Mo Cowan has been a U.S. Senator and Chief of Staff and Chief Legal Counsel to Gov. Deval Patrick, and now is the COO of ML Strategies, a government relations and consulting affiliate of Mintz Levin. Mo is also a relatively new member of the Boston Club’s Corporate Advisory Board. He also serves on the boards of trustees of Massachusetts General Hospital, Eastern Bank Corporation, Northeastern University, the Chestnut Hill School, and the Black Philanthropic Fund.
What advice would you give women who have aspirations for serving on a corporate or major nonprofit board?
If you want to be it, speak it. Acknowledge your objective. Let corporate leadership know this is something you are interested in and ask them to help you travel that pathway. And do the same with leaders who may not be affiliated with your institution but who may influence leaders in your institution. I have had a lot of conversations with people who said, `It never occurred to me you’d be interested in doing or pursuing that, because you have never said anything about it.’
Women who want to be in board seats and leadership roles: early in your career you need to make that aspiration known. I tell it to lawyers of color all the time,`Tell people you expect to be a partner even if you’re not sure you want to be a partner.’ Once you plant that seed it has the chance of growing in the minds and business decisions of others.
You have a big job, young boys (second and sixth grade) and lots of other pursuits. Why do you also make The Boston Club a priority?
Organizations like The Boston Club play an important role in advocating and underscoring that there are not only women who want to be but who ought to be in leadership roles, and there are no excuses for company leadership – operational and governance – not to identify and empower these leaders.
My personal experience is that organizations, companies, and all entities are strongest and best when they embrace diversity and inclusion in the broadest sense of those words, particularly, race, gender, sexual orientation. When I’ve worked in organizations that have embraced this truth and have women in leadership roles, those organizations generally have been successful.
Any effort to open doors and break through ceilings helps organizations become stronger. I wanted to be part of the conversation that could lead to those results.
Joining the Corporate Advisory Board put me together with seasoned, thoughtful leaders, but also gives me the opportunity to learn about dynamic women in the marketplace whom I may not know, but who are among the best and brightest business leaders in the nation.
Who are some of your mentors?
My earliest mentor, of course, was my mother. She is a child of the Jim Crow South, received a high school education, was a seamstress at a textile plant in North Carolina and became a single parent after my father’s early death. She taught my sisters and me that we all have a responsibility to our friends and neighbors in the broader society. She also taught us that where you have gifts and talents you should put them to good use.
One of my earliest professional mentors was U.S. District Court Judge Patti Saris,who was my first coop employer at Northeastern University Law School when she was a Superior Court judge. That summer was an amazing and enlightening experience. Also Alice Alexander, a former Assistant Dean and Director of Cooperative Education at Northeastern and her husband, retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court Roderick Ireland. Of course Deval and Diane Patrick have been phenomenal mentors and friends for many, many years.
Most of those are women; did you learn a different approach from them?
I learned a lot about collaboration and cooperation and about understanding how to extract the best from every member of the team and make every member of the team feel invested in the process. These issues didn’t come from women exclusively, of course. It goes without saying that I learned a lot from folks like Deval as well. When I was Deval’s chief of staff, the deputy chief and a number of members of the senior team in the governor’s office were women and that was an incredibly strong team. That is part of the reason I joined up with The Boston Club: I have been in organizations where several key leadership roles were held by women and I’ve learned a lot from those leaders.
The Boston Club is celebrating its 40th Anniversary in 2016; how do you see its mission getting accomplished?
I’m relatively new to The Boston Club, but there’s much more attention these days to conscious and unconscious bias. When it comes to corporate boards asking their members whom they would recommend to join the board, it’s natural for people to point to someone they know or with whom they do business or socialize. But we have to push some of those folks to look beyond their immediate networks. If you are on a board or in the leadership of a company, you have an obligation to be a voice that says, ’Listen, we speak about our commitment to diversity and inclusion but we need to act with that intent in mind.’ It’s never a good excuse to say we looked for someone and there wasn’t anyone around. Because that’s not true. And never has it been true. It’s incumbent on business leaders to develop other leaders. Everyone has to become more comfortable operating out of their comfort zone.
Does the number 40 have particular significance for you?
For me, 40 is a solemn number. I was 16 and my father was 40 when he died in a car accident. I remember reaching my 41st birthday and realizing I had lived longer than my father.
Your social media followers know you love your alma maters, Duke and Northeastern, and the music of Prince. Tell me something that would surprise people?
I am naturally a very shy person and have worked to overcome that natural shyness. Beyond that, what might surprise people is that if I could do anything, I would be a chef. I find it very therapeutic to prepare a meal for friends and family…as long as no one gets sick.