Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

June 2013

One on One With Condoleezza Rice

By Susan Sarfati, CAE
PCMA Convene

The first woman to serve as U.S. National Security Advisor and the second to serve as U.S. Secretary of State has returned to her academic roots as a professor of politics and business. She shares with Convene her thoughts on why face-to-face experiences — which “cannot be replaced with anything else” — are pivotal to advancing society.

Condoleezza Rice, who spent her early childhood in Birmingham, Ala., in the heart of the segregated South, is her own best example of what she calls “the essence of America.” What really “unites us,” she has written, “is not ethnicity, or nationality, or religion. It is an idea — and what an idea it is: that you can come from humble circumstances and do great things.”

Not only has Rice done great things, she has chalked up a number of firsts throughout her public and private life. In 1993, Rice, who has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Denver, became the first woman and the first African American to be named provost of Stanford University, a post she held for six years. During that time, she also served as the university's chief budget and academic officer.

In 2001, Rice was appointed U.S. National Security Advisor by President George W. Bush — the first woman to hold the post. She went on to become the first black woman — and only the second woman — to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, from 2004 until 2009. In both those roles, Rice pioneered a policy she called “transformational diplomacy,” which advocated for the formation of new global governments based on democratic principles.

Last August, Rice became a groundbreaker on another course, literally, when she and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore became the first women to join Augusta National Golf Club, one of the world's most prestigious clubs.

The author of two New York Times bestsellers — Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family and No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington — Rice has proven to be a significant leader during a time of unprecedented and tumultuous world affairs. She has been recognized for her efforts to foster worldwide freedoms for all people. Her love of America and her faith in its core values are the foundation of her presentations regarding foreign policy, education, and the empowerment of women.

Since 2010, Rice has served as a faculty member at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and director of its Global Center for Business and the Economy. She drew from her rich and varied career in a recent phone interview with Convene.

You excel musically, academically, and athletically, and are the author of two New York Times bestsellers. What was it about your childhood and your background that resulted in your many accomplishments?

I was fortunate in that I had extraordinary parents. [I] wrote a book about them. My mother was a teacher and my father was a high-school guidance counselor. They absolutely believed that I could do anything. They provided every opportunity to me that they could afford — and some that they couldn't afford. In [our] little town of segregated Alabama, they made it clear that your fate is in your own hands — that you had to work twice as hard. And as a matter of fact, I did not feel any boundaries. I believed that my horizons had no limits.

I was in a bookstore this morning and saw the biography that you wrote especially for young people. The salesperson told me that it is hard to keep copies on the shelves. What is your message for today's young people?

Find something you love doing. That is the most important thing. And work really hard. My parents always said that I had to be twice as good. Part of that was because we were minorities living in Birmingham, but also that message can refer to anyone who wants to achieve. If you love what you are doing, working hard is not a chore but a joy.

When commenting on your future during the last presidential election, you said, “I'll go back and be a happy Stanford faculty member, and, obviously, I'll do what I can to help this ticket. But my life is in Palo Alto. My future is with my students at Stanford and in public service on issues that I care about, like education reform.” What specifically would you like to see in education reform?

I did a report on the New York [City] school system and outlined three musts — high expectations of students, excellent teachers, and high standards. I am not a supporter of the self-esteem movement where everyone always wins. Confirmation and acclaim come from having actually achieved something. Finally, I am an advocate of school choice, because poor parents also care about their kids and often don't have choices that others have. Trying to increase the choices of parents is very important.

I believe in abroad education. Math, science, and reading are important, but extremely critical also are other subjects that will round out the total person. We need to support all of these things as part of educational reform.

How do you learn best? When you need to acquire new knowledge, how do you approach it?

I am an academic, so my first instinct is to research a topic. It is a lot easier now with all the available electronic search tools. I try to keep a baseline of knowledge about issues that I am interested in. For example, I read broadly about energy and economic policy. When I try to understand something specific, I delve into it by reading several good articles for starters.

I am an oral learner and have always been as much an oral learner as a reader. That is unusual for academics. I like to go to a lecture and have people come and talk to me. When I was secretary, I would ask, for example, to have the officer from the Vietnam desk talk to me about what is going on in Vietnam.

Clearly, social media and the ability to connect with others electronically grow daily. Are you engaged in social media?

I am on Facebook and Twitter. I tweet about important events and share information on Face-book so my followers know what I am doing with my life. I also try to have fun with social media.

One of the interesting things happening at universities is the explosion of online learning. Do you think this method is as valuable as face-to-face?

Surely, there is some information that can be imparted online — basic information can be presented online, but face-to-face experiences are absolutely essential. There is no doubt about that. We are social beings, and engagement with others is so critical.

Recent legislative and regulatory initiatives have been aimed at limiting government employee participation in private sector and association conferences. Some propose a radically restricted opportunity. How do you feel about this?

You know how conferences workbetter than I. It is about learning, about the time [spent] over coffee and meals, and the informal chats in the hallway [that] are so valuable. You get an idea and there is someone right there whom you can talk to about it. This creates great excitement, engagement, and energy.

We had three departments at Stanford that wanted very much to work together. We put them in the same space with no separation, in an open format. The interaction was terrific, and the ideas that resulted were over the top.

Face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced with anything else. Regarding the government, I think they believe they are being financially accountable by cutting back on employees attending meetings. But in reality they are being penny wise and pound foolish. Washington is far too insular. Government employees must get out and explore ideas with others if they are to be successful.

You have attended hundreds of all kinds of conferences and see great learning models at Stanford. What suggestions do you have for professionals who plan meetings about how to design their conferences to maximize learning?


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