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Black Men and Women of the C-Suite: “Diversity of executive leadership is a complex challenge that is compounded by a false belief that we live a post-racial society.” with Dawn Morton-Rias and Fotis Georgiadis

Diversity of executive leadership is a complex challenge that is compounded by a false belief that we live a post-racial society. The fact is that the executive leadership ranks are not very diverse at all, so acknowledging this fact and making efforts to highlight the data on the lack of diversity in executive leadership is […]


Diversity of executive leadership is a complex challenge that is compounded by a false belief that we live a post-racial society. The fact is that the executive leadership ranks are not very diverse at all, so acknowledging this fact and making efforts to highlight the data on the lack of diversity in executive leadership is a first, important step.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dawn Morton-Rias of the National Commission on the Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).


Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Early in life my father emphasized to me, “People are not going to know what to make of you.” Not knowing then how true that statement would be in life, my focus has been to continue to learn and to use whatever platform I may acquire to uplift others and to perform my duties well.

I would love to say that I charted this specific career path, but the reality is that my career has been guided by two very simple principles: keep your tools sharp and follow your passion.

I was a tenured professional and academic dean at a public, university-affiliated medical center in the northeast, and was not looking for a CEO role when the opportunity to lead the National Commission on the Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) was presented.

When I think about where I am today, I realize that all of my previous professional experiences in education, clinical practice as a certified physician assistant, regulation and service have prepared me for this opportunity, which comes at a pivotal time in the assessment space and NCCPA’s history.

In short, my sense is preparation and passion led me to this specific career path.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In 2015, NCCPA began to look at the process and format of the physician assistant (PA) re-certification assessment. This work remains critically important, as it has the potential to dramatically change the way in which our nation’s PAs demonstrate their understanding of the clinical knowledge, reasoning and medical skills required of them throughout their careers.

This coincided with a dramatic increase in unbridled expression on social media, which at times rose to a level of incivility by some in opposition to our work. The experience reminded our team of both the positive and the destructive uses of online platforms, and the importance of maintaining focus when dealing with important, controversial topics in a social media environment.

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?

I remember being invited to attend a follow-up meeting. All of the previous meetings with this team had been held off-site. Eager to participate and trying to ensure that I was on time, I drove across town to where the previous meetings had been held. I arrived at the location and quickly realized that I was in the wrong place for this meeting. The convener had decided to meet at our site this time, in a location that was actually just next to the building I worked in. I had driven all of that way for nothing! From that moment on I’ve made it a point to slow down and always read the directions.

Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?

America was founded on a principle of inclusion and a bringing together of diverse perspectives. We hear often that America is a melting pot, so it would only make sense that if we want to resonate with our stakeholders that we have executive teams that embody that important, fundamental principle.

When we have professionals of varying backgrounds and experiences, we have an opportunity to live up to that principle and engage in inclusive decision-making. We can get a fuller picture and make the active decision to consider the thoughts of those that haven’t historically had a seat at the table.

This practice not only sends a strong message of commitment to diversity and inclusion to employees and stakeholders, but it provides an opportunity too that aids in the development of the next generation of leaders.

More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?

I believe that we have the ability to steer the business world toward adapting a more inclusive climate that is respective of everyone.

Diverse leadership teams afford the insight necessary to consider a broad range of perspectives, and ultimately make more thoughtful, well-rounded decisions. When making business decisions we’re not just thinking about the day-to-day operations, but also what the future looks like.

When I think about the future, I think about the young people who are training now to someday lead and hopefully elevate our organizations. When these young people from all walks of life can look to their leaders, in whatever capacity- whether in the private our public sector and see themselves reflected, it gives them a sense of what is possible. They don’t have to limit their dreams.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?

Diversity of executive leadership is a complex challenge that is compounded by a false belief that we live a post-racial society. The fact is that the executive leadership ranks are not very diverse at all, so acknowledging this fact and making efforts to highlight the data on the lack of diversity in executive leadership is a first, important step.

Second, executive leaders have an opportunity to challenge their organizations to foster diversity within their ranks through inclusive employee recruitment, retention strategies and internship programs.

Finally, diverse leaders have an opportunity, if not an obligation to serve as role models and mentors for students and the next generation of leaders, sharing the overt and covert rules of engagement. Volunteerism at the grassroots level continues to be essential.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is a mindset that is most commonly operationalized through professional position and title, but I think of leadership as an opportunity to leverage positional power and influence to affect change and to empower others.

Leadership embodies the opportunity and obligation to consider a range of situations and perspectives that have far reaching implications, while attending to the needs and concerns of those impacted. To me, leadership means that you live and lead with integrity and that you only ask others to do what you are willing to do as well. To do that, you must “know” your team, what motivates and matters to them.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Ask questions. Untethered enthusiasm and optimism are hallmarks of youth, and that can-do spirit enables one to leap into new opportunities. I’m not sure I would have adhered to advice, even if it had been offered.

2. No matter what you do in leadership, there will always be naysayers and opponents. Perseverance and resilience are important. I believe that I have a healthy portion of both attributes, but it might have been helpful to be advised early on how vital these attributes would be.

3. Juggling competing demands is difficult, especially early in one’s career. It took a while to acquire the fortitude to decline invitations and opportunities. Perhaps it would have been helpful to know that it was alright to say, “No thank you” more often. I placed additional and often unnecessary pressure on myself to balance competing demands and expectations and to establish better work-life balance. Millennials may have a better handle on this aspect of professional life.

4. Staying on top of your game is a continuous exercise, even at the executive level. In my profession, we often cite the importance for clinicians to continue to refresh their knowledge base and to keep abreast of emerging diagnostics and therapeutics. I was quickly reminded that continued learning applies to all aspects of leadership and management.

5. Travel-ready, timeless attire and comfortable shoes are very important.

You are a person of enormous 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 would like to inspire a movement that provides leadership experiences at all phases of life: elementary through secondary school; early career and retirees. There’s a misconception that you have to be of a certain age, or under a certain age to be a competent leader. I disagree.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite “life lesson quote” is actually a poem. The first and last passages from Invictus by William Ernest Henley have always resonated with me, as they embody much of my life’s philosophy:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Without a doubt, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. I will forever be inspired by their leadership and the profound impact that they have had on this country. Their example has not only inspired generations of young people but has also inspired leaders like me to continue to push harder and to be the change we seek in the world.

Thank you for joining us!

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