Donna James on navigating her way to the top of the corporate world: 'Assume innocence but don't act innocent'

Chloe Teasley
Donna James, managing director, Lardon & Associates

Donna James, the managing director at her company Lardon & Associates, oversees the business advisory services firm. During her career, she was appointed by former President Barack Obama to chair the National Women’s Business Council, was awarded three honorary doctorates and mentored many professionals. Rewind and replay, and there are situations over the years where her conduct was the only thing she could control in the midst of ignorance, and sometimes harassment, directed at her as an African American woman—from both men and women. She has come away with a graceful attitude regarding these experiences and people.

Once, James was asked by a woman coworker who honestly wanted to know if what she grew up believing was true—did James have a tail? “She was innocent,” James says. “And she was ignorant. And I could have gotten angry with her but it wasn’t her. It was what someone had taught her and what she had been allowed to not know for a long time.”

Another time, a male colleague told her he and some other peers were questioning whether she had risen to her position within the company “because you have talent and purpose, or because you’re a black female, and the ‘favorite daughter’ of the CEO.

“I had all of these emotions ranging from shock, fear, anger, disappointment. Oh my gosh—here this guy has just disclosed to me the thing people who look like me think is going on. And he just acknowledged it.” She says she got quiet and thought of what to say. In the end, she asked him to let her know if she was ever conducting herself in a way that communicated that. Then she said, “But if that’s all it takes to get to this level, black female favoritism, then why don’t you see more people who look like me at this level?”

James also has experienced her fair share of come-ons during different points in her career. She says alcohol is often a factor in these encounters—an important thing to remember. One time a tipsy colleague told her he liked his coffee like his women, black and hot. She realized he’d gotten too comfortable because of the alcohol he drank and the situation they were in, which was lighthearted and joke-filled. She told his boss the next day. Another time, an alcohol-fueled man, a peer of James’ boss at the time, kept touching James’ leg at a dinner party. Despite her repeated requests for him to stop, he persisted, so she warned him strongly, “If you touch me one more time, I will stab you with this fork. And he looked at me and he laughed, and everybody at the table could hear and they got real quiet,” she says. “And he just laughed it off. He did not touch me again.” James realizes the words were strong. The man wasn’t listening.

“You have to set boundaries. You have to understand when people have crossed your boundaries. I try to be thoughtful about where they’re coming from and handle it accordingly. But [also] keep myself safe and keep my dignity intact.”

For all the unfortunate experiences she’s had, there are just as many good ones. Once, several months into a new gig, a boss called James into his office just to ask how things were going for her in a new place where she was the only woman of color in her role. Another time, she was approached about a job. She went through the interview process not totally sure she wanted it, but somewhat certain she’d get it. She wasn’t chosen, which confused her. The interviewer contacted her to explain. “He said, ‘I bet you’re wondering, why would I ask you to apply for a job and then you not get the job,’ ’’ James explains. “He said, ‘You’re very talented. You’ve got a long career ahead of you. My belief is if I put you in this job now, you would get pigeonholed. And I don’t want that for you.’ Wow, he was right. Yeah, that was super cool.”

Her best advice for women in careers is to “assume innocence, but don’t act innocent.” To respond to the behavior in question, let the person know it was uncomfortable or inappropriate. “But be clear about why it makes you uncomfortable,” she says. “Because I think sometimes we might perceive that people are being discriminatory. And they may just not know or not understand that. We don’t know how they’re raised, and you’re not trying to make excuses for them, but you have to let them know.”

Lastly, tell someone. 

“You can’t fix people. Fix policy, fix circumstances, and then maybe the people will get it and align themselves in a healthier way in terms of their behaviors,” she says. “It’s always important to make sure someone else knows so that you [can figure out]: Do these things have to change or am I being too sensitive?”

Chloe Teasley is staff writer for Columbus CEO.

Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter and stay up to date with the region’s movers and shakers, top employers, philanthropic causes, real estate developments and thriving creative and startup scenes. Plus – be the first to hear about our awards programs and get exclusive invitations to our events.  

Age: 62

Position: Managing director/owner, Lardon & Associates

In position since: April 2006

Previous roles: President, Nationwide Strategic Investments; previous roles as executive vice president and chief administrative officer; senior vice president of human resources; vice president of office of the chairman and CEO; director of operations, tax sheltered products; senior auditor

Education: B.S. accounting, North Carolina A&T State University; Certified Public Accountant (non-practicing); prior Series 6 and 26 securities licenses (no longer active

Community involvement: Co-founder, Center for Healthy Families; trustee, OhioHealth; co-executive director, African American Leadership Academy; former trustee, North Carolina A&T State University; former co-chair, CelebrateOne

Personal: Loves living Downtown and having meaningful discussions and dinners with her husband, Larry. 

Donna James