People who aspire to lead must first learn how to be genuinely honest, transparent, and ethical. These are the core values of servant leadership. However, getting to that position means you have to be tested and prove yourself. In this episode, award-winning trailblazer Karen Valentia Clopton sits down with Elizabeth Bachman to share how true leadership is formed within a business, organization, or political society. Karen tells her story of demonstrating operational expertise and nonpartisan insight into the political and regulatory arenas. She also talks about the ways and principles of becoming an ethical servant leader and how you can apply them in your everyday life. Tune in now and learn how to become a powerful leader that inspires others!
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Servant Leadership: How To Become A True, Ethical, And Transparent Leader With Karen Valentia Clopton
This is the show where we interview leaders from around the world on topics such as leadership, diversity, presentation skills, communication challenges, and so much more. My guest is the award-winning trailblazer and Human Rights Commissioner, Karen Valentia Clopton, who talks to us about leadership and what you can do to be seen as a leader. Before I get into her very impressive resume, let me invite you however to see where your presentation skills are strong by taking our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com.
In four minutes, you can see where you are strong in your presentation skills and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve. If you score highly enough, you will get a free 45-minute conversation with me to help you improve where you need to improve and polish where you’re already good.
My guest is Karen Valentia Clopton, whom I have been pursuing for several months. I’m glad to have finally gotten her. Karen Valentia Clopton brings deep knowledge, demonstrated operational expertise, and nonpartisan insight into the political and regulatory arenas. She’s served on top leadership boards and executive roles in both governmental and non-governmental organizations across many highly-regulated industries. She discreetly assists both private and public companies to navigate complex challenges such as compliance, both domestic and global, governance, multicultural human resource utilization, and many other issues around regulations and legislation.
She’s the General Counsel and Vice President of Access and Inclusion for Incendio International. She’s also a nationally recognized civil right advocate who serves as a San Francisco Human Rights Commissioner and has been elected Chair of the Human Rights Commission for three consecutive turns. Karen has had an illustrious career of many historic firsts as an African American woman, challenging leadership roles and bipartisan political appointments across three decades and several diverse administrations.
She served as the Chief Administrative Law Judge for the California Public Utilities Commission for nine years. She was also appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger to be the General Counsel to the Department of Corporations in California, as well as serving two terms as President of the League of Women Voters of San Francisco.
Karen is an active and proud cum laude graduate of Vassar College, Antioch School of Law, and a McGuire Fellow in International and Comparative Labor Management Studies. She is a very accomplished speaker, author, and lecturer, as well as a very thoughtful, interesting, warm conversationalist. I know you’ll enjoy this conversation onto the interview. Karen Clopton, what an honor it is to have you as a guest on the show.
Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for including me.
When I knew I wanted someone who could talk about leadership, you were way high on my list. I’ve been wanting to do this. Before we get into the many questions I have for you, let me ask you. Who would be your dream interview? If you could talk to somebody who’s no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be in the audience?
My dream interview would be with the amazing Black woman journalist, Ida B. Wells. She was a pioneer in the late 1800s and early 1900s in forming a publication that highlighted and focused on the lynching of Black men, women, and children, not only in the South but throughout the United States at the time.
What would you ask her?
I would ask where she drew her strength from, “How is it you’re not afraid that you are going to be beset by these terrible and horrible people who are burning Black people alive? You are putting a spotlight on this, and it puts a target on you. How do you deal with that?” That would be my first question to Ida B. Wells.
Who should be listening then?
All of America of all generations should be listening to Ida B. Wells and her answer to, “Where do you find strength? Where does the resilience and desire for truth-telling and seeking to amplify come from, and what is done in the dark often covered?” Also, at that time, it was popular. Lynchings were announced in mainstream newspapers. Many of these people dress their children up in their Sunday best and took them to these lynchings where Black people were burned or strung up and hung on trees. It’s men, women, children, and sometimes, pregnant women with their babies cut from them. Mementos were taken from their bodies. We’re talking about a very gruesome evil act. There were thousands of these carnival-like murders, and she covered and uncovered them.Find strength as a leader from resilience and the desire to tell the truth to amplify what is happening in the dark. Click To Tweet
In some ways, it’s a throwback to the Middle Ages where public executions were parties, and the people in power were able to say, “This person is okay. This person is not,” so you get rid of them. We’ve gone through these cycles over and over in history. Hopefully, each time, it gets a little bit better, but the cycles keep coming around. I heard a very interesting conversation with a historian who traced how acts of violence and acts of fascism were connected to economic disruption. Saying that Black people were no longer slaves was a huge economic disruption and a civil war. The whole economy of the South was based on slave labor. Without accepting it, one can see how the pattern keeps continuing.
In reality, enslavement did not end with the Civil War. Douglas Blackmon, who was the Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal in Atlanta, wrote a Pulitzer prize-winning book on this that has been turned into a documentary series on PBS called Slavery By Another Name because enslavement continued well after the Civil War. It continues nowadays. I recommend people to see Ava DuVernay’s excellent film, 13th, which reveals the impact of the 13th Amendment’s clause about forced labor. Forced labor is okay if you’re incarcerated. If you’re convicted of a crime, forced labor is not against the law.
We have mass incarceration, and they are not contrary to popular media accounts. They are not bodybuilding and gang-banging in prisons. They’re making computers and furniture and many other commodities for nothing. They’re fighting wildfires here in California for $1 an hour. When they are lucky enough to be released from incarceration, they are not qualified for the jobs that they have been performing while incarcerated. Slavery and discrimination continue.
We have 300 years of racial purity laws that have created this concept of race and racial differences based on color and separating people. Lynching was only in 2022 made illegal by Congress. It has taken 160 years for the law against lynching to pass. While we might have come a little way, we haven’t come all the way by any means.
I was not saying that we’ve come a long way. I’m thinking in terms of cycles, what we are seeing now, and how racism, anti-Semitism, and such are being stoked so that people can get more power, get angry, and be afraid. This is a very interesting commentary because you have spent your life as a public servant in politics and fighting for civil rights and justice. I’m curious how you see that show up within organizations since that’s the population we’re talking about in this show. How can corporations fight for civil rights, transparency, equity, and inclusion? That probably has four different answers. Where do we start?
The beginning is the best place, and that is the toughest place to start because we live in such a segregated society and have been educated in a curriculum that was unduly influenced by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause myth. In the American educational system, there’s a lot of unlearning that has to be done. We see that in these conversations and legislation as well as commentary on media about critical race theory.Becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable and seeking the voices of others takes bravery and adaptive leadership Click To Tweet
In order for American businesses to reach true excellence and the highest productivity of the workforce, all the studies have shown that you get the best results with the most diverse workforce, with more women, with more people who have different backgrounds and perspectives, and not continuing to foment racial division is essential for the economic prosperity of the United States, if not globally. For the US to remain a great global power, it must harness all of its human resources. Corporations need to take stock of how they go about recruiting and retaining their employees, and it has to start at the top. It has to start at the board level and the C-Suite where they embrace those who do not look like themselves.
We are talking about traditionally and overwhelmingly White men in these positions of power and authority. How do they move beyond, “Who’s going to fit in with me?” The natural tendency is to bring in who you know and what you are comfortable with. Becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable and seeking the voices of others takes bravery and adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership and flexibility are the keys to success in the global economy nowadays. The pandemic is an excellent example of where many of us had to pivot from in-office to working remotely, to communicating in a different way, to having accountability in a new variety of ways.Adaptive leadership and flexibility are the keys to success in today's global economy. Click To Tweet
The people who were not working remotely and were doing the fundamental tasks that kept us all going for maybe six months were looked at as heroes, but they have not been treated as heroes. All those people who kept us going, all of those workers, not just the first responders, but also the delivery people, the people who filled the orders, all of those people who were at risk of a deadly disease that in the beginning, we knew very little about. We didn’t understand how it was transmitted.
We didn’t know what we were doing, but we asked most of the people to stay home who had the luxury to do so, and then we asked all the essential workers to stand up, come outside, and continue to work often working longer hours, harder, and more. Everyone had to be adaptive and flexible and change the way that they had been doing business. What does this mean in terms of leadership? It means that we have to educate ourselves about not only our own culture, although that is extremely important, that kind of self-reflection and education about where we come from.
It’s so important to understand, and initially, it is academic in a way, especially since we haven’t been able to travel as much over the last three years, to understand other cultures. When we’re looking at multinational corporations, it’s essential in order to do business in other countries to understand linguistic differences, cultural imperatives, and religious differences, and to embrace them, so we don’t have what happened many years ago with Chevy Nova. It didn’t work because what Nova means in Español is not going.
While the Chevy Nova, which Nova meaning star, was perhaps a perfectly fine name in the US, it didn’t work in Mexico and South America. It didn’t work because it means it doesn’t work, so it’s not going. You don’t want an automobile that’s imprinted with that particular moniker. That could have been avoided with cultural competency. How do we reach cultural competency? We can only do that through an open mind, an open heart, and by educating ourselves.
I would say to surround yourself with people who will challenge you. It’s so easy to live in one’s own bubble, and then you have the assumptions that you grew up with and surround yourself with people who will say, “Wait. Stop. Don’t do that.” I have a dear friend who’s an international journalist. She’s always catching me when I say something that I hadn’t thought about and said, “Wait. Stop. Have you thought about that? Did you mean that?” If you are in a leadership position in an organization, clearly you’re busy. If you’re in a leadership position, you’re busy with the job. How do you become intentional about useful diversity? What’s the business case in the ROI for stretching your boundaries?
I’ve been making the business case for decades now, and all of the studies and statistics are clear that you’re looking at higher revenues and productivity with a diverse workforce that has a sense of belonging and loyalty to the organization. How do you develop that sense? It’s through gratitude, appreciation, and recognition. You can’t do that if your expectation is that your employees are going to be grateful to you just for having a paycheck because we can see over the last three years that the paycheck is not going to be the number one decision-maker for the majority of employees. We’ve had a scarcity as we have entered into this kind of liminal stage that we are in at this point.A sense of loyalty to the organization is developed through gratitude, appreciation, and recognition. You can’t do this if you expect employees to be grateful simply by having a paycheck. Click To Tweet
We have to think outside the box, be flexible, adapt, learn to be welcoming, and hospitable, and develop mutual understanding. I’m back to the first point, which is about education, educating ourselves about ourselves as well as others. To fully utilize all of our human resources, we have to look beyond what we might consider normative qualities and attributes.
Also, they put in a plug for building your pipeline, because that would be the other piece, making sure that you’ve got good people coming up. I want to go to another question. A great deal of my work is about helping people who are overlooked show up as leaders if you feel like you’re a leader, but you’re not being seen or heard, mostly with women, because that’s where I’ve made all the mistakes myself, so I know these mistakes from the inside. If you feel like you are underappreciated and under-recognized, what can you do to show up to become more visible and show your value?
I always recommend that whatever level you’re on, you have a news organ. It can be a newsletter, a monthly email that you send to your supervisor and the supervisor above them, as well as your colleagues, and that you have your own actual media. Now, people have blogs and websites and can send a link. You can do postings and create content on LinkedIn as well as on Facebook. Within the workplace, whatever is going on in your workplace where you can have your own and call it your own news organ, where you are promoting news articles about your accomplishments, and why should anybody read your news organ? You always have a value add. You have something that is appealing on a broad basis that is unusual and not likely to have been found by your peers or your manager.
You’re sharing information that is unusual. It’s not, “I read the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal this morning, and this is what happened,” because everybody can do that and has access to it. Subscribe to an industry-specific, obscure periodical, and attach an article to your newsletter, whether you send that out monthly or quarterly, and then interpret it for them and give them information. How does it apply in this situation? Keep it short and brief. You are seen then because you are contributing. You mentioned, “This week, I did the following things. My team led this team to do certain things.”
Make sure there are some I statements as well so that you know that it’s credited to you. Unless you inform everyone, they don’t know. I know we grew up with the advice of, “Hunker down, work hard, do your best, and be humble and quiet.” That doesn’t get you noticed or heard. I’ve found that this way is a very effective means of keeping their interest and showing your value. It also is the beginning of showing leadership because you are becoming your own thought leader for your group or division.
Also, being strategic about it. It’s all too easy to think that because you are known among your peers that everybody knows what you do. I’m always asking people and clients, “Does upper management know the value that you bring?” If not, you’re going to have to tell them. If you don’t tell them, someone else will be talking about it and claiming credit for your idea. It should be you. My last question for you is, how can we be good allies? I’m thinking at every level. Whether you’re the new person, middle-level, or senior, how can you be a good ally?
The number one thing is the thing you do the best, Elizabeth, and that is to listen. Listening is so important. You can’t become a good ally, mentor, sponsor, or mentee unless you are listening. In order to have an inclusive, welcoming environment or to be included when you are new, you have to listen to the people who are around you. Here’s the first thing I do when I go into a new environment because I’ve often been brought into organizations to affect deep changes. Change is probably the most difficult task in any organization, so I always ask three questions right away.You can't become a good ally, mentor, sponsor, or mentee unless you are really listening. Click To Tweet
The first one is, “Tell me about what you do.” I then ask, “What do you need to do? What are you currently doing better?” The third question is always, “What is your advice to me?” That is in whatever role it is. Let’s find out what the person does. Let them talk about themselves, and listen, take notes, mirror it, read it back, and make sure you have it correct because that shows that you are actively listening, and then you are finding out how you can help them. How do you help them? You ask them for their advice to you.
Let’s just think about levels. How can you do this as a colleague?
I believe in hospitality. As a colleague, that’s an invitation to a meal or have a beverage on a break. It’s the same thing as, “I’m new here. Tell me about what your job is and what you do. I’m very interested in what you do.” Ask them. You’ve seen other people in my role, “Do you have any advice or have you seen anything that would help me to help you do your job better or for me to do my job better?” This builds team spirit. It is what it is. You’re getting information and you’re learning. Be open to that, adaptive, and flexible.
That sounds like a great technique for speaking with your direct supervisor and direct manager to find out more about them and what they’re thinking. Rule number one for any presentation, whether it’s within an organization or in a meeting is to make it about the listener.
Absolutely. Even in your little newsy email, newsletter, or whatever you decide is your format, that’s what you’re doing. You are speaking and filling a need that your audience has.
Can you do this if you are trying to network up? Let’s say you want to meet people who are the next level or two above your direct manager, the people that you are officially connected with. Can you use this same technique?
I believe you can. A lot of us are reticent to make that appointment. I know that we’ve called these informational interviews and that thing, but don’t be afraid to pitch your idea because you need to be the value add. I have a colleague who is a financial analyst, and he regularly writes to the CEO and says, “I’d love to talk to you about this idea I have for the company.” They’re big-picture ideas. It took a few attempts, but persistence pays off. Now, the CEO goes to him to say, “What do you think about this?”
They’ve brought him in to train other employees as well as to talk to executive management about things. They think of him and are top of mind for promotions and new assignments that would be interesting. In order to be looked at as an innovator in the organization or a thinker who can improve productivity and revenues or recruitment and retention, you have these ideas and share them.
How can you be a good ally to the people who are not being recognized?
That’s a one-person-at-a-time endeavor. It’s about listening and amplification. How do we amplify without taking credit? The first thing out of your mouth needs to be the person who came up with the idea. Repeat their names. The use of names is frankly fundamental. Use their names, talk about when they had the idea, and how you agree with them. Also, defer to them and give them the stage. This happened at the Golden Globes.
This is the Golden Globes Awards ceremony in Hollywood.
Ryan Murphy, who’s a Director-Producer, was being honored, and he used his time to amplify others. He amplified everyone. In 2022, one of the talented actors in one of his productions won a Golden Globe Award, which is given by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and it wasn’t televised, so that person wasn’t in the room where people could give a standing ovation or even applause. He turned it over to her and said, “Please stand up.” He used his time to amplify another person, which we all said, “Bravo, Ryan Murphy,” as we stood for this talented actor who had won in 2022. We will remember that about him because as Maya Angelou said so eloquently, “People remember how you make them feel.”
That is the line I need to end this on because that’s one of my favorite quotes. Karen Valentia Clopton, thank you so much for being my guest. I’m so honored and happy to have had you as a guest on the show. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you, Elizabeth. What you showed was adaptive flexible leadership.
If you enjoyed the show, please share the episode and tell your friends. Like us and review us on Apple Podcasts, that’s the one that matters. We appreciate it if we can get likes and reviews there. I’ll see you at the next one.
- Incendio International
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About Karen Valentia Clopton
An award-winning trailblazer, Karen Valentia Clopton brings deep knowledge, demonstrated operational expertise, and non-partisan insight into the political and regulatory arenas. She has served in top leadership, board, and executive roles in both governmental and non-governmental organizations across many highly regulated industries. She discreetly assists both private and public companies navigate complex challenges such as domestic and global compliance, governance, multi-cultural, human resource utilization, and regulatory/legislative issues.
General Counsel and Vice President of Access and Inclusion for Incendio International, Inc. A nationally recognized civil rights advocate, she also serves as a San Francisco Human Rights Commissioner and has been elected Chair for three consecutive terms.
Karen has had an illustrious career of many historic “firsts” as an African American woman, challenging leadership roles, and bi-partisan political appointments across three decades and several diverse administrations. She served as the Chief Administrative Law Judge for the California Public Utilities Commission for nine years; was appointed by the governor to be General Counsel for the Department of Corporations, as well as serving two terms as President of the League of Women Voters of San Francisco.
An active and proud cum laude graduate of Vassar College; Antioch School of Law, and a Maguire Fellow in international and comparative labor-management studies, she is an accomplished speaker, author and lecturer.