescribed solutions.

“You had to get up and make decisions that no one had a playbook for,” says Duckett. 

“As a leader, you have to keep your hands on the steering wheel . . . I was in the zone.”

Duckett has built a life of leadership. She’s in her second year leading TIAA after years of impactful work at Chase, and also serves on the boards of Nike, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Sesame Workshop, the National Medal of Honor Museum, and the Economic Club of New York. 

Duckett recently met with Wisconsin MBA students as part of the M. Keith Weikel Speaker Series, discussing her career and insights in leadership.

Duckett’s keys for leading during crisis

  • Focus and stay locked in on the task: Be empathetic, think about others, and trust your ability 
  • Be decisive: Use analytics and be bold
  • Let go: Empower your team, acknowledge this is a team sport

Beyond the pandemic, Duckett is leading TIAA through a critical time when the purpose of a corporation is shifting and more corporate transparency and accountability are demanded.

To Duckett, corporations can no longer divorce themselves from issues of society. They play an important role in forward progress and cannot be insular in who they serve and how they use their voice. 

The scope of companies’ goals has greatly widened in the last two decades. Duckett sees more responsibility to community, decisions made for the good of the environment, and plans for fighting structural and systemic racism as keys to her work as a CEO. 

TIAA, a leading retirement provider, has unique responsibilities and stakeholders. Duckett saw working at TIAA as a fantastic opportunity to accomplish what she wanted in life. 

“The more I listened, the more I fell in love,” says Duckett about her role. “At TIAA, I get to further accelerate my purpose which is to inspire and make impact. I get to think about (my parents) Rosie and Otis Brown every day. I get to be surrounded by individuals who are passionate about who we are. And I was able to break a few ceilings along the way.”

Duckett’s leadership gems

1. Intellectual curiosity matters

“I’m always one to ask the second and third question.”

You have to be an expert in your subject area, but you should be curious about things you know nothing about and proximate to things that aren’t your “given.” Duckett says to move up and make an impact, you need to lean into business areas that you’re not immediately good at and be willing to take risks in order to learn more and grow. 

2. Be OK taking your shot

“Sometimes the mental gymnastics in your head cause you to not take your shot.”

“Tell yourself ‘What if?’,” Duckett says. Don’t let the doubt and the uncertainty in your mind stop you from going after your goals and visualizing yourself in your dream role. Work hard and don’t eliminate the possibility of achieving. 

3. Your authenticity is where your magic lies

“You are hired for your technical competencies. That’s with everyone. There’s only one you. That’s where your differentiation lies.” 

Diversity of thought is important, but so is diversity of perspective. For Duckett, she has the perspective of a Black woman; someone from Texas; a daughter, mother, sister, and friend; an individual who is first-generation full integration; and a daughter of a father who didn’t go to college.

Duckett’s perspectives can’t be replicated and neither can yours. Use your unique collage of perspectives to provide insights to your team at work. Even if you aren’t a senior member of your team, trust in who you are and what experiences you bring. 

“You rent your title, you own your character,” says Duckett. 

4. Empathy is always important

“Empathy in leadership matters. In the past we talked about IQ—and empathy was soft. In reality, it’s human capital.”

Corporate America learned through the pandemic that mental health is real, and leading during a traumatic time requires empathy as much as it does smarts. Being able to understand your coworkers and customers is key to any business’ success, and maintaining relationships amongst struggle will get you far in your career.

Watch Thasunda Brown Duckett speak with Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business.