Pia Flanagan | Chief Operating Officer at CEO Action for Racial Equity

Why Representation Matters | 47 Million Black People | Chief of Staff at MassMutual | Adding Value & More Career Advice | Leadership That Makes You Better | Adoption Story | Reading Recommendations


I interviewed Pia Flanagan | Chief Operating Officer at CEO Action for Racial Equity on Tuesday, June 1st, 2021. 

We began the episode with Pia’s interest in a career in law to her journey to law school and then landing her first role out of law school in New York City. She then provided advice for attorneys considering making a move in the current market as well as shared what it was like being a black female associate at her firm and why representation matters. She described how she became Partner at Baker McKenzie, and then, she shared her road to in-house at MassMutual. We then discussed her journey to the role and responsibilities of the Chief of Staff. We talked about adding value as a theme throughout her career, and the importance of investing in relationships. We then transitioned to her current role with CEO Action for Racial Equity, how the fellowship was formed, and the exciting work they are focused on. We wrapped up the episode with her son’s adoption, her personal interests, and books she’s reading.

Here are some highlights of my interview with Pia Flanagan:

As a child, I liked being able to see all sides of the coin so I could argue all sides of the coin and I always took that adversarial position.

There’s always another role to come your way if you’re open, flexible, develop relationships, and listen to mentors who give you advice and guidance along the way.

Representation matters. It truly does matter to have people [who look like you] and who have that shared experience working alongside you and in leadership roles at your firm to whom you can look up to and aspire to be. 

Even once you make partner, you’ve reached the finish line or so you thought, but they keep moving the line further and further back. For a lot of students, it may not be viewed as a brass ring it once was.

While interviewing, I was very upfront with them about my desire to do something outside of my niche practice area. When an opportunity presented itself, I was top of mind.

As Chief of Staff, I was really making sure that the CEO was able to focus on the most important things so that he had all of the information that he needed to do his job well.

When you can connect the why to the what and the how, you’re able to add value. You first have to develop an understanding of why this is important to them, understand how it fits into the strategy of the organization, and how it fits into the strategy of that specific team or group.

An important aspect of leadership is to develop real, authentic relationships with individuals because they are just as important as the work that needs to get done.

After the George Floyd murder, Tim Ryan, the US chairman of PwC, really felt that it was now time for corporations to stand up and do more for society at large, by thoroughly focusing on advancing racial equity and racial justice for society at large.

It’s been an amazing opportunity to be a leader at CEO Action, and I am thankful and grateful that each and every day, I get to wake up in the morning, and really focus on how can we make this a better world for people who look like me.

Links referred to in this episode:

Pia Flanagan | LinkedIn Profile

CEO Action for Racial Equity | Website

For Black Executives Like Pia Flanagan, The Fight For Racial Equity Is Personal | Huffpost Article

Tim Ryan | LinkedIn Profile

Baker McKenzie | Law Firm Website

MassMutual | Website

MassMutual’s Business Resource Groups

Roger Crandall | LinkedIn Profile

Mark Roellig | LinkedIn Profile

Dominic Blue | LinkedIn Profile

Sonya Olds Som | LinkedIn Profile

Bisa Butler | Artist’s Instagram

Karen Powell | Artist Profile

The Black Tax: The Cost of Being Black in America | Shawn Rochester

Educational Policy Institute | Website

Bipartisan Policy Center | Website

Brookings Institution | Website

Mission-Driven Leadership: My Journey as a Radical Capitalist | Mark Bertolini

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Audio Transcription 

***To Download the PDF Transcript, click here*** 

Greetings, friends. This is Chris Batz, your host of The Law Firm Leadership Podcast. In today’s episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with a talented female black attorney that had an exciting career in a big four accounting firm, a large law firm, a Fortune100 company, and now an influencer and leader within a CEO-supported organization focused on driving real change for racial equity in the United States. We discussed her professional journey, career advice, her role as Chief of Staff to a Fortune100 CEO, her sponsors, and mentors along the way and in her current role, and so much more.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast and leave a review on iTunes. We interview corporate defense law firm leaders, partners, general counsel, and legal consultants.

You’re listening to Episode 57 of The Law Firm Leadership Podcast.

Chris: Welcome to The Law Firm Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Chris Batz, with The Lion Group.

Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Pia Flanagan, COO for CEO Action for Racial Equity. Prior to her new role at CEO Action, Pia was the Chief of Staff to Roger Crandall, Chairman, President, and CEO of MassMutual, a Fortune100 insurance company. After law school, Pia joined Deloitte, but then landed roles at a couple of law firms ultimately becoming Partner at Baker McKenzie before going in-house at MassMutual. Pia is a member of the Executive Leadership Council and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of Springfield College. Pia holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, a JD degree from Emory University School of Law, and a Master’s of Law LLM in taxation from New York University School of Law.

Welcome, Pia, to The Law Firm Leadership Podcast. It’s great to have you on the show.

Pia: Thank you, Chris, and thank you for having me this afternoon.

Negotiating from a Young Age

Chris: Pia, let’s just jump in. Can you start at the genesis for how you chose to pursue a legal career?

Pia: It began as a child. I didn’t have any lawyers in my family, and the only exposure that I had to lawyers was quite honestly, television lawyers like Perry Mason and others. By watching those television shows with my grandparents and parents, I enjoyed the advocacy aspect of it and the back and forth of negotiation.  I was a child who always wanted to be the leader, even from a young age. I established a little club with my sister, my best friend, and her sister, and nominated myself to be president because I wanted to lead. I also nominated myself to be treasurer because I want to control the money. So, I always knew that I aspired to be in a leadership position. I also recall a time when my father forced me to take piano lessons because he felt that I was good at it. I had an ear for music. My sister was in piano, but I was in ballet and jazz. I would play the piano by ear, but I hated it so much that I actually drafted a two-sentence contract at the age of eight or nine years old, where if I promised to never touch the piano, again, he would not force me to take piano lessons with my teacher, Mrs. Brooks. To this day in Texas, my mother still has that handwritten contract by me and my father. That was the genesis of my legal career.

Chris: Were you the argumentative type or the terrorist?

Pia: I like to see the other side of the coin. In my household growing up in Texas, I was the only non-Cowboys fan and non-Houston Rockets fan. I like the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers where everyone else likes the Dallas Cowboys or the Dallas Mavericks. I like the competition. I like good arguments. I liked being able to see all sides of the coin so I could argue all sides of the coin and I always took that adversarial position.

Leaving Texas to Study Law

Chris: Knowing that you were raised in Texas and went to UT, what was your thought to go to Emory to get your law degree?

Pia: Quite honestly, I was ready to leave Texas. I was born and raised in Texas and then spent four and a half years at UT because I declared a second major at the end of my junior year. After an extra semester in college, I was ready to see the world. My family is primarily from Louisiana and Texas, so I really didn’t have exposure to other parts of the country or the world, for that matter. I applied to a number of different law schools and landed at Emory. It wasn’t too far from home so that I could satisfy my parents, but it was far enough that I could be on my own and develop myself into the adult that I am today.

New York City was the Goal 

Chris: You have an important story for people to learn from because you started out in big accounting before going into a law firm. Would you share about that journey?

Pia: Really, it wasn’t intentional. It was a matter of where I could get a job, quite honestly. I had a couple of different offers from firms in Atlanta. However, I knew that I wanted to be in New York City, but I was not able to land a position at a law firm in NYC. I was able to land a position at Deloitte, which at the time, was one of the big six accounting firms. I took a leap of faith and started my career at Deloitte, not necessarily knowing how I would work my way into a position within private practice. Things worked out. I was recruited by a headhunter to Morrison Cohen. I was open and receptive to moving. After I spent two years at Deloitte, a recruiter reached out to me to see if I would be interested in pursuing other opportunities. Given my tax background, they presented an opportunity at Morrison Cohen that was a mixture of tax and employee benefits. I did not have any exposure to employee benefits at that point in time, but I thought it was an opportunity to transition from Deloitte into a law firm and to learn a different area of the law. So, I jumped at the opportunity.

Chris: You then transitioned to another firm, Coudert Brothers, that is now no longer around. Is that correct?

Pia: That is correct. I transitioned from Morrison Cohen to Coudert Brothers, which was an international French firm with offices in Paris and New York City. Coudert is now defunct. I spent five years there before the firm ultimately shuttered its doors and Baker McKenzie acquired the New York office of Coudert Brothers as well as attorneys from some of the other offices. I enjoyed working at Coudert Brothers and I got a chance to meet a lot of different people of different nationalities, being that it was an international firm with a very collegial working environment. I made friends there that I still have to this day. 

Advice for Attorneys Considering a Move

Chris: We are facing the hottest associate market we’ve seen in a decade or two. What advice would you give people who are considering new roles right now? 

Pia: You have to trust your instincts. When I made the transition from Deloitte to Morrison and Cohen, I felt that it was time to move. It was a great experience, but I felt that there was more that I wanted to do and the only place that I could accomplish that was at a law firm. So, I trusted my instinct not knowing where that would land me, but I was open and flexible and willing to relocate, whether that be out of New York City, or within New York City. 

Also, don’t overthink it. In the first few years of your career, you’re learning. You don’t necessarily have to pigeonhole yourself into a specific practice area. I started in tax, I landed a role that was a combination of tax and ERISA, which I had never even heard of. It was a risk, but I felt that I was smart and capable of learning and grasping new concepts quickly. So, I did not allow that to discourage me from considering and accepting the opportunity. Be open and flexible. We’re in a gig economy right now, so many people have 5-10 jobs over the course of their careers. Know that you’re never stuck. There’s always another role to come your way if you’re open, flexible, develop relationships, and listen to mentors who give you advice and guidance along the way.

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People Who Look Like You Matters 

Chris: Pia, we’re in extraordinary times. The matters of race have been and continue to be a really big issue. What was it like being a black female going into the white man’s world of law?

Pia: It was definitely a different experience. I grew up in Texas in a very integrated neighborhood. When I got to UT Austin, obviously a predominantly white institution, I wasn’t exposed to as many people of color as I was used to growing up going to public schools in Beaumont, Texas. When I got to law school at Emory, they were actually doing a better job on diversity and inclusion. To this day, they continue to make improvements. Then, I relocated to New York City and joined institutions that were predominantly white. At least at Deloitte, I was the only black in my practice group, whether male or female. In my practice group at Morrison Cohen, I was the first and only African American associate at that time. It’s a very lonely and isolating experience. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have friends and colleagues whom I could confide in or speak with, but there’s just something different and special about having someone around who looks like you. Representation matters. Having someone who has similar lived and shared experiences matters. When I looked for someone to go to for advice or counseling, my issues were unique and different from the issues that my white female colleagues were experiencing. So, it truly does matter to have people who have that shared experience working alongside you and in leadership roles at your firm to whom you can look up to and aspire to be. For as much progress as law firms have made over the years, we obviously still have a ways to go. We’re definitely further behind than corporate America, per se, but I remain optimistic. I’m forever optimistic. My hope is that a lot of the efforts that are taking place around diversity, equity, and inclusion will stick and that we will actually see progress at all levels of the pipeline.

Chris: Was it different for you at Coudert or Baker since they were international firms?

Pia: I enjoyed the diversity of Coudert and Baker McKenzie. That doesn’t necessarily mean diversity in terms of racial or ethnic diversity, but a diversity of perspectives. We had people from different parts of the country and the world working together. From that perspective, it was not different when focusing on people that looked like me, at least in New York. At Coudert Brothers, there was one African American female who is now a professor of law at Utah University College of Law. There was another black African American male who left the firm shortly after I joined. I’ll tell you why representation matters. Shortly after I joined Coudert Brothers, I was taking a couple of individuals out for lunch because we were recruiting for a summer associate class. At the end of the lunch, one of the young men, an African American male, said that he had enjoyed meeting everyone that day during his interviews, but the one thing that confirmed it wasn’t the fit for him was the lack of people who looked like him. People don’t want to come to the firm being the first or the only African American male. Representation truly does matter from a recruitment perspective, as well as from a retention perspective. It’s important that you see yourself at that law firm regardless of your race or ethnicity. You see that there is a pathway for people who look like you at that law firm. Like I said, while both of the firms were diverse very, very broadly speaking, there was definitely a lack of diversity as it pertains specifically to African American or black representation.

The Value of Mentorship

Chris: Would you share insights of that journey to become a partner at a massive law firm like Baker McKenzie?

Pia: I like to say that it was my plan all along, but quite honestly, it wasn’t. I didn’t know where my career was going to take me. I’ve never been one to write down 5 or 10 year goals. I go by the flow and operate more spontaneously when it comes to my career. Again, I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it’s worked out for me so far. You have to focus on the job at hand. So, I was an executive compensation and employee benefits attorney. I focused on doing great in that role and made sure that I was adding value for my clients. If you’re adding value, not only to your clients but also to your organization or law firm, hopefully, you will grow into that partnership role. Along the way, you definitely need to bring in clients and build a book of business, but I definitely think you need to have people that you can speak with along the journey to ensure that you’re on the right path. Those people help ensure that this is exactly what you want to do by helping you to understand the pros and the cons of being a partner. They help you to understand the pitfalls and, quite honestly, the sacrifice you’re gonna have to make. 

The Finishing Line Moved for Partners

Throughout my career, I made a point to try to get placed on the hiring committee at all of my firms. I wanted to be part of the solution to make sure we were actively recruiting and retaining diverse talent. I recall recruiting at NYU and we didn’t have much luck securing students from NYU for permanent positions. The head of career services and I were chatting, and she mentioned that a lot of students realize that making law firm partner is not the brass ring that it once was. Even once you make partner, you’ve reached the finish line or so you thought, but they keep moving the line further and further back. There’s still a lot more to do, and you don’t go on autopilot. Once you make partner, you still have to be concerned about building a book of business, about keeping yourself busy, about keeping associates busy, and about participating in firm management and other committees. There’s a lot that goes into it. For a lot of students, it may not be viewed as a brass ring, but that does not mean that you still cannot have a solid legal career at a law firm in a different capacity.

The Importance of an Ally

Chris: Many partners get to a level in law firms where they’re making so much money that they couldn’t see themselves going in-house, or they think in-house is simply cake and going to be easy. Could you share your story about leaving a partner role to go in-house at MassMutual?

Pia: So, I met Mark Roellig, who is the retired General Counsel at MassMutual, around 2011 at a National Bar Association Conference. I heard him speak on a panel, and I was like, “Wow, here’s a middle-aged white guy speaking about diversity and inclusion and how much it matters to him and giving evidence and examples of things that he’s doing within his organization to really advance DE&I efforts.” It piqued my interest. So, I spoke with Mark after that conference and actually had him participate in a DE&I meeting at MassMutual. I was chair of the DE&I committee at the time and we wanted to learn more as an organization. At the time, I wasn’t interested in relocating, and I definitely was not interested in relocating to Springfield, Massachusetts. You just don’t go from New York City to Springfield, Massachusetts unless you have family in that area, which I did not. Mark and I kept in touch over the years. A couple of years later, I went to another National Bar Association Conference where one of Mark’s senior leadership team members, Dominic Blue, was there. Dominic and I happened to sit next to one another at dinner one night and I learned they were looking for someone with my background and experience. At the time, I was recently married. Again, I didn’t think it was the right time for relocation. So, I said thank you, but no thank you. I’ll pass your job description around to my network and see if I can help you guys fill the role. Long story short, they were persistent. I went, I interviewed, and got the job offer the same night. I thought about it and determined it was just not the right time, turned the offer down, and went on about my life. I saw Mark Roellig at another DE&I conference in the next few months and got another phone call from MassMutual asking if I would reconsider as the job was still open. The first time around, I spoke with my husband, we were one month into marriage, and I also spoke with friends and mentors to get advice and guidance about making the transition. It was a transition not only from law firm to in-house but also from New York City to Springfield. All of them said not to do it as there are so many opportunities in New York City. The second time around, however, I went to a different set of mentors, one who was head of DE&I at a firm, and another who was a former retired general counsel from a former client of mine. They agreed that it was a great opportunity. Mark Roellig had a reputation as being an ally, and a champion of diversity and inclusion. They reminded me that I could do anything and live anywhere for two years. If I didn’t like it, I can always go back to private practice and New York City will always be there. Mark also did something that I will never forget when I interviewed with them in February of 2013. Before I could even get back to my hotel room after interviewing with him, he sent me an email asking me to give Sonya Olds Som at Major, Lindsey & Africa a phone call. I wondered why he was telling me to call a recruiter after I had just interviewed with him. I hadn’t even gotten an offer yet, and I wondered if I wasn’t going to get an offer which was why he was telling me to reach out to a recruiter. But he did that because he wanted me to speak with Sonya so that I could get a better insight into the legal landscape specifically for ERISA attorneys and an understanding that there are very few organizations and corporations who are looking to hire ERISA attorneys. This was true at that point in time, but also true at any given point in time. The opportunities were going to be few and far in between for me. Sure enough, Sonya confirmed exactly what Mark shared in his email with me. That gave me a different data point when I was making my decision the second time around as to whether I should join MassMutual or whether I should stay in New York City and look for a role that was in a larger city. I will never forget that he did that. Mark is always someone who’s looking out for the individual’s best interest whether that will benefit him or not. Sonya was very, very helpful as well, and I consider Sonya, who’s now with Heidrick and Struggles, to be a mentor and someone I can call for advice to this day. I reached out to her before as I was considering the role for CEO Action for Racial Equity. It’s important to have a Sonya and a Mark in your life.

“I kept raising my hand.” 

Chris: Can you walk us through your career with MassMutual?

Pia: When I joined MassMutual, I joined as a Senior Counsel within the law department. My focus was on executive compensation and employee benefits. Prior to even accepting the offer during the interview process, I let Mark Roellig and the other eight people with whom I interviewed know that, although this is the role that they’re hiring me for, I would like to do other things. I was very upfront with them about my desire to do something outside of the niche practice area in which I’d been focusing for the last 13 years of my career. I was looking to transition into something that was more general or broad. When an opportunity presented itself, I was top of mind for Mark. Again, I went in and I performed really well as the ERISA attorney, developed great relationships with my clients, and had an opportunity to get to know a lot of different people at the company from advising different committees. That’s first and foremost with any role that you have to do the job and you have to do the job well. That sets you up for other opportunities as they come along and as a person themselves. But that was really key for me that and the fact that I constantly let Mark know that I was raising my hand, I would like to do something else. And so when an opportunity came to appoint a new corporate secretary, I was top of mind. That opportunity allowed me to develop a closer relationship with our CEO. I got to work very closely with him as well as members of our board of directors. When the CEO was looking to engage a new Chief of Staff, again, I was top of mind because I had a pre-existing relationship with him. He had the opportunity to witness firsthand how I work, not only my work ethic but how I added value in the role of corporate secretary. At the same time, I was also leading the team of tax lawyers and ERISA attorneys. He had a chance to see me function and work firsthand, to see what I was capable of and how I could add value in that role. The Chief of Staff role was one that, quite honestly, I was not as familiar with. I had a working relationship with the CEO and Chief of Staff because of my service to the board and working as a corporate secretary at the company, but I really didn’t know what the day-to-day involved. I remember speaking with him about it. It is a very ambiguous role for a lot of organizations, and you really have to work with your CEO to figure out what he or she is looking for, what they need from that person, and how your strengths fit those needs. As an example, the former Chief of Staff was also head of communications. I was focused on the board of directors, so I added a lot more value in that capacity working as Chief of Staff. It really is one of those roles where it exposes you to so many different elements and aspects of the company and the organization. You’re getting a chance to work with a lot of different people and a chance to see the sausage as you’re making it. It really is a bird’s eye view into the entire organization.

Day in the Life as Chief of Staff

Chris: Knowing that you were the right hand to the CEO, what exactly did you do for him?

Pia: Every day was different and you serve as a trusted adviser and you’re triaging matters. It allows him to be able to focus on what’s most important to the company by making sure that he’s spending his time only on those matters that require CEO attention. You’re also helping to drive priorities to a successful completion. I wasn’t only working with the CEO, but I’m also working with the other members of the executive leadership team to make sure that the right folks are engaged and that they have the resources and support to do the job. Part of that is really fostering an environment of collaboration amongst executive leadership team members and their respective teams. You have to build that foundation of trust. They have to trust you in order to want to work with you, or to confide in you information that you need to adequately staff your CEO and to do your role. 

Two opportunities that I had prior to the role of Chief of Staff were key to this. When I was in the role of the ERISA attorney, I advised our fiduciary committee and that included our CFO, our CHRO, our Chief Risk Officer, and it included a lot of the members of the executive leadership team. I was able to develop a relationship with those individuals prior to being selected for the role of Chief of Staff. 

If you want to get into some of the more tactical things on a day-to-day basis, I was preparing him for his meetings, drafting talking points or executive session notes for board meetings, talking points for meetings that he’s having with CEOs. I traveled with him to different engagements, conferences, events, as well as certain meetings. I was really making sure that he was able to focus on the most important things so that he had all of the information that he needed to do his job well. I was working with the members of the executive leadership team and other members of the organization to ensure that everyone was working together as a cohesive and effective unit. It’s like you’re a conductor of a symphony. You have all of these players, and you are making sure that everyone is playing in harmony.

Chris: That sounds like an extraordinary role.

Pia: It was and it was definitely a good role to have as an organization. Because again, I was focusing on project management, and I had oversight of certain special projects, relationship management. As a lawyer,  I was used to having clients. As the Chief of Staff, I didn’t have that anymore. You don’t necessarily have ownership of anything, or at least you feel as if you don’t have ownership of anything. The HR department was no longer my client, so how was I going to be evaluated? How was my performance going to be assessed? It’s a very ambiguous role. I had to learn how to function in this new environment, which was totally and completely foreign to me at the time. As lawyers, we are smart, we can grasp concepts easily, and we can figure it out. We definitely have to learn how to function and work in ambiguity. We may be used to black and white with some gray matters. As lawyers, having to function in ambiguity on a day in and day out basis definitely requires you to exercise and build some new muscles.

Adding Value = Authentic Relationships

Chris: Pia, you used “adding value” as a phrase. Could you explain to my listeners how you added value?

Pia: First of all, you have to understand the business, and then you have to understand the needs of the client. What are the client’s objectives? What is their why? Why do they need to do this? Why do they need to do that? Why are these their objectives and what are they trying to accomplish? When you can connect the why to the what and the how, you’re able to add value. You first have to develop an understanding of why this is important to them, understand how it fits into the strategy of the organization, and how it fits into the strategy of that specific team or group. How does it fit into the strategy of the overall organization? How does it support the enterprise and achieve the enterprise’s strategic objectives or goals? 

I cannot stress how important it is to focus on the human element of the work. We call them soft skills. Today, someone mentioned they’re actually strategic skills because you are going to need people to work with you in order to achieve that shared vision. It’s about leadership, setting that vision, and inspiring your team to work with them and to work with you to achieve that shared vision. An important aspect of doing that is to develop real, authentic relationships with individuals because they are just as important as the work that needs to get done.

Developing Relationships as an Introvert

Chris: Where did you gain the skills to develop relationship and that way for people to feel you are trustworthy?

Pia: It was through life experience as well as trial and error. It was life experience in the sense that, growing up, my mother taught me how to be kind and compassionate, how to treat people the way that I wanted to be treated with respect and dignity, and how to value individuals. I saw the example that she set in placing people as the priority, and watched how she developed relationships with individuals, and how everyone loved her. That was not natural for me, I am an introvert, and the whole relationship-building process still doesn’t come easy for me. But I also recognize that in order to be successful, it is very necessary. So, it is necessary for me to get out of my comfort zone to figure out the best way to develop relationships. 

Also, I’ve benefited from an executive coach, who will do roleplay. She helped guide me through the process and helped highlight what is important in terms of what I needed to do differently in order to be successful and to achieve that next milestone. It is a learned ability, a learned skill, that is available to anyone. For those of us for whom it doesn’t come naturally, it takes time. Part of it was identifying individuals who exhibited the skill set on a daily basis so that I could at least have someone to point to and see how they handle situations. I was able to see how they were able to build relationships, how they were able to cultivate those relationships and maintain those relationships. It’s trial and error. It doesn’t come naturally for me, even to this day, but I am a work in progress. I realize my shortcomings. I like to think that I’m extremely self-aware, and it’s something that I continue to work on.

True Leaders Make You Better 

Chris: How do you define leadership? 

Pia: It’s about setting a vision and inspiring your team to work with you to achieve that shared vision. Leadership is about influencing people, not only with what you say but as well by what you do. The tone at the top matters because people watch what you say and watch what you do and how you move. 

Leadership is also more than just leading people. You also need to be authentic, humble, transparent, and empathetic. You have to connect with people before you can be in a position to influence their behavior. Great leaders also realize that you are only as good as the team that you’re leading. So, you have to build a high-performing team, and not only trust them but also empower your team and give them the resources and the support to do their job. I learned from Mark Roellig how to do this. He was really good at building high-performing, effective teams. He often said that leadership is about helping others realize their potential. Mark was really big on, if he is doing his job well, you are going to leave the nest and will fly away and find opportunity elsewhere. He was really about helping you move on to bigger and better things and helping make you better at your job and prepare you for that next role.

CEO Action for Racial Equity

Chris: Pia, I’d love for you to explain what CEO Action for Racial Equity is and what your role looks like. 

Pia: CEO Action for Racial Equity is a spinoff of CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, which was established back in 2017 by Price Waterhouse Coopers.  The focus of CEO Action for D&I was to advance awareness of D&I efforts within corporations and organizations.  It was meant to advance their D&I efforts, and be the catalyst for action in racial equity after the events of 2020, specifically the killings of unarmed black men and women at the hand of police and others, specifically the George Floyd murder. After that point in time, Tim Ryan, the US chairman of PwC, really felt that it was now time for corporations to stand up and do more for society at large, by thoroughly focusing on advancing racial equity and racial justice for society at large. We’ve been focusing on our own internal company efforts for the last four years through the D&I organization, but we really needed to focus externally because we know that when companies and corporate America come together and use their collective voice and influence, things can and do change. He convened a group of CEOs back in June of 2020. MassMutual was one such company, and I was on that call with about 25 CEOs, initially. At the end of that call, he mentioned they were going to establish the racial equity fellowship to focus on these issues around systemic racism through the lens of public policy. That really is what differentiates us from a lot of other business-led organizations that are focusing on racial equity. At this moment in time, we are focused on advancing racial equity and addressing systemic racism through public policy. 

Advancing Racial Equity through Public Policy 

We are at a stage in our fellowship where we recently announced our policy agenda that falls under four pillars of education, healthcare, public safety, and economic empowerment. What we’re looking to do is to root out the root causes of systemic racism, for the 47 million+ African Americans in this country. We are figuring out how we can address those and solve those through public policy so that we can create a better quality of life for the 47 million black people in this country. We focused on the African American community intentionally because we needed to make sure that we had a narrow focus so that we could try to accomplish something at the end of this two-year period. It is a two-year fellowship. A rising tide lifts all ships, so by focusing on the black community, other communities will also benefit from these policies that we’re going to be supporting and endorsing.

We have about a little over 100 companies and organizations that are participating in the fellowship with around 250 fellows. These organizations essentially lent out their talent to the fellowship for a one to two-year period on a full-time basis, in most cases. These individuals are fellows, but they remain employed by their home organizations who are still paying their compensation and benefits. They have allowed them to spend the next one to two-year period, focusing solely on racial equity issues. It truly is amazing. Hats off to the organizations that have gone above and beyond to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak. They’re not only talking the talk, but they’re walking the walk. It’s been an amazing opportunity to be a leader of this effort, and I am thankful and grateful that each and every day, I get to wake up in the morning, and really focus on how can we make this a better world for people who look like me.

Landing the COO Role 

Chris: How did you land this role, Pia?

Pia: At MassMutual, we’ve been on a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion journey since before I joined the company in 2013. Back in 2019, our Passages Business Resource Group, which is the African American affinity group, really started looking internally at how we can better support the business and started devising a black strategy if you will. We focused on ways in which MassMutual could better support our African American and black agents, as well as the black community. Fast forward to 2020, and you have the COVID pandemic that is disproportionately impacting black and brown communities. You have Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and we needed to widen the scope of that initiative. We did form a working group I led where we focused on what we could do better. Again, not only internally, but also externally, through a black strategic initiative that we started within the company in April 2020. Then, we learned about George Floyd in May. After that, I was having a conversation with my CEO, where we were  saying corporate America has to do better. We have to get involved. We have to get engaged. We were putting our minds together thinking about what existing efforts there were. Since we were a part of CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, I suggested we reach out to Tim Ryan to see if they were planning on doing anything at the time. There were probably about 1400 companies signed on for CEO Action for D&I. So, I emailed Tim Ryan that afternoon that we were wondering if you’re going to use this platform to do anything for society at large. He emailed me back that same night and said they were just talking about this and would be reaching out. It’s just a part of the fabric of who we are as an organization. Honestly, that is one of the reasons why I left New York City and joined MassMutual. I was looking for a purpose-driven organization, and I knew that if I was going to be leaving private practice and joining an in-house department that I wanted to work for a company that was driven and motivated by a purpose, a greater good. MassMutual checks those boxes and they had a very strong and robust diversity and inclusion program within the law department at that time that has now trickled over to the entire company. 

Chris: How does it feel to be giving your time and attention to this work every day?

Pia: It is a tremendous privilege and honor to be doing this work. I’ve done volunteerism for most of my life. I’ve mentored students for a very, very long time. I’m part of organizations where we do things for the community, but I’ve never been able to do it on a full-time basis. To be able to take a two-year break from my job to focus on this work is nothing short of amazing. I commend my CEO, Roger Crandall, as well as the MassMutual leadership team for allowing us to do this. After that phone call with Tim Ryan, when he first mentioned forming the 1000 person fellowship, literally, right after we hung up Roger called me  and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I needed to get more information, but he was excited about the opportunity to have MassMutual participate. In addition to myself, we have five other full-time fellows, who are working as a fellow for the next two-year period. As an organization, we are all in and we’re constantly looking at how we can improve the quality of life for our employees, for the members of our community, and others.

Challenges to Changing Policy

Chris: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in this work?

Pia: The biggest challenge is a divided Congress, in terms of getting this work done. We’re not naive to think that we’re gonna come in here, snap our fingers, and everything’s going to be better. There are organizations that have been doing the work of racial equity for centuries, in some instances, and a lot of organizations have been doing really good work. Progress has been slow, for a number of reasons. We do hope that we can come in and tip the scales in the favor of faster progress, and not just incremental progress, but more radical change, hopefully. That is the biggest challenge. A lot of the issues that we are focusing on as a fellowship seems like no brainers and people can agree that from a principles-based perspective, yes, every child should have access to high-quality, affordable early childhood education. Yes, every family should have access to affordable and healthy food. Yes, everyone should have access to the internet and access to a device to help them, especially in this pandemic environment. Whatever it is, we can agree upon the underlying principles, but where we differ are the solutions. How do you accomplish ensuring that every child has access to high-quality, affordable child early childhood education? That’s where we’re going to differ. That’s where we’re hoping that we can come in and elevate the specific provisions of the legislation that focuses on racial equity. 

We are a racial equity fellowship, so we’re not here to lend our name or efforts to getting every bill across the finish line. We’re here to make sure that the specific provisions of those bills that can have a significant impact on racial equity do not end up on the cutting room floor. We want to elevate those things. For example, telehealth access is one of the issues that we are working on that we’ve included in our policy agenda. Telehealth impacts all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality. For black people, it allows us to have access to more culturally competent providers. It allows us to have access to more black medical professionals because we know that (I don’t have the exact statistics) in black communities across America, both rural and urban, there is a shortage of healthcare facilities and a shortage of black health care professionals. With the expansion of telehealth access for black people, it gives greater access to doctors who look like you who are more culturally competent. They don’t have to be at the hospital in your neighborhood or at the clinic in your neighborhood. They can be anywhere. We are looking at the expansions of telehealth and the waiving of restrictions during the COVID pandemic and that those restrictions have still been waived. Eventually, those restrictions will end once we no longer have a public health emergency. We want to make sure that we can expand those restrictions or expand the waiver of those restrictions to permanent waivers so we can address the issues pertaining to the shortage of culturally competent black doctors for black communities. We know there is a trust factor as it relates to black individuals and the medical profession. We also know that health outcomes are greater when black people are treated by black professionals. We’re bringing that racial equity lens to ensure that those provisions that may seem benign on their face but are critically important to ensure that we can address some of the root causes of systemic racism for the black community.

Chris: Pia, I want to say thank you for your leadership, stepping into this role, and being a voice. It excites me to see that this is taking place and to have someone like you at the helm. 

Pia: Thank you, Chris. I am excited by the 100 companies and organizations who are participating and the 250 fellows from all walks of life who are all passionate about advancing racial equity for society at large. It is really amazing to work with such a talented group of individuals day in and day out.

Chris: If there were a CEO that wants to support this effort, how could they do that?

Pia: Go to our website and there is information on how to engage with us. We are definitely looking for more companies to join the effort and to support us with fellows. There’s a lot of work to be done. We have an agenda that consists of eight policy issues, and we know that the policymaking process is complex. The fact of the matter is none of us are policy experts. We were all doing something else in our day jobs within our home organizations, and for some of us, that was eight months ago while for others it was a month ago. Very few of us are policy experts or government relations experts, but what we do have in common is our desire to create a better environment for all people. 

Family Silver Lining During Covid

Chris: Pia, let’s transition. You’re married and you have a son. What is life like right now and are you planning any travel this summer?

Pia: Life right now is a little bit better than it was last year. We adopted our son in October of 2019. He transitioned from living in Texas to living in Connecticut in October 2019. Obviously, we were dealing with that transition period for him, with a new school, new state, new community, and then the pandemic hit in March of 2020. His school closed and they were closed until August of 2020. I felt very stressed because I was working from home, and I had a three-year-old who was home all day. Our house was too small for the three of us, but the pandemic enabled us to have more time together as a family, to bond and develop a really strong relationship, and to spend the time that we needed with our son to make him comfortable in his new environment. For as much heartache, death, and unfortunate situations that were caused by the pandemic, at least in our lives personally, it was definitely a blessing in disguise. Now, he is back in school in a Pre-K program in person. This is the seventh week. We were homeschooling him since last August with the help of my mother who went back down to Texas now that he’s back in school. We’re focused on getting him ready for kindergarten and trying to make sure that he’s emotionally prepared and has the socialization skills that he will need to thrive and survive in a kindergarten program. For families and individuals with small kids, the pandemic has definitely been challenging to manage work as well as caring for your kids and making sure that they are mentally and emotionally okay.

Sports Fanatic

Chris: Pia, do you have any side hobbies or personal passions?

Pia: I am a sports fanatic, although I’ve never played sports in my life. As I mentioned, I grew up in Texas and developed a love for sports from a young age. I’m primarily a fan of professional sports, football and basketball, although I’m a huge NCAA fan, and I have attended numerous super bowls and NCAA Final Fours. I love the US Open Tennis tournament too. Anything sports-related, I’m there. 

I also like to travel. Pre-COVID, my husband and I would travel regularly. I also like to collect art by American artists. Bisa Butler is my favorite right now, although I cannot afford her work. She is phenomenal, and everyone should check her out. I recently had a piece commissioned from my mother, by an artist Karen Powell, out of Chicago. She is also a very, very good artist, but someone that’s more affordable.

Reading Recommendations 

Chris: Do you have anything on your bookshelf you’d like to share with my audience?

Pia: Given the nature of the work that I’m doing right now, most of the things that I am reading pertain to racism, racial equity, or social justice. I am currently reading a book by author Shawn Rochester. The book is called The Black Tax, and it really deals with and addresses the cost of being black across many different sectors in America. Areas like homeownership or a real estate perspective, as well as insurance, automobile industry, job search, business financing, etc. It takes a data-driven approach to explain this tax (why we pay more and why our homes are devalued).  It goes all the way back to slavery, through emancipation,  through Jim Crow, looking at the GI Bill when black veterans returning from World War II, were not able to get loans to go to school or to purchase a home. It also looks at the education system and desegregation. That book, which is very informative, and really helps to understand why when people say pull yourself up by your bootstraps, why that doesn’t apply for Black Americans. There are deliberate laws and policies that have been written that have prevented us from doing just that and prospering. It also discusses what we can do about this black tax and how we can help to create the jobs and businesses that are missing in the Black community, which is especially relevant given that we’re recognizing the centennial of the Tulsa race massacre, where countless black businesses and hospitals, schools, etc, were destroyed. This happened in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

From a fellowship perspective, I’m advising the team that is working on early childhood education and business diversity issues. I’m beginning to read more and more articles pertaining to those two areas. That includes anything from research from the Education Policy Institute to the Bipartisan Policy Center to the Brookings Institution. I’m in the process of rereading Mission-Driven Leadership by Mark Bertolini. Mark is the former chairman and CEO of Aetna, also a current board member of MassMutual, so I know Mark. He describes himself as a radical capitalist who utilized a blend of empathy, communication, and engagement to transform Aetna. He really believed that you have to have a heavy investment in both employees and customers to make the workplace and the world a better, happier place. It really is about companies getting engaged but not just writing a check. It’s through your resources and going into the communities that you are servicing to make those communities better from the inside out.

Summed Up in 5 Words

Chris: Pia, in five words, what do you do?

Pia: I am a convener. I am an influencer. I am a conductor. I am a connector. Part of what we do as a fellowship is connecting the dots. Understanding how one thing impacts and affects another so not just connecting people, but connecting the dots and the work that we’re doing and how everything is related. When we look at issues pertaining to education, economic opportunity, healthcare, or public safety, there’s a correlation across. That was four words so I’ll add leader. I am a leader in this fellowship, and it has been one of the greatest honors of my life and one of the highlights of my career to date to be able to lead this team of fellows and organizations as we get into some “good trouble,” in the words of the late John Lewis.

Chris: Pia, it’s been an honor and a pleasure. Thank you for your time today.

Pia: Thank you, Chris. My pleasure as well.

Thank you to everyone who listened to this episode of The Law Firm Leadership Podcast.

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