Cecilia Conrad: Managing Director of the MacArthur Foundation

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This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Cecilia Conrad, who is the Managing Director of one of the world's largest private foundations, the MacArthur Foundation. She went from being an Economics professor, to a Dean and VP of Academic Affairs at a variety of small, elite, private universities to her current position, where she changes people’s lives with one phone call. You see, the incredibly generous grants that she oversees allow individuals –creative folks or problem-solvers– to focus on their dream projects full-time. Below, find out what it means to lead a huge non-profit, walk 2 miles to work in Chicago winters (!!), and really truly love your job.

For how long have you held this position? What are your main duties?
Since January 2013. My first appointment was to head up the MacArthur Fellows Program, and that’s a program where we seek out exceptionally creative individuals and we make them awards that […] free them up to pursue their creative activities. It’s a 5-year fellowship, $125,000 a year, $625,000 total. A big part of my job is to search for those people, because people don’t apply.

The other part of my job is a new initiative called 100&Change, where we’re making a single grant of 100 million dollars to a single project to solve a problem. So another big part of my job has been designing that program, designing that competition, and helping steward the selection process.

Can you tell me about the process to getting this job? Rumor has it you received a phone call offer!
Particularly for jobs at certain levels in nonprofits, or academia, there are people whose jobs are to look for people who would fit certain jobs. So I got [a] call originally from a search consultant who I had met in the past. She called, actually, the first time and told me about the position, and I didn’t really pull in that maybe she wanted me to be a candidate. Instead I gave her some suggestions for people.

At the time I wasn’t thinking about leaving academia. But then, time passed – about 5 months – and she called again. And this time when she asked, I thought, “You know, I should maybe look into this. Maybe this would be a good fit.” And it was a moment where I was starting to think about what I wanted to do after being an academic dean. I didn’t really want to be a college president, and I didn’t really want to go back to being a member of the faculty either. This option presented itself and I thought, “Well, I’ll go and interview.”

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How long was the interview process then after that?
It went pretty quickly. For the first interview I came out [to Chicago] and interviewed with the then-President of the Foundation, and it was an interesting experience because I didn’t think the interview went well. I actually called my husband and said “You know, it’s a good thing I have a job I love, because I don’t think that went very well.” And while I was on the phone with him, I had a call interrupt it from the search consultant and she said, “Oh, they loved you!” and I said “What?!” So you can never tell.

I flew back a few weeks later for a second interview with other members of the team, and then was offered the job maybe a few weeks after that. So all told, this was maybe 2 months max.

What skillset helps you thrive in this position?
I will have to go back and start with having a liberal arts education, because part of what a liberal arts education does is train you to teach yourself stuff, right? Particularly in the Fellows, we cover a huge range of domains. It requires that you have the ability to interpret what people are saying and what the context is in that particular field, and [...] what exactly the interviewee needs even if you don’t understand the theory behind it. I felt when I got here, like I had gone back to college, but I didn’t have to take exams anymore! :-).

The second skillset that I developed [was] how to work with different people and how to appreciate that people bring different skills to the table. And that’s something that begins with the administrative assistant, the construction worker…everybody brings an expertise and respecting that expertise and then understanding how to leverage it and how to communicate that you respect it, because you depend on all those people for how those things happen.

That’s so cool that you still feel like everyday you’re learning something new!
Oh, I am so lucky. Not very many people my age can say that they’re in a job where they’re constantly learning something new.

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What drives you crazy about this job? Do you have a least and most favorite part?
My least favorite part is that there is a lot of bureaucracy, but I don’t mean it necessarily in a negative way. But it sometimes means that there’s a lot of checks and balances in place to make sure that everything happens according to certain rules. I’m sometimes like, “Why can’t we just skip all these steps?” And sometimes part of that bureaucracy involves meetings. And meetings can be really great or they can be excruciating.

And your most favorite?
Oh, definitely making the calls to the Fellows. Once a year we make the phone calls to the people we’ve selected that year and it is, for most of them, a call completely out of the blue, and they are sometimes just amazing phone calls.

When I make the call, I introduce myself ‘Cecilia Conrad, with the MacArthur Foundation’ and the next thing I say is “Are you someplace where you can have a private conversation?” because the Fellows have to keep it a secret for a while after we tell them because we have to get ready for a big announcement. [Once, a girl] answered “Well I’m driving on the freeway.” so I said “Is there someplace you can safely pull over?” and she says ‘Well there’s a lot of construction, I don’t think so.” so I said “Well, tell you what. I’m going to wait until you can find a spot to pull off the freeway because I don’t want you driving while I’m talking to you.” And she said she was starting to get nervous because she was starting to get a sense of what it might be. So we just chatted about the weather until she got off the freeway and she stopped and I told her and she burst into tears.

We once got someone who was on the subway in New York. Her train pulled up and she got on and she went in a tunnel and we lost the call. A few minutes later the phone rings, it’s her, she said “I got off the train! I realized I could afford a cab!” So, it’s just wonderful to make that phone call.

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Is there a moment in this job that has been the most rewarding so far?
The foundation has offices in India, Mexico and Nigeria, and I went to Nigeria. We had a grantee there who was the first woman certified auto mechanic in Nigeria. She started–years ago–a training program to get young women certified as auto mechanics, which is actually beneficial because not only [can you fix] autos, but you can fix generators, you can fix all sorts of things, so it’s a good career.

She’s even recruiting young women out of sex work into this [...], she’s a force of nature. That was probably one of my memorable moments, just being so impressed with this woman and what she has done.

You are incredibly busy. Is there a specific way that you organize your days?
Yes. I tend to be a very early morning person. I’m better at writing early in the morning so I try to get up early and do whatever writing I need to do for the day. And reading, I’m better at reading too. And I walk. Every morning to work, it’s part of clearing my head, it’s like a 2 mile walk which is great. I try to organize different kinds of tasks based on what I see and when I’m best suited to do them.

You even walk in Chicago winters?!
I walk home too. As long as it’s above 15 [degrees], I walk. I tried 12 once, and that was a mistake. 15 and above. If you have the right clothing, it feels pretty good.

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I don’t mean to be too forward, but would you be willing to share what your salary is?
Yeah, so, right now…one of the embarrassing things is I don’t know the exact number at the moment, but it’s between 300 and 350 [thousand].

I appreciate that! You sharing is incredibly helpful to helping young women feel more comfortable speaking about money.
Oh, I think it’s incredibly important. I think I spent too long in my career path not focused on it. And so I encourage people to think about it, what are other people getting paid, are you getting paid fairly.

If a reader wanted to be in your shoes one day, what would be a first step that you’d recommend?
I’d say, always choose to do what excites you and what you’re passionate about. And so, if you’re bored, find something else. Because I think that propels you in a way that nothing else does and I think that’s what propels me or propelled me here. I also have never adhered really strictly to a plan. It’s good to have a plan and it’s good to be flexible with that plan.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining it to your ten-year-old self.

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Thank you so much, Cecilia! You were an absolute joy to speak with. Thanks also to Sabrina Holland and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for photos. Come back next Monday morning to learn her insightful tips on how to be a great leader.