Massachusetts Conference for Women board president Gloria Larson, one of just a few women in her field since law school, says that following her passion, taking risks, seizing opportunities and knowing when to say no are the keys to her professional and personal happiness. Scroll down to listen to the full interview.
Q: How did your professional career begin, and how did you end up as the president of Bentley University?
A: “I graduated from Vassar College with a degree in liberal arts and decided that from a career perspective, that I needed to add a graduate degree. I chose law school because I had long been interested in pursuing a legal degree. When I was at the University of Virginia, women were still a very small minority, about 22 percent of my class. Virtually everybody at UVA in the late 1970s was going to work for a big corporate law firm in a big urban center. I wanted to do something in the public policy arena, my lifelong passion. So my first job out of law school was to start up and run a statewide program of legal services for the elderly of Virginia. It was the era of the consumer and Ralph Nader, and I became very interested in consumer issues that impact the elderly (and everybody else). The main place to pursue that is the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, so I went to the FTC after I got this program in Virginia up and running.
Very few women, certainly in my era, had that kind of opportunity at such a young age, and it was very confidence-building for me for later things that I did.
By the time I was 30, I got plucked from the ranks of the attorneys at the Federal Trade Commission to be one of a couple of attorney advisors for one of the top ranking officials at the FTC, the only woman who was serving as a FTC commissioner. She became my sponsor, my mentor; she helped shape my career over the next decade and later, after I’d been in private practice in 1989 and 1990, it was her recommendation that made me a top official at the FTC when George H. W. Bush was President. It was really those combinations of things that put me on a path of being a risk-taker and believing that women could succeed at the highest level.
I’ve never had more than an immediate plan to be in love with what I am doing now and to see what unfolds. I believe in letting things happen organically, but seizing opportunity when you think it fits something that you will be passionate about.”
Q: What’s a one-sentence summary of what you’ve embraced that has allowed you to get where you are?
A: “Continuously seek passion in your work and be open to change when you think you can be passionate about doing something else.”
Q: What advice do you have for those who are looking to tackle a demanding career while also having a rich personal life?
A: “When I was coming of age and starting my career, I was genuinely of the women’s movement generation that believed we could have it all. We didn’t understand that we could, over time, do everything we wanted to do, just necessarily all at the same time. I’ve learned a lot along the way about figuring out what’s right for both me and my husband and how we allocate our time. Time management is obviously the critical piece, whether you’ve got kids, or in my case it’s always been having an extremely rich volunteer, civic community engaged part of my life.
You’re never going to have your life and your career in perfect balance. Life doesn’t work that way. Being happy and content with the way it’s unfolding is the goal as opposed to having it work out perfectly. Make sure that you are reserving some element of time for yourself.
I have learned, rather late in life, to start taking some things off the table. I am someone who says ‘yes’ no matter how many things were involved, and now I am learning to pace myself a little bit better.”
Q: What tips would you offer to a woman looking to make a significant transition in her life or career?
A: “I have a theory about making a big change. Lots of people in my generation are doing that right now, rethinking how they want to spend the next decade or so of their work life. My theory is that when you are completely passionate about what you are doing, and you are 100 percent into your current career, you are really not open to other ideas. I think when you stop feeling that passion for what you are doing, when it’s starting to feel tired, when you are treading water, that’s when you need to listen to yourself about who you are and what you want to be over the next period of time.
The second thing is to be risk-taking. My husband refers to it as jumping into the deep end of the pool and not holding on to the side.
The third thing is to make sure that you’re talking to friends when you are ready for change; use your network liberally. Think about your extended, expansive group in your network and run ideas by them. They’re going to be really helpful to you and happy to help you get through the decision-making process itself and then spread your wings and try something new. It’s incredibly exhilarating.”
Q: What is the hardest transition you’ve been through and what did you learn as a result of that experience?
A: “It was going from all my many past career paths to becoming a college president. Colleges and universities are very different than any other sector I’ve ever worked in. The CEO is not chief executive officer in a college; it’s chief enabling officer. My job is to make faculty as good as they can be, staff as good as they can be, our students as successful as they can possibly be—and it’s not about calling the shots. It’s a highly democratic, highly participatory kind of enterprise. I tripped about 100 trip wires when I first got to Bentley. I believe I made every mistake that was humanly possible as a brand new college president, particularly as a non-traditional president.
From the beginning, I asked everybody’s advice. I did a lot of listening. And now that I’ve been at Bentley for six years, it’s beginning to feel like an experience that I genuinely understand. While I still make plenty of mistakes, I certainly understand far better what my responsibilities are and how to be the best I can be in consultation with so many others who care just as passionately as I do about the success of the school and our students.”
Q: What’s one thing you make time for in your daily life that really helps keep you grounded and positive and focused?
A: “It’s a two-part answer. The first part is my husband. We have always lived in two different places. He comes up all the time. I go home at least a day if not two days on the weekend when I am able to. So we see each other all the time, but I do think that a normal great family life has been a Godsend to me. I think family is everything. Family and friends really are the bedrock for any other type of success you have.
The second part of my answer are my Labrador retrievers. Without my husband and my three labs, I don’t think that I would be the highly energized, glass half-full, positive person that I’ve always been.”
Gloria shared more information and insights from her varied career path; listen to the full interview here:
Interview by Karen Breslau