3 strategies that helped Lisa Wardell become the only African-American woman CEO in the S&P 400 Index

Stephen Nartey July 12, 2023
Lisa W. Wardell/Photo credit: Lisa W. Wardell via LinkedIn

Lisa W. Wardell, one of America’s most powerful chief executive officers, was the president and CEO of Adtalem from 2016 to 2019. Adtalem Global Education Inc. is a leading workforce provider and the mother organization of a number of America’s top universities from the Caribbean School of Medicine to Ross University.

She is reported to have made $6 million in total compensation in her role as former CEO of Adtalem. Out of this figure, $1.1 million was received as salary while the rest was received as compensation and other related benefits, according to salary.com. At Adtalem, she was responsible for the strategic repositioning of the organization, aligning the companies that had been acquired by Adtalem as well as leading its profitability. Becoming the only African-American female chairman and CEO in the S&P 400 Index, the impact of her role was seen in the impressive outcomes of the universities’ students.

Aside from the position she occupied, she has an impressive track record from her long spell of work experience. As a first-generation college graduate, Wardell understood the privilege bestowed on her at an early age. She started working at the age of 14 to cater to her educational needs through college, according to Acams Today. Since then, she has worked in a number of top management positions including serving as executive vice president and chief operative officer for The RLJ Companies. In that role, Wardell oversaw strategic mergers, acquisitions, and business strategy for the organization, according to her LinkedIn page. Her depth of knowledge and experience sought after by many boards of companies in the U.S. is attributable to some key principles she has adhered to.

The former Adtalem CEO believes for business executives and entrepreneurs to ignite the change they seek in their line of work, it is important for them to have mentors that guide them in their decisions. According to her, mentors provide the building blocks for long-term success as they offer insights on new skills, provide constructive feedback and offer advice when it matters most. She views mentors as the mirror that helps leaders to appreciate how to harness the power of constructive feedback and use it to their advantage.

The importance of mentors in the success of a company or a business leader cannot be overstated. A survey of some business executives in Fortune 500 executives reveals 75 percent of women CEOs attribute their success to corporate mentorship. According to a study by the Association for Talent Development, a quarter of women business owners said they opened a business to inspire other women to start their businesses. This is corroborated by an aspect of the study showing a significant figure of 61 percent of female business owners working day jobs and pushing frontiers to start their own businesses. There is a reality many women are now pursuing their own business ideas, and this is attributed to corporate mentorship.

While several studies back her earlier position, another principle that has catapulted Wardell to higher heights is her belief in sponsors. According to her, they are stakeholders who are internally in the company. They are channels that provide a leader with the exposure needed by the people who count, she said. Sponsors are literally advocates that protect a leader when they are not around, she added, citing her experience when working for The RLJ Companies, where sponsors were to a large extent responsible for her success. She gained exposure to other top management executives, who deepened her experience during her climb on the corporate ladder, said the Black executive.

What’s more, Wardell believes that leaders must learn the value of giving back. Giving back can be in various forms; it could be acting as a mentor to make another relationship valuable or becoming a sponsor to a work colleague, she said, adding that it is instrumental to build a network of mentor-sponsorship roles.

Holding a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, a law degree from Stanford University and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Wardell previously worked as a principal at private-equity firm Katalyst Venture Partners, which invested in technology start-up companies. She was also an attorney in the commercial wireless division of the Federal Communications Commission.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: July 12, 2023

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