Joanne Berger-Sweeney, President, Trinity College

Read the full interview here

  • Joanne Berger-Sweeney

    Q. What were some of the early influences that really shaped who you are as a leader today?

    A. I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My father was a lawyer, and one of the first lawyers to move from Howard University in Washington, DC, to set up shop in Southern California. “Go west, young man,” was his motto. And I say that because there weren’t a lot of professional Black lawyers in the 1940s.

    A bit of my sense of adventure and boldly going where no woman or man has gone before comes from my father. My mother was executive director of the Los Angeles Girl Scout Council. She was a leader, she knew how to interact with people, and she believed deeply in higher education.

    She would wake me up every morning and say, “You can be anything you want to be.” If you grow up with that kind of confidence, it has a profound influence on the rest of your life.

  • Joanne Berger-Sweeney

    Q. Leaders face so many challenges. How do you compartmentalize to keep everything in perspective?

    A. I do have the ability to compartmentalize. I’ll share a story with you. Earlier in my career, I was fired from a position, but I stayed for a month to finish out some projects. One of my colleagues in HR said to me, “I cannot believe your ability to compartmentalize. If I had not known that you had been let go from the company, I would have never believed it because for every meeting you were in, you were fully present, and no one knew what had happened behind the scenes.”

    Somehow I learned not to wear my heart on my sleeve and to move through challenges and compartmentalize. I always keep in the back of my mind what I’m trying to achieve, and recognize that sometimes a particular situation is going to work out, and sometimes not.

  • Joanne Berger-Sweeney

    Q. How do you handle the tricky balancing acts of leadership, like being authentic and vulnerable while also projecting confidence?

    A. Larry Bacow, who’s now the president of Harvard, pulled me aside early in my career when he was president at Tufts, and he said, “You can’t let them see you sweat.” People are constantly trying to bring leaders down from where they are into their personal spheres because they want you to understand their problem and bring you into it.

    But as the leader you often have to stand outside of someone’s individual problem to be able to see holistically what’s going on, so you can make the best decisions for the organization as a whole.

    Your role as a leader is to stay above individual problems. And in that sense, sometimes you’ve got to make sure they don’t see you sweating, because that’s part of their technique of pulling you into their problems. It doesn’t mean I never show emotion, but you have to recognize that people are watching you through that lens of leadership.

  • Joanne Berger-Sweeney

    Q. Have you encountered headwinds in your career because you’re a woman?

    A. Yes. I am the first female and the first person of color to be president of Trinity College, which will be 200 years old next year. When you are the first in anything, there is always going to be a bit of skepticism, particularly in higher education.

    So people had to decide whether I was actually competent at doing my job because I didn’t look like the first 21 presidents of Trinity College. We all know that change is hard. Imagining something different when you have seen something a particular way for most of your life is hard.

    The whole idea of prejudice is prejudging, and it’s prejudging based on what you have seen before in your life. So I absolutely met headwinds when I first arrived here at Trinity College as the first female president and the first president of color.

  • Joanne Berger-Sweeney

    Q. What did that look like in practice?

    A. I would be in meetings where every single constituent group – students, staff, faculty, alumni, trustees – would ask questions or push back on things that were absolutely in my domain. If you had taken a moment to look at my background, you would understand that I had a pretty clear understanding of budgets and how higher education works.

    But there was a lot of pushback. One way it came out was people requesting data to support some of my ideas. I’m sure that if I’d been male, I would not have been asked to, in essence, prove and support my points of view. I’m a scientist by training, so I often come into a particular situation with a set of data, and I was always asked for more. After I’d been here for a number of years, people started to trust me more and asked me less often for data to back up what I was saying.

  • Joanne Berger-Sweeney

    Q. That must have been quite irritating at the beginning. How did you handle those moments?

    A. Most of the time I just got them the data and said, “Here you go. I told you so.” I have heard other women and people of color say that we feel like we have to work harder to prove that we know what we’re talking about. I got to where I am because I worked harder, I dug deeper, and I learned how to bring more people into the conversation and to see my point of view.

    One of my father’s earlier lessons was that you attract a lot more bees with honey than with vinegar. He would remind me that you’re going to get so much further if people actually like you and like working with you.