How to Find Your Purpose: Challenge Yourself, Ask the Hard Questions and Find Your Spark

Sponsored by BlackRock

Michelle Gadsden-Williams

Photo courtesy of BlackRock.

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May 18, 2024 at 3:22AM UTC

In today’s world, it takes more than ambition to succeed. It takes intention. But, according to Michelle Gadsden-Williams, a global expert in diversity, workplace culture and career-building, intention is more than just setting goals. It’s seamlessly executing and achieving them — and testing yourself in the process.

“Do the things that are going to test you in different ways, and that are going to stretch you so that you can become bigger, better and bolder at what you do,” advises Gadsden-Williams. Intellectual horsepower isn’t the be-all and end-all. Instead, Gadsden-Williams suggests focusing on the other attributes you bring to the table, and, above all else, “the foundation of success is around purpose,” she states. “Are you doing the things that you are uniquely positioned to do? If not, figure out what that is.”

Gadsden-Williams — who is the Managing Director & Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at BlackRock — shared more about finding your professional purpose as well as expertise from her own career in a recent keynote talk at the Fairygodboss Inspiration Summit

Here, we share abbreviated and lightly edited highlights from this inspirational talk. Read on to learn more! And you can watch the full discussion here.

Michelle, your new book is called Driven by Intention, in which you discuss intention and “Owning Your Purpose.” Can you talk to us more about that idea? 

When I think about purpose, it's really about doing the things that you are uniquely positioned to do. For me, that work is in diversity practice, and that's what I've been doing for the past 34 years. I would define finding your purpose and intentionality as really a choice with a commitment — it's understanding your why. It's the spark that ignites that fire within each of us

It’s not just having a goal or an aim and delivering on it, but to be planful and purposeful. So, when I think about purpose and intention, I ask: “What's my inner voice telling me to do? What is it guiding me to do differently or do better?” This really distinguishes those who seek out their goals from those who get stuck. 

It’s also important to me to leave workplaces in better condition than when I entered, while helping the next generation of leaders realize what's possible for them. My dad would often say that we are not here on this Earth to take up space or to occupy space. We're here to make a difference. And it's up to each of us to determine what that difference is. 

How can we navigate our careers to achieve our ambitions, while ensuring that we’re in touch with our intentions? 

You have to ask yourself the tough questions. What is it that you want out of your career and out of your life? Do a self-assessment of your strengths, determine where the opportunities are and what kinds of things you need to do in order to become bigger, better, bolder and faster at what you do. Understand what gives you fulfillment, too. And be very honest with yourself once you've answered those questions to make your goals happen in a purposeful way. 

In my case, I'm a change agent, I'm a disrupter, I'm a transformist and I’m a strategist. So, those are the things that I enjoy doing. And then, I zero in on what industry I want to work in, and what specific role is going to encompass all of those things. I think a lot of my success has had to do with being vocal about what it was that I wanted to do, and also being articulate and very direct about what it was that I did not want to do. I've had a meaningful career as a Chief Diversity Officer, and I love the work that I do every single day. 

Why did you decide to work at BlackRock?

I chose to join BlackRock in the fall of 2020 primarily because I was convinced that this is an organization that really wants to advance and become a leader in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) space. 

There are three things that I look for in my conversations with CEOs and other leaders when it comes to this work: the courage to act, the commitment to lead and the conviction to change. And, if any of those things are missing from that conversation, I tend to look elsewhere. But, based on my conversations with the leadership at BlackRock two years ago – and even more so now that I'm on the inside – I'm convinced that this is an organization that really wants to get it right.

How do you find the inspiration to continue to excel at your job? What keeps you going?

First, I love what I do. I've been doing the same type of work for 34 years in a number of different industries. My purpose and my intention around the work that I do are very much aligned, and all that I've ever wanted to do was to leave the places where I'm employed in better condition than when I entered, and also to enable individuals to realize what's possible for them. And I can say that I've done that in every place I've ever been, and that's what excites me every day. 

I'm also inspired by the people I work with: by my team and by the leadership in this organization. So, I find inspiration everywhere.

In your expert opinion, how do you expand DE&I to include people with disabilities? What does this mean to you, personally?

DE&I is a holistic strategy and approach that encompasses all dimensions of diversity, which also includes individuals with disabilities. Diversity is a broad spectrum of attributes that we all bring to the table.

Including disability in how we think about DE&I is important to me for a number of reasons, primarily because I manage two chronic illnesses every single day. I have systemic lupus erythematosus, and I also have rheumatoid arthritis. And those two autoimmune diseases impact how I show up in the world from time to time. I've been hospitalized as a result of the complexities of both of those illnesses in terms of my ability to function, walk and talk, and it impacts my memory occasionally.

Here at BlackRock, we partner very closely with Disability-In, which is one of our key partners. And we conduct a lot of Masterclasses and learning opportunities for our employees with disabilities like autism. Our Ability & Allies Network also provides a sense of community, advocacy and resources for our people.

If disability is not part of your corporation's agenda from a DE&I perspective, I would suggest that you raise that with your Chief Diversity Officer or your Chief Human Resources Officer to make sure that it becomes part of that conversation.

How do you overcome obstacles?

I think most of us have had some missteps that have happened over the years, and I typically look at these experiences as lessons learned. One of the things that I've said on a frequent basis is that I see the good in all things; every experience that I've had in my career has been a roadmap, which has allowed me to stretch, grow and learn in a lot of different ways. Every point of confusion has been a point of insight for me, every failure has been a step in the right direction.

So, I'd say, stay the course and forge ahead, but give yourself grace to get past that misstep or mistake. We all make them.

What’s your best advice for networking and building relationships?

One of the most profound books I've ever read is called The Personal Touch by Terry Williams. The book teaches you how to extend yourself in casual, informal ways in order to cultivate, maintain and sustain relationships.

And, when I meet people, I listen intently to what they're saying to me. I love stories, and I'm listening for that nugget of wisdom that person's going to share with me. I do that with every interaction, whether it's a stranger or a person that I've known for 30 years.

This cultivation of my network, my ecosystem as I call it, has served me incredibly well. I’ve embraced the things that I’m passionate about, and I’ve sought out experiences that have allowed me to get closer to my north star, to my dream. Each of us has a slice of genius that we can extend to someone else; find that slice of genius with the person who you’re interacting with.

If networking is something that you despise or don't like, I would challenge you to do the things that scare you. Walk up to someone and extend yourself, even if it's in a casual way to that individual. You never know who you're going to run into. 

How can we make time to advocate for each other and ensure that we’re lifting as we climb?

My indelible responsibility – our responsibility – is to ensure that we are lifting as we climb. It is our job to make sure that we champion, that we advocate, that we empower and that we encourage the next generation of leaders — especially women leaders — to realize what's possible for them. 

It's up to us to make sure that in these rooms, in these boardrooms and these spaces where we all are, that we’re allowing these women to have the space to speak up, that we allow their voices to be heard, that we recognize them in real time and that we demonstrate our support for them in public, at any given moment. These are some of the kinds of things that we need to do – and do so consistently. There's no rolling up of the drawbridge. As far as I'm concerned, it is our responsibility to ensure that another woman succeeds, and it is up to us to ensure that it happens in whatever way possible.

Fairygodboss is proud to partner with BlackRock. Find a job there today! And, if you’d like to discover more insights from the Fairygodboss Inspiration Summit, check out this article summarizing the event!

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