Executive recruiter, board member, diplomat, musician and more, Maureen Alphonse-Charles discusses why she's passionate about her work, who her role models are and how her "ubuntu" guides her.
Q: You were recently honored with a WomenUP award from the Boston Business Journal. Tell us about that.
A: It was a wonderful surprise! In February of this year, the BBJ did a piece on me and that was a really nice honor. At the end of year, they selected 21 of the women they profiled for the WomenUP award.
The BBJ sought me out based on the search work I've been doing at City Year. I've been a recruiter for over 20 years, and I really enjoy hunting for and identifying leaders. At City Year, I have a unique position focused on placing leaders. Since I’ve been here, I've done over 35 searches, and that's a lot! It’s very intense yet gratifying. We have done a number of executive director searches for new City Year sites. Currently, there are 25 sites in the United States. We also have offices in South Africa and England. The work at City Year satisfies my deep passion for social justice. I feel very aligned and close to the core mission.
Q: In your many years working to find and place leaders, what do you feel are the most important qualities in a successful leader?
A: One of the most important qualities is, of course, their track record. They must be achievement oriented. But also very important is self awareness and the ability to manage in multiple directions. Can they be flexible? Do they have a certain gravitas?
In the roles I'm seeking highly skilled dynamic leaders who understand educational reform as well as the political and economic landscape. They must know how to deal with superintendents and CEOs, how to be creative, how to manage staff, and how to build and manage a board. They must be a leader who understands the model of the work, how to implement it by building and managing teams of 20-30 people, how to monitor all indicators, and on top of it all, they must be able to fundraise. I know it’s asking a lot, but so much of it comes back to self awareness. If you know what your strengths are, you can build a team that can operate at high levels.
Q: How would you advise someone looking to build their leadership skills?
A: Fundamentally, you must understand what is required [in a leadership position]. You must build network of mentors and sponsors. Take that very seriously! You must truly understand your style, including where and how you operate at your best. You must be able to prioritize and focus on the most important issues at hand in the midst of multiple demands. You must be emotionally intelligent and able to understand people. At the end of the day, it's about achievement and the relationships you build. Finally, keeping yourself renewed, as well as learning how to mentor yourself and how to give back is very important.
Q: You head up The Boston Club's Diversity Council. What initiatives are you working on?
A: The Diversity Council is trying to bring the fullness of the Club’s mission to the table by making sure we attract the broadest group of members. We want to be inclusive by ensuring we have people of color and people from many different backgrounds--age, ethnicity, and more. We want to look at the lenses we all wear, and ultimately move from diversity being a conversation to being a real part of our institution.
Recently, we had a retreat, which was a thoughtful process. The Council seeks to be effective ambassadors to ensure diversity is practiced throughout the organization. We want to ensure that we are asking the right questions intentionally all the time. We’re very open to those who are new and joining, and we’re invested in opening our doors and broadening our base of constituents.
We’re also building partnerships with two other organizations. We’d like the partnerships to provide mentorship, as well as a network for people of color in corporate and nonprofit organizations. We’re also partnering with them to integrate their networks in our board searches to reflect the most diverse pools of candidates. We want to been seen as an organization that nurtures women leaders and be conscious/supportive of those who are “en route” to senior leadership positions.
Q: What has your experience serving on boards taught you about how organizations can best function?
A: Three things:
1. When you have a board that really focuses in on the mission in a strategic way, the outcomes of the organization are high.
2. Boards should have a very strong structure and strong governance. Board members should always be thinking about their terms and have a grid to assess attendance and involvement. Boards are not about micromanagement. They should be providing clear oversight and adding value & fundraising.
3. Make sure the organizational body is diverse. When you have women and people of color on boards, it makes a big difference.
Q: Tell us about a pivotal moment in your early career that led you to where you are today.
A: That moment was when I made the decision I would always stand firm on social justice issues. If I was in the corporate sector, I decided I’d always make sure I was doing pro bono work or serving on boards as well.
This became very clear to me early in my career. I went back to my alma mater [The Fletcher School at Tufts University] and worked in Admissions. My task was trying to increase the US diversity at the school. I visited many historically black colleges in the US and built a strong relationship with Lincoln University in Philadelphia, among others. I sought to understand the issues for African Americans and made sure that people were brought into worlds that they had not been in before. Sometimes,one must go into unusual places to identify talent. Whatever is missing in a particular candidate pool must be gone after. People need to be compared with and included in a pool of people reflective of everyone. Once I had that experience, my purpose became clearer. Ultimately, I realized that if I wasn't hearing a voice, it was because I didn't do enough to hear it.
Q: Tell us about one of the most rewarding professional experiences you have had.
A: When I made partner at a search firm! I had been there for seven years, and I made partner in part because we landed a marquis search for the CIO of CalPERS (the largest pension fund in the USA). It was amazing that an East Coast firm landed this search. I tapped into the networks I had in place from working in investment management and I worked on every part of the RFP. My boss said that if we got the business, I'd make partner. And it happened! Landing that search led to us getting searches for CalSTRS [teacher’s retirement fund] as well.
Q: Who was/is the most important role model in your life? What lessons did they impart on you?
A: I have several. First was my grandmother, who was a teacher in Jamaica. Fundamentally she instilled in me the importance of education. Additionally, she taught me early on about patience, tolerance, resilience and integrity. Her favorite poem was Rudyad Kipling's If. Second is my mother, a savvy librarian by profession. She used to say to me, "Maureen, life is a marathon. The race isn't always for the swift, but for those who can make it through the long haul." Those two were very important role models. Third was one of my first music teachers. She would say to me, "I'm going to make you a concert violinist." She’d not only make me practice performing an entire piece, but she’d have me walk into the room as though I was going to perform for an audience. It made a strong impression on me! It was a way of honing in on the importance of preparation.
Q: Tell us something most people don't know about you.
A: Oh, I am a musician at heart. I think of myself as an artist and approach life that way. I may have developed a scientific way of operating, but my passion is for people. My fundamental understanding of life, and my ubuntu is very musical and deeply spiritual.
Q: If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?
A: My first love was diplomacy--being a diplomat and making change happen. I love being a champion for others, implementing change, and making sure that all initiatives are a little better than when I started.
Maureen Alphonse-Charles is Senior Director of Talent Acquisition at City Year. Previously, she was managing director of Horton International, LLC. Maureen serves on the boards of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston and the Bessie Tartt Wilson Children’s Foundation. She is an overseer at WGBH and the New England Conservatory of Music. Maureen also chaired the board of the Boston Center for Community & Justice, and has served as president of its signature program’s alumni organization, the Lead Boston Community Board. Her other community activities have included Tufts Alumni Association, Boston University School of Management, The Epiphany School, and the National Association of Securities Professionals (NASP). Maureen joined The Boston Club in 2007, and has served on the Governance Committee since 2008. On our Board since 2010 as an At-Large Director, she focuses on efforts to increase diversity in the Club’s membership and programming.