Diahann Billings-Burford

Interview:
Diahann Billings-Burford

Chief Service Officer, NYC Service

Named New York City’s first Chief Service Officer, Diahann is responsible for leading NYC Service, a city-wide initiative to promote volunteerism. Through her dedication Diahann leads NYC Service to set a new standard for how cities can tap the power of their people to tackle most pressing challenges. NYC Service is comprised of 25 diverse READ MORE »

  • ON Journey

    Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.

    A: My professional journey began with addressing a personal passion: equality of educational opportunity. Because I have benefited from a person who worked tirelessly to ensure educational opportunity for so many in New York City and was privileged by a strong education, I have been able to build a life that I think has great value and is full of options. I firmly believe others deserve to have the same access to education and opportunity and I have used my career to work towards this vision.

    After graduating college, I began my career as a teacher and soon transitioned to a role as College Guidance Counselor at Prep for Prep, a leadership development program that offers promising students of color access to a private school education and life-changing opportunities. After completing law school, I spent some time as a corporate attorney but I eventually found my way back to the nonprofit sector as the Director of External Relations at Achievement First, a network of public charter schools focused on closing the achievement gap. I then moved on to City Year New York where I spent several years as the Deputy Executive Director of External Affairs before being appointed Chief Service Officer for the Mayor’s Office in New York City.

  • ON Leadership

    Q: What are 3 characteristics that you believe define great leadership?

    A: Courage is an essential characteristic of a great leader. Often times, leaders are responsible for making difficult decisions and they must have the courage to do so despite possible resistance. Working with Mayor Bloomberg, I have been able to see someone lead in such a courageous manner. He assesses a situation and reaches a conclusion based on his analysis of the facts. Not everyone always agrees with his conclusions, but he has the courage to follow through on his convictions. He encourages this type of courage within his staff as well. In my current position, I have had to make smart and sometimes difficult decisions.

    Vision is also critical for effective leadership; there is no leadership without vision. Leaders are responsible for charting the course of a project and for their team. A great leader also has the ability to foresee challenges and trouble shoot to move the rocks that may appear in the road.

    Finally, I think intelligence defines a great leader. Passion is important and should not be discounted, but leadership is complex. Those who cannot navigate these complexities are either ineffective as leaders in either the short run or long run; the latter being more detrimental because usually it means that resources have been misused under misdirected guidance and weak leadership.

  • ON Vision

    Q: I love the quote “the bigger the vision, the smaller the first step.” Right now, what is the big vision you have for your career?

    A: I see myself continuing to work in a capacity where I get to push the envelope and challenge the status quo on how we address societal needs. As social innovators, we should continually analyze what the most severe needs in society are and how we are working to impact them.  I see myself always being in the business of improving society. Admittedly, this is about as big and broad as visions come.

  • ON Networking

    Q: Can you share a story of how networking led to a great success?

    A: While I was at a dinner to celebrate the birthday of one of my mentors, I was talking to several of the guests about my career aspirations and what I loved about my job at the time. As a result of these conversations, I was led back into the national service world and found my position as the Deputy Executive Director of City Year New York and indirectly to my current role.

  • ON Transitions

    Q: I don’t feel like this topic is talk about enough in business news. Professionals get laid off, fired, resign or change careers all the time—which can obviously be a difficult transition at first. What was the hardest career transition in your life and how did you grow from it?

    A: Choosing to leave the law firm was a difficult decision for me. Not only was I leaving a field that I had studied and practiced, but I was also leaving behind a very comfortable salary. Once I reminded myself why I studied law and reconnected to my passions, the departure seemed like the right choice and it was easier to move on to the next stage of my career.

  • ON Mentoring

    Q: Who has been your greatest mentor(s)?

    A: My mother taught me to work for what I love. Her lesson has guided me in all my decisions and she stands out as one of the most influential mentors I’ve been lucky enough to have.

    Garry Simons, the founder of Prep for Prep, has also been a significant mentor throughout my career. As Robert Kennedy said, “I dream things that never were and ask why not.”  With an equal enthusiasm for embracing innovation, Gary’s vision for educational equality and closing the achievement gap has been inspirational and it has had a phenomenal impact on our society in New York City and beyond.

  • ON Mentoring

    Q: Do you (formally or informally) mentor anyone? If so, who and why is it rewarding?

    A: I mentor those around me informally. I always envision a better world, and I know it will take an army of likeminded people to make an impact. I strive to support people around me who demonstrate an interest in improving the world around them. Whether by providing advice, connections, introductions, feedback, or encouragement, I enjoy helping a diverse group of people to make social change.

  • ON Happiness

    Q: What are you most passionate about and how do you incorporate it into your career or everyday life?

    A: I am most passionate about promoting educational opportunity and engaging citizens to create solutions to real problems. In addition to using these passions as a guide for my career, I volunteered my time with several organizations that are making important progress in educational equality and civic engagement.

    I have served on the board of AF East New York for 5 years and I currently sit on the Children’s Aid Society Charter School founding board. I’m also passionate about engaging New Yorker projects that encourage the city’s people to become invested in a better City. People’s vested interest in improving our communities is one of the best ways to ensure the health of our society.

  • ON Self Care

    Q: Online calendars, emailing ourselves, post-it notes… I’m still struggling to find the best way to manage my times and to list. What is your method?

    A: I email myself a To Do list almost every day and I just reply to add things to the list. It’s an easy way to keep a running list in one place. This has been especially helpful as I 1) get older and 2) increase my purview.  I find it harder to remember so many things. It may be a primitive way of keeping track but I find it very effective. Also, I’m honest with myself and accept which organizational skills I have mastered and which I have not. I’m always open to advice on the latter!

  • ON Giving Back

    Q: What cause(s) have you chosen to support and why does it resonate with you?

    A: In addition to the boards I serve on (AF East New York and Children’s Aid Society Charter School), I give annually to Prep for Prep and my church. These two institutions have played important roles in my life and it is important to me to give back.

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