Family, Mentors Fuel Executive Achievement

Parents who prioritized social justice and a network of professional advocates help drive this executive’s pursuit of opportunities for women.

11.16.10 7:13 AM ET

By Pamela Thomas-Graham-Chief Talent, Branding and Communications Officer, Executive Board Member, Credit Suisse

As a child or as a student, did you aspire to the high position you have today?

My parents’ hard work and commitment to my family and their careers really shaped my professional aspirations. They set high standards for us and always advocated social justice, so I knew that I wanted to have a meaningful impact on society as a woman. I saw business as a dynamic way to transform society.

What was your path to Executive Board and “Chief” status?

Well, my path was far from straight and direct, but all of the experiences were necessary to get me to this point today.

As a Harvard undergrad who went on to earn a JD and an MBA there, as well, I was always interested in economics and business issues. McKinsey afforded me tremendous opportunities and exposure during the first 10 years of my career, and I earned the title of partner at the age of 32.

But I also have a passion for fiction and a desire to be a writer. Along my professional journey, I’ve authored three novels that are Ivy League thrillers.

For six years as the president and CEO of CNBC, I steered the network through a national economic downturn, the 9/11 attacks, and the various corporate scandals. My stint at Liz Claiborne was particularly helpful in understanding how to build a premium designer brand. Today I am the Chief Talent, Branding, and Communications Officer at Credit Suisse Group. I’ve been lucky enough to spend my career working with some great global brands.

Has your path been tougher because you’re a woman?

I’ve worked in environments that have traditionally been white male environments, so I have confronted issues of what it's like to be black and female, especially in the leadership ranks where there are typically fewer women. But as a society, we have made progress, and as a female leader, I continue to make gender diversity a priority, and I focus on understanding the needs of young women today.

Have there been unexpected benefits? Explain.

Working to achieve a leadership position has presented lots of challenges, but there have been numerous benefits. I’ve always been empowered to stand up for myself and my convictions, and to work with my teams to encourage and promote their career development.

What are two or three big lessons you have learned in the working world along this path?

The two most significant lessons that I have learned are the importance of creating and nurturing a strong network of mentors and the value of building a powerful brand.

At each step along my career I have had women and men who believe in me and encourage my professional development to acquire the skills and perspectives to succeed in a global business. The most essential quality of a mentor is that she or he is committed to your success and offers useful criticism that propels you toward your goals, and I am fortunate to have people like that in my life today.

I also recognize the value of developing a positive personal brand by which people will know you. What mix of attributes and values do you want people to think of when they think of you? The brands you remember are the ones that break through the clutter—that will be the same for you.

Is there an unexpected challenge you’ve faced along the way?

When I started consulting at 26, there weren't many young black women in the field. It was a tremendous challenge to convince myself and others that I could confidently and successfully advise a corporate CEO about tough business problems.

How did you deal with it?

I was fortunate to have had numerous mentors, including several female partners at McKinsey at the time. I managed through these challenges with a pretty determined mindset. And I also learned the importance of having a sense of humor when dealing with a challenging situation. Over time I have learned to be fairly resilient. And my family, especially my husband, Lawrence Otis Graham, has always been a source of strength and support for me.

Is it overwhelming, or exhilarating—or both—to have the global responsibilities you have?

Honestly, it’s both. I am only as good and successful as the talented employees who work for me. The current demands and pressures working for a global company are greater now than they ever have been, but that’s actually what inspires me everyday to continue my work.

Why/how does Credit Suisse feel like a good fit for you?

In the past year I have seen the power of great leadership at the bank. Credit Suisse has become a firm that is known for being world class. I am proud about coming to work for an institution that has a strong reputation, thanks to our CEO—Brady Dougan—the Board of Directors, and an energized cadre of senior management that is committed to making Credit Suisse the world’s most admired bank.

What is your favorite part of the job?

Interacting and achieving business successes with my colleagues every day.