This article is part of an ongoing series The Secrets of Successful Women. Articles focus on providing valuable career advice targeted to women professionals in particular but certainly valuable for all.
In many ways, Leah Ward Sears’ resume reads like a “how-to-manual” for shattering workplace barriers. In 1992, the Honorable Leah Ward Sears became the first woman and the youngest person ever to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia. Then in 2005, she became the first African American woman to serve as a chief justice of any state supreme court in the country. Having attended law school in the late 1970s, she began her law career during a time when black females found jurist mentors rare, barriers common, expectations low and success elusive. Indeed, were there an award for breaking gender and racial barriers, Justice Leah Ward Sears would be among the fiercest contenders. Graciously, Justice Sears, now an appellate lawyer spent time with me late last year to discuss her life and career journey, including her secrets to success and advice for young professionals.
Career Advice – Big Ideas
1. Don’t wear anger on your sleeve
In the early 1980s, after graduating from Emory Law School, Leah Ward Sears worked as one of only four women at a firm of 100 lawyers. Indeed, working in an unapologetically white male environment brought additional challenges, and she quickly realized that there was no manual available for how to navigate them.
“They may have let me in the door, but they did very little to help me succeed, as black women faced unique challenges….Once at a law firm luncheon, I walked into the bathroom and was shocked when one of the women handed me her hat (assuming I was part of the housekeeping staff). I was certainly well aware of my environment, but I was cautious not to wear my anger on my sleeve. No one wants to work with someone with an attitude. It’s simply exhausting.”
While she acknowledged the overt discrimination and barriers surrounding her, she says she succeeded mostly by just not focusing on that and instead working really, really hard. She also acknowledged the importance of seeking additional support – which she soon found with then Mayor Andrew Young, among others.
2. Be willing to take a risk
Justice Sears was appointed to the Atlanta Traffic Court in 1985 by then Mayor Andrew Yong. Then, in 1988, she eyed an open seat on the Fulton County Superior Court, but securing a seat on the court would require her to run for her first contested elected office. With a one-year-old child at home to consider, she pondered running for office, but her most effective motivator was a male relative who told her that she probably wouldn’t run because “women don’t take risks.” Hearing that was all the incentive she needed to run! Ultimately, she was elected and served as a Fulton County Superior Court Justice from 1988-1992. This experience became one of many that reinforced the importance of taking risks – even when you’re scared. “To get the brass ring you have to take risks,” she insists.
3. Dig deep and work hard
Reflecting on advice for young professionals in general (and lawyers in particular), she insists that working hard is such an important ingredient for success. While it may be tempting to look for an overly sophisticated strategy as a short cut to success, Sears points out that there is no substitute for rolling up your sleeves, putting in long hours, and grinding out great work. It can’t be delegated or outsourced. Even at this stage in her career, she acknowledges the critical role of doing the hardest work yourself.
“If you’re going to reach those highest levels of success, you’ve got to dig deep. You can’t be a surface lawyer. When I’m preparing for an oral argument, I’m going through a 45-page brief line by line getting it completely into my system, so I know it like the back of my hand. I’m not looking for a short cut.”
4. Build relationships by being yourself, not necessarily by trying to “fit in”
Shortly after she joined the Supreme Court of Georgia (as the only female), she felt like a bit of an outsider among her new court justice colleagues. At first, she felt somewhat ignored and also noticed that she was dissenting a lot. She knew that she needed to do a better job building relationships with her male colleagues and rejected the idea of “trying to be one of the boys.” Instead, she decided to let go of any frustration and be more of herself – let them get to know and appreciate her. She likes to bake, so she decided to start bringing pastries to their weekly meeting (as a bit of a goodwill gesture). This simple act was just one example of her refusal to lean into any brewing anger and instead try to connect with others by extending an olive branch and revealing more about her personality and interests.
5. Do it your way
Men are notorious for closing major deals on the golf course or in the skybox at the football game, and women leaders can struggle to achieve those same goals (e.g lucrative sales, enhanced relationships, etc.) on terrain where they may not be as comfortable or familiar. Surrounded by white men for much of her career, Justice Sears made a firm choice not to try to do what works for others and instead do things her way by leaning into her own decidedly more feminine interests. One such example is her annual high tea that she hosts at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta with her female lawyer colleagues. Instead of taking clients to football games or putting ranges, she spearheads an event that better fits her personality and allows everyone to feel entirely comfortable and included.
Career Advice – Practical Tips
1. Don’t try to do it all
When asked about juggling work and family, Justice Sears reminds us of the importance of prioritizing activities and being ok with the fact that some things just won’t get done. Sears shared, “When my kids were young, I didn’t cook much because it simply took too much time, so we went to Piccadilly Cafeteria a lot. I also didn’t do much laundry or sewing. I learned over the years to pay for services, and of course, my mother also helped out a lot.”
Justice Sears is a huge advocate of outsourcing those lower priority activities. Indeed, these days there are so many service options from grocery delivery or meal preparation (think Instacart or HelloFresh) to other services that provide broader one-stop shop support (like Care.com). Sometimes, the key to “doing it all” is realizing that you don’t have to do it all personally but instead make sure it all gets done. That paradigm shift is a huge one and can be so liberating.
2. Avoid “over volunteering”
Justice Sears explains that as a busy mom in a high demand job, she learned to avoid “over volunteering,” especially when she was a younger professional. While she participated in civic and professional organizations, her top priorities were her job and family so she generally avoided taking on leadership roles or participating in particularly time-consuming projects with those organizations.
So many busy professionals unwittingly make the mistake of “over volunteering” because they’re tempted to say yes to everything. Indeed, there’s a huge difference between being a member of the PTA and chairing the annual school auction, so avoid committing to new projects on the spot. Instead, tell them you will get back to them after you’ve checked your schedule. It’s important to remember that saying “no” and setting boundaries enables us to say “yes” to our top priorities.
3. Prioritize self-care
Justice Sears insists that often women will put themselves last in significant areas as well as the tiniest details in life.
“I noticed that when I would make my husband’s plate for dinner, I’d make it look really pretty and neat, but then mine just looked like table scraps. I decided to start making my dinner plate look nice too. It’s small, but it reflects an important shift in mindset.”
Over the years, she’s learned the importance of self-care and now gets massages weekly and meditates regularly. Indeed, busy working moms (in particular) are notorious for putting themselves last and often suffer the inevitable consequences. Indeed, small, regular self-care investments can better equip you to manage life’s daily stresses. Ideally, self-care can become a daily or weekly ritual like a favorite smoothie, meditation practice, exercise class or massage as well as bigger treats like a semi-annual spa retreat or hiking trip. The key is first to identify what brings you peace, joy and fulfillment, and then put it on your calendar – just like any other appointment.