Alumni Profiles Series: Wanda Wallace
Dr. Wanda Wallace received her bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Psychology in 1978, Masters of Arts in Teaching (Mathematics) in 1979 and her Ph.D. in Psychology in 1985 from Duke. After completing her doctorate, she served as a research assistant in Psychology, then as assistant and associate professor of marketing at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, followed by administrative roles as Associate Dean of Executive Education and Executive Vice President of Duke Corporate Education. She eventually decided to start her own company, Leadership Forum LLC. to change the quality of conversations, whether those are about strategy and insight, performance and feedback, team dynamics, conflicts and interpersonal differences or inclusion, trust and collaboration. The company has continued to grow since its founding in 2002 and Dr. Wallace serves as Managing Partner. She recently published the book You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Era of Deep Expertise and is the host of the podcast Out of the Comfort Zone; follow her on Twitter @askwanda.
Tell me about yourself.
I currently live in New York City and London. Before the pandemic, I split my time between NYC and London, something I will eventually get back to doing. It’s been nice being in one location for a change. Both cities provide so many opportunities to go to concerts, theatre, restaurants, and art museums plus all the wonderful gardens.
What professional or career plans did you have in mind as you were completing your graduate degree?
I have always been fascinated by how people make sense of their world. In graduate school I pursued this interest through visual illusions and today through how people work together. As I started my career, I was expecting to become a tenured professor. To that end, I become an associate professor at Duke. However, I began to realize that I didn’t really enjoy traditional academic research as much as I enjoyed thinking about the practical aspects of how businesses function along with the implications for leadership.
What has your career path looked like since you graduated?
My career has been defined by pursuing a series of opportunities, none of which I could have predicted at the start. After finishing my Ph.D., I received an NSF grant with a faculty member to continue the memory research I had begun during my graduate work and thus stayed on as a research assistant at Duke in the psychology department for another year or two. Despite the possibility that I could become a professor of psychology, I believed that the questions I was interested in pursuing were not an easy fit into U.S. academic publications, limiting my career opportunities. So, I started re-evaluating my options. On advice from my network, I pursued the possibility of teaching in a business school. I taught an undergraduate class in Marketing at UNC and I began to realize that business suited my interests more than psychology did. Fuqua School of Business needed teachers, so I ended up as a faculty member at Fuqua and eventually on the tenure track. Ultimately, I was an assistant/associate professor in Marketing at Duke for six years. Then another turn occurred: Fuqua decided to reorganize the M.B.A. program, and they introduced Integrated Learning Experience courses, one of which was on team and leadership. I had spent my extracurricular time as an undergrad on exactly those sort of programs, so I volunteered to help design Fuqua’s first ILE. From that point on, all my teaching involved teams and leadership.
I then took a job in Executive Education at Fuqua, running a team of about 30 people. I had clients, a board and a p&l [profit & loss statement]. Basically, I was running a small business, which I loved. I finally left in 2001, not dissatisfied with Duke, but dissatisfied with the limitations of the programs for the challenges the business world faced. In 2002, I created my company to fill the gap I saw in the marketplace.
During the initial phase of any start-up company, you kick around ideas for ways to create additional value. One of the main ideas we had was developing forum groups that would fuel research. One research idea that emerged was why women in the executive ranks were leaving their positions shortly after they landed in the position. This research project catapulted my reputation and the company’s path forward.
Tell me more about your current job and your company Leadership Forum, LLC. What is your favorite thing about what you do? What has been the most surprising thing about it?
At first, I thought I would be designing large programs and pulling others in to deliver the content, but in reality I have done a lot of teaching and coaching. About 65% of my time and resources are spent on projects around gender, diversity and inclusion—that is, helping women and other minorities get up the curve, stick and thrive as well as helping their managers more effectively manage diverse talent. The remaining 35% of my time is allocated towards helping people become great leaders. All of business turns on the quality of the conversations and the quality of the relationships. My focus has been to improve those conversations whether they are centered on inclusion, diversity or performance.
I would say that the most surprising thing has been how little people understand about practically making a difference on themes that have been around for decades. I am always thrilled when I am able to enlighten and propel companies to improve their leadership and their inclusion practices—and ultimately the diversity of their talent.
Tell me a little bit about your book You Can’t Know It All.
First, there is no such thing as “general management.” When hiring a CEO, no one is going to hire someone who has great leadership skills but doesn’t have any expertise in the industry. In a knowledge economy, there are very few if any pure general managers. Knowledge counts. Second, however, as much as your reputation and value-add as a leader depend on your expertise, if you continue to add responsibilities you will eventually reach the point where your team knows more than you can hope to know. In these roles where you are “spanning” across knowledge domains, your value-add changes. It is not about what you know, it’s about how you connect and inspire people. The work you do fundamentally changes and so does the way you interact with peers and your team. The book is about how to navigate the balance between expertise and spanning leadership—in effect, how to be a player and a coach. It’s about getting out of the comfort zone of your own knowledge.
I came to understand this phenomenon by watching women struggle in climbing the corporate ladder. Women are by and large in expertise roles, and they are brilliant doers. But they are often skipped over for promotions and are not put into larger scope positions. Women either tend to avoid the ambiguous, spanning roles that take them out of their comfort zone of expertise or the company can’t see women as the “right fit” for a spanning role.
Any advice you’d like to share with current graduate students at Duke?
There is no single path in a career, and today more so than ever. Don’t get stuck on planning it all out. The most interesting jobs are the ones that emerge along the journey.