View From the Top: The GIA’s Donna Baker

GIA’s Donna Baker has the discipline to get things done

In November 2006, Donna M. Baker, a former high school teacher from Detroit, became the fifth person—and the first woman—to lead the Gemological Institute of America in its then–75-year history. Her career path was circuitous, to say the least: Baker spent 10 years as a Roman Catholic nun, ran a homeless shelter, and earned degrees in law and business from UCLA before being recruited in 2001 to serve as GIA’s first in-house lawyer. As the institute prepares to celebrate its 80th anniversary—headlined by Symposium 2011, May 29–30, on the GIA campus in Carlsbad, Calif.—Baker spoke to JCK about the importance of maintaining a global outlook, the challenges of leading her 1,500-person-strong organization through the financial crisis, and why she’s always invoking the spirit of Richard T. Liddicoat (a.k.a. RTL, the legendary gemologist who developed the international diamond grading system).

What leadership lessons did you draw upon when you became president?
Whenever there’s a question, [I ask myself], What will enhance the ­public trust in gems and jewelry? Our ultimate constituent is the public. So ­whatever decision I need to make, I keep going back to, What is true to the mission? What gets us off base from the mission? And then I do whatever I possibly can to get us back to that.

Can you think of a specific time when you had to do that?
The core [of our mission] is honoring the standard that was developed by Mr. Liddicoat and Mr. [G. Robert] Crowningshield. It’s a global standard. And if GIA doesn’t continue to enhance that standard, promulgate it, it can be regionalized and fractionalized. GIA had expanded its education globally, but we hadn’t done that with laboratory services. People sent stones to us domestically. In my view, we needed to expand our laboratory services so we could better serve all the public, whether it’s the U.S. public, the Indian public, or the African public. We needed a lab in Mumbai, for instance, so manufacturers could cut down shipping costs and turnaround times. To me, that was the imperative.

How would you describe your hiring philosophy?
First and foremost, we look for integrity and cultural fit, a strong sense of professionalism, and teamwork. I look for people who get the sense that we’ve been entrusted with a legacy and an incredible responsibility in carrying that legacy forward. But also people who don’t get stuck in the past. You honor the past as a basis for going forward into the future. And that future vision is what’s critical.

How do you motivate your employees?
When we were going through all the challenges, I had regular meetings with all our employees, especially our domestic employees, who were the hardest hit, to let them know what our plans were to deal with the challenges. If you see how your job fits into the mission and the overall strategic plan, that’s motivating. It just takes a lot of time. Saying it once, letting them trust it, and saying it again.

How have you developed your ideas about leadership?
I find myself saying, What would RTL do? When I first started, he took me to lunch. I was the first in-house lawyer, and he wanted to see if I understood what was being entrusted to me. So we kept the office as is. It’s not so much the office that’s important—it’s what it symbolizes. So, yeah—what would RTL do?

Are there any leadership books you’d recommend?
Two books I have read a gazillion times are Confronting Reality by Larry Bossidy and Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. A third one I have enjoyed: Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? by Louis Gerstner.

What do you consider your greatest adversity, and how did you deal with it?
At the beginning of the Great Recession, one of our governors said to me, “What has prepared you to guide GIA through this?” And I said, “Well, I was a nun. I can pray.” [Laughs]

Do you draw on that life experience often?
Different life choices, I think, reflect values. And I think the values are the integrity, the desire to serve, and the desire to make the world a better place. GIA is a nonprofit, it’s a public service company, and it has those values. You know, I did a lot of social work when I was teaching and there are a lot of parallels there.… But I haven’t smacked anybody on the knuckles with a ruler. [Laughs]

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