Dara Richardson-Heron, chief executive of the Y.W.C.A., says she once led a team of male doctors, many of whom “didn’t have a high estimation of what a female leader could do.” But, she adds, “their scepticism didn’t last long.”

Were you in leadership roles as a child?

A. I think my parents will tell you that I thought I was a leader by the time I was 2, because I tried to lead my parents and my two older sisters. But my parents saw potential in me, and, more important, they led by example. My father was one of the most hard-working and dedicated people I know, and my mom was at home while we were growing up, and she demonstrated organisational skills. She made sure we were members of our family team. We had our chores. I can remember when she woke us up in the middle of the night because we hadn’t completed them.

And your first formal leadership role?

During my medical-school residency.

What did you learn from that experience?

Because the decisions you make in medicine can be life or death, I probably erred on the side of being too directive. I was so concerned about not making a mistake that I probably put too much pressure on the people I was leading. I don’t feel that it’s inappropriate to be directive at times, but I did it in ways that could create a stifling environment, and even fear.

Did you get feedback about that?

Yes, from the interns themselves, and from my mentors or the attending physicians. They said it’s O.K. to give guidelines, but you have to allow people some flexibility, within reason, to make some decisions, or at least allow them to come up with their action plan, and then you evaluate it.

And after medical school?

I started as a staff physician at Con Edison, but was quickly promoted and soon became executive medical director, leading a staff of 12 physicians, many of whom were far more senior than me and didn’t have a high estimation of what a female leader could do. That was eye-opening for me, but their scepticism didn’t last long.

Why not?

I made clear that I had been put in a leadership position because I had the skills, experience and expertise. I didn’t preach this as a mantra but just demonstrated it through actions. Over time it became clear to all those involved, whether they liked it or not, that I was moving the needle.

It wasn’t easy. It is demoralising to have your leadership challenged just because you’re a woman or because you’re a woman of colour, but I just erase memories of that kind of behavior. If I let it impact me, I would have been just too demoralised. If you really want to get me going, just tell me I can’t do something. That’s all the encouragement I need to get it done.

And after that role?

Con Ed had a program to take strong leaders and put them in additional leadership opportunities. I eventually got the attention of the C.E.O., Eugene McGrath, and became his special assistant. I’ve found that the smartest people can distil complicated things into a simple explanation.

I also learned that the higher you get on the leadership chain, the more humble you have to become. You also have to create a culture where your team is comfortable bringing you bad news — or problems can reverberate across the organisation.

You joined the Y.W.C.A. with a mandate to revitalise it. You had to quickly assess the management team.

I interviewed everyone and asked: “What is it that you are passionate about? What do you like to do?” People are much more likely to be successful and do a good job in things they actually like to do. I identified the people I thought would be my best direct reports, promoted them and put others in areas of responsibility where I thought they could excel.

I assume not everybody made the cut.

No. In some cases, people show their hands quickly. It’s the lack of personal responsibility, the whining, the blaming others for a lack of skills, or the duplicitous behaviour. They have a smile on their face in the meeting and everything is great, but they have a completely different motivation. I just sniff it out.

What questions do you ask in hiring?

The first question I ask is: “Tell me what you know about the organisation.” And I do that for one reason only. If you can’t tell me details about my organisation and why you want to work here, I stop the interview right there, because you’re not serious, in my opinion. You’re just looking for a job.

Another question I always like to ask is, “How would you describe yourself in one word?” That causes the person to hone down everything they know about themselves. I like it when people take a step back and ponder. If someone gives me a quick answer, I’ll think that maybe they weren’t that thoughtful about it.

You hear things like “dependable,” “authentic” — that’s my one word — and some people say “complex.” I don’t judge people on the one word, but it gives me insight into how people package themselves.

I like to ask about the characteristics of the best boss they have had. I’ll ask them to tell me a time when they had a problem with a boss. How did they handle it? That helps me understand what a problem is to them and to understand their judgment. I’ll also ask where they think they can add the most value in the organisation. And what fulfils you? What motivates you? What doesn’t motivate you? What do you like to see in a leader? What kind of environment can you succeed in best?

What career advice would you give to graduating college students?

I tell them that life is not fair. Make the best of the cards you’re dealt. I also tell them it’s important not to feel entitled or to think people owe you something. You have to earn what you get. A dose of realism is important for people who are growing their careers. Nothing comes easy. The bottom line is never, ever give up.

New York Times News Service

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