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“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Mariel Beasley, CEO and Co-Founder of Duke University’s Common Cents Lab

An interview with Phil La Duke



I am fortunate in that I get to work towards the movement I am most passionate about every day as part of my regular job: positive financial outcomes for low- to moderate-income households. This movement works to shift responsibility and blame away from the individual and engage institutions to help deliver better outcomes. Over the last several decades, individuals have had to bear more and more of the responsibility and risk of their financial life. We have moved from pensions to 401ks, we’ve moved from employees working with the same company for 40 years to a greater and greater proportion of contract workers. I would bring back the responsibility of communities and employers to take on some of the collective risk and responsibility for people’s finances.


As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mariel Beasley. Mariel is the co-founder of Duke University’s Common Cents Lab, which is supported by MetLife Foundation and the Blackrock Emergency Savings Initiative, and principal at the Center for Advanced Hindsight.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Mariel! What is it about the position of CEO the most attracted you to it?

It was less about me being attracted to the position of CEO, and more that we found one another. I have a clear vision for how we should approach our work as behavioral scientists and am proactive in creating and bringing to life a strategy for the organization. I am also, at heart, a tinkerer — constantly trying to push beyond complacency by thinking about how we could do something better, faster, and more impactful. That passion, ability, and striving is what drew me to the position and made me a good fit.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does, but in just a few words can you explain what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other executives?

Common Cents Lab is a nonprofit research lab helping companies design financial products and services that leverage human behavior to naturally produce better financial outcomes. So our organization is a bit different in that we have more of a flat structure with researchers and scientists leading experiments with financial institutions, technology companies, large employers, and more.

At the highest level, my job is to help set the vision and tone for the Lab. I am also in charge of bringing in new partners, securing funding, and ensuring our experiments run smoothly. The broader team is all about executing these experiments, analyzing findings to produce key learnings, and then communicating those best practices broadly for others to follow.

What were your biggest struggles throughout your professional life and how did you overcome them?

The biggest struggle in my professional life has been finding the right balance between impact, scale, and proximity to end-users. My personal passion and professional life have always been focused on improving the well-being of vulnerable or marginalized populations. But as my career has progressed, it has taken me further and further away from the front lines working with people and instead up the professional chain into policy and research. While this allows me to increase the impact of my work exponentially, it has made it more difficult to see that impact directly. To help maintain my sense of mission focus, I make multiple site visits every year to meet with and speak with people who are the direct beneficiaries of our work. It keeps me motivated and refreshed for the job ahead.

What are the biggest challenges faced by women CEOs that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

There is a lot of research about implicit bias and how female bosses are perceived differently than male bosses. There’s also research that shows that women tend to be punished in their career for having children, while their male counterparts are rewarded.

Personally, I think that one of the big challenges for women CEOs, in particular, is that we have worked hard and sacrificed a lot to get here — yet we still have to regularly prove that we deserve to be at the table. This then makes us less likely to take time off or to give ourselves a break; we are our own harshest critic. And there’s this extra guilt about either bringing work home (and neglecting friends and family) or not bringing work home (and feeling like you’re not doing enough).

We talk about a work-life balance, but I don’t think there is a such thing as a perfect balance, particularly for women CEOs — it’s rarely enough of either.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?

I am thankful that I have been able to combine my professional aspirations with my personal passions. But I also love that I am able to shape a work environment that reflects my personal values and those of our organization: we pay living wages to all of our staff & interns, we have employees choose quarterly development activities that align with their personal and professional goals, and we deliberately create community and connectedness through regular planned social activities. Being able to create these internal policies is one of the greatest advantages of being in my position.

What are the downsides of being a CEO?

Not getting enough sleep! It can also be frustrating that as you accumulate responsibility, you must — by necessity — become more disconnected from the everyday work. I chose this sector because I love the work, so it’s hard to spend less time digging into interesting data-sets or becoming immersed in emerging research papers. It’s also tough making calls about trade-offs around what is good for the organization versus good for an employee — the responsibility and weight of those choices isn’t always fun. But I remain energized by the ability to build such an incredible organization doing such incredible work for so many more people.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my role, I tried to create a shared sense of ownership of the work by explicitly telling new employees that they didn’t work for me. My aim was to inspire people to be driven by the same motivating force that drives me and encourage them to feel a sense of accountability to the end-users.

Unfortunately, it just confused people. Turns out, people like knowing where and how they fit into an organization. They want to know what the leadership structure is, who and how to escalate issues or questions, etc. They can do all that AND still have a sense of ownership of projects and intrinsic motivation to do good, impactful work.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be a CEO, what specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful CEO and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be a CEO?

I’m a Game of Thrones fan and one of the messages in the story (and in much of literature) is that those who seek power are generally the people who shouldn’t have it. People who are driven by the title or other signals of power will be less effective CEOs. You have to care deeply about the work, deeply about the impact that work has on people’s lives, and deeply about your employees. But at the same time, you have to be able to make decisions with incomplete information, own up to those decisions, and seek input from others, especially those who disagree with you. Of course, you must also have great time management and organization skills.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

The research shows that most people anticipate they will not like working for a female boss, but actually do once they have the experience. If you remain compassionate, transparent and connected to your team, they will respect you and be motivated to work harder for you.

But it’s also important to demonstrate your decision-making ability. Allow teams to see and understand how you approach decisions — it’s okay to be vulnerable about what you know and don’t know.

Finally, use video calls versus emails or regular phone calls to enhance the sense of connection between you, your employees, and any partners or clients.

Who inspired/inspires you and why?

My mother. She is smart, dedicated, and immeasurably creative. She has never uttered the words: “that won’t work.” And she has pushed me to be a proactive problem-solver. She never fears vocalizing her position on anything and at the same time she has taught me how to encourage healthy debate, recognize a good argument from someone else, and then adjust my own position or opinion.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

One of the terrific parts of my profession, career and organization is that we’re committed to making the world a better place. As part of our lab’s mission, we track the impact we make on the lives around us. Since 2016, we’ve worked with dozens of organizations to incorporate behavioral science into their financial products and programs. That work has helped us reach more than two million low- to moderate-income individuals with real opportunities for improving their financial well-being. I am very proud of our work to date and look forward to even bigger results in the future.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Being good at your job does not mean that you are necessarily good at managing others doing that job. People management is a skill, like data analysis, visual design, experiment design, etc. This means that it takes a lot of time and effort to develop and maintain that skill.
  2. Treat yourself like any other CEO. In the beginning, I would try to set aside time for deep work every day. This was time that I wouldn’t take meetings or have staff drop-in. But I started rescheduling my deep work when there were requests for my time. I would never do that if I had a meeting with another CEO or director from another project — I would just say that I couldn’t. It’s taken me a long time (and I still struggle with this) to treat my deep work time as sacred and as important as time with other people.
  3. Set up your email management strategy from the beginning. Without it, you’ll drown in email and struggle to recover later.
  4. Most people know less than you think they do… except for those that know waaay more than you do. It’s easy to assume that everyone else in the room knows more than you, especially when you’re dealing with more seasoned executives — but I quickly learned that I had some significant expertise to add in almost every meeting I’ve been in. But at the same time, I’ve been reminded that I’m also rarely the smartest person in the room. We all have our domains and expertise.
  5. The world will continue while you’re on vacation. The first time I took 10 days off to go on a desert camping trip, where I would be totally unreachable, I was very nervous. I was worried that there would be some kind of crisis and I wouldn’t be there to manage it. But the work continued — my staff rose to the occasion — and I’ve tried to take disconnected time off every year since.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am fortunate in that I get to work towards the movement I am most passionate about every day as part of my regular job: positive financial outcomes for low- to moderate-income households. This movement works to shift responsibility and blame away from the individual and engage institutions to help deliver better outcomes.

Over the last several decades, individuals have had to bear more and more of the responsibility and risk of their financial life. We have moved from pensions to 401ks, we’ve moved from employees working with the same company for 40 years to a greater and greater proportion of contract workers. I would bring back the responsibility of communities and employers to take on some of the collective risk and responsibility for people’s finances.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would love to share a meal with Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. She’s managed to do amazing things, at the highest level, while juggling a young family. I just want to pick her brain and get tactical about how she does it all!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

— — — — — —

About the author:

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 350 works in print. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke

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