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One Scholar Practitioner with a Side of Super Fun

By Dana Johnson

The high school senior superlatives that try to tell the future may not always come to be. But whatever qualities others saw in the adolescent Dr. Tiffany Dotson were clearly correct. Voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” Dr. Dotson, now at the young age of 43, has already spent decades, over 24 years to be exact, working—and succeeding—in growing leaders.

Dr. Dotson, Vice President Global Leadership Learning and Talent at Liberty Mutual, helps all seven thousand managers across the organization, from the front line to senior executives, “Be more confident, more capable, and more competent.” This role condenses down to providing all leaders a learning and development curriculum. The numerous tools available to managers are made up of a hybrid of in-house and curated modalities—from leadership assessments to one-on-one coaching and from simulations to virtual microlearning available at the ready. Some managers are identified and placed on special tracks: accelerated development for those who want to climb the ranks at a faster pace and faculty development for those perfecting their facilitation skills for the various learning programs and initiatives at Liberty Mutual.

I was born to do this. I don’t know how to do anything else but grow leaders.

The daunting task would seem impossible to manage, but Dr. Dotson, supported by a full learning development team, is beyond qualified. “I was born to do this. I don’t know how to do anything else but grow leaders.”

Dr. Dotson, often described as “positive” and “sparkly” by colleagues and reports, has been on track to fill this Liberty Mutual role since her days as a serious and focused latch-key kid who spent a couple of hours reading—history and self-improvement books being her favorites—until her two older sisters came home from high school each day. Mentored by her beloved books, Dr. Dotson began down a path of curiosity and interest that laid the foundation for her grounded but open and perhaps unconventional worldview. Still, no shrinking violet, a duality was apparent early as she was also encouraged by an eighth-grade teacher to discover and develop her love of public performance as she participated in cheerleading, debate, and dance. “I never had a fear of public performance, and she helped activate that in me. I became comfortable in front of people in many different capacities.”

Dr. Dotson credits two families—both her own and the Huxtables—for establishing her incredibly strong work ethic and for opening her eyes to possibility. “My family upbringing taught me a lot. Everybody in my family worked all the time. They taught me that my life is my responsibility. The greatest gift I got from them is this notion of self-sufficiency and independence.” Although she has lived away from her family for many years, they reach out to one another, often daily. Through the years, their gems of support and acceptance have served Dr. Dotson well. She learned early from them to go full throttle after her dreams and to be authentic, even if her true self happened to be different than most.

Attending Chicago’s Jones College Prep High School, a business-focused school then known as Jones Commercial, Dr. Dotson went to school part-time and went to work part-time as a receptionist. Although she fully intended to go away to college, a workplace offer of full tuition and expenses paid at Northeastern Illinois University was impossible to turn down, so she remained in Chicago, taking on a full-time position in human resources with her employer on top of beginning her undergraduate career.

Restricted to the twenty-four hours the heavens dictate, the young Tiffany didn’t have a lot of time for extracurriculars between class and work. “I was too responsible. I didn’t have a lot of fun in college, I was so serious.” She did make the commitment to pledge the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, which she values tremendously. Unlike the steadiness of sisterhood, Tiffany’s studies evolved over time with the same intensity of self-evolution that showed itself at a young age. Tiffany began as a journalism major with the ultimate goal of becoming a news anchor, but after learning that she’d have to put in years and years as a reporter first, she switched to philosophy—the study of the concepts of logic, beauty, knowledge, and morals.

But a sudden and dramatic shift came from nowhere her sophomore year when a sociology class plunged her into a deep dive into leadership with Adolf Hitler. The assignment was for students to choose a leader in history that they disagreed vehemently with. The twist came when the students were next assigned to write a paper showing the effectiveness of their leadership, whether the leaders’ actions were perceived as right or wrong. “I had a hard time arguing—in the space of leadership—that what he did was ineffective. It was useful to study him because he was very effective at inspiring an organization . . . He put up a compelling vision, got people to rally behind it, got people to execute flawlessly. I became fascinated.”

I’m really attuned to people who are curious, and when they are curious, I tap into that,...

She immediately decided to study the psychology of leadership and management to help people to not be seduced by charismatic leaders or swayed by propaganda, to help people “learn how to think better, make better decisions [for themselves].”

So between working in human resources and majoring in human resources development, Tiffany became all about the business of people and what makes them tick. Her depth and breadth of knowledge of leadership only deepened and grew broader at Columbia University, where the intellect garnered a master’s degree and later a doctorate, both in Adult Learning and Leadership. There, she thrived in an environment where she was attracted to and very interested in others who were also inquisitive about the world. Dr. Dotson is attracted to the same kind of people now. In fact, like most true educators, that’s how she spots the leaders today.

“I’m really attuned to people who are curious, and when they are curious, I tap into that . . . . I stalk leaders out. It’s the people who challenge the status quo . . . but mostly they’re thinkers. They’re not people who come with all the answers but people who come with the questions.” One prong of Dr. Dotson’s mission is to help people break away from conventional thinking and conventional ways of knowing. She believes wholeheartedly that education is done to the student and becoming learned is done by the student.

“If you want to be educated, you can go to the confines of our institutions and get educated. That’s great. I did it. But it’s not enough. If you’re going to learn, you’ve got to go and get that for yourself.” Those managers that fall under her realm of responsibility see her live these words with authenticity in the work that she does at Liberty Mutual.

And those who have been fortunate enough to work with her come to recognize very quickly that Dr. Dotson not only brings incredible value to the table, especially around very intellectual topics such as neuroscience, she can also grace a room with her sparkle. She is often told by co-workers that her presence brings good energy, positivity, and a genuine and attentive sense of caring. It seems that even an intense thinker and doer as she, a self-described “scholar practitioner,” can be appreciated for being “super fun.”

But Dr. Dotson has not found her career path to be without challenges. Often the only woman of color in a leadership role at executive meetings, the words shared carrying her ideas and perspectives have at times fallen on deaf ears. She has also had managers that have tried to suppress her intellect, giving orders and not allowing her to come up with solutions on her own.

Still, she has overcome with self-confidence and competency, never feeling like she has to prove a thing. “I’ve just showed up and showed out. They’ve come to their own conclusions.” Dr. Dotson has clearly done the work to be the leadership guru that she is today, but she also acknowledges that the power of diversity and inclusion has benefited her. She believes that companies should welcome differences to create an environment where all people can thrive and succeed. This requires companies to demonstrate cultural dexterity—the ability to understand one’s own culture and upbringing while also understanding the culture of others—and an inclusive environment. Only then will companies foster employment engagement, innovation, and enhanced business results.

“For companies to succeed in today’s global marketplace, they must attract and retain talent of all backgrounds and experiences. They must have in place teams who reflect the diversity of their clients, customers, and the communities they serve.” Dr. Dotson feels well placed and well utilized at Liberty Mutual because of the company’s beliefs around diversity and inclusion. There, employees are encouraged to serve customers, the community, and the company through a lens of diversity and inclusion.

She believes there is talent across all peoples, and as an authority in the field of adult learning and leadership, with years of both theoretical and practical experience in her cache of knowledge, if anyone should be able to make that statement, it would be Dr. Dotson. In fact, it would be wise for all to heed her broad perspective on what leadership is, who wields it, and how powerful it can be in the lives of others.

“To me, leadership is influence. Not only does everyone, from my perspective, have the potential to lead, but everyone is leading right now. In every interaction you have, you’re influencing someone to be bigger or smaller than they are right now.”

Dr. Tiffany Dotson is a participating LEAD360 Think Tank leader. The mission undertaken by the approximately two dozen participants is to understand and propose actionable solutions to challenges affecting black leadership. We thank Dr. Dotson for her time, energy, and insight.

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