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Black History Month Spotlight: Dana LaRieal Morales

In honor of Black History Month, Waller sat down with some of our black staff, associates and partners to ask them about their experiences as black professionals.

We will be sharing these interviews throughout the month of February as a way to celebrate Black History Month and amplify the thoughts and voices of our black colleagues. Today, we highlight Enterprise Project Manager Dana LaRieal Morales.

Dana has been part of the Waller team for almost 20 years. She graduated from the University of Tennessee Knoxville before going on to get her master’s degree in Public Administration from Tennessee State University. She is also a mother, wife, and certified project manager.

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Describe your role, position, and responsibilities at Waller.

I manage large firm-wide administrative projects for the firm and I also manage external project managers and the information services project portfolio.

What made you choose your profession?

I didn’t come to my profession on a straight path. Like many, I thought I was going to become an attorney and work in the public sector.  I quickly realized that’s not where my passion was. I knew I wanted to be in the legal industry, but I wanted to work behind the scenes.  I quickly learned that organization and process development were/are my jam. I love being able to take someone from a place of confusion to a place of peacefulness and order through organization and clear processes, be that in their professional, business or personal life.  It feeds my soul to see how my understanding of process can make a difference and impact the lives of others in a positive way.

Tell us about your influences or the people who have made an impact on your life.

One was the late Mrs. Dorothy Starnes, she was a Partner at King & Ballow and my immediate boss at the time of my employment there.  She was focused, determined to be the best she could be, and she never beat around the bush. She taught me not to apologize for my strength nor to compromise my values for the comfort of others.  She took the time to mentor me and to celebrate my accomplishments as a young professional even when she didn’t have to.   She also showed me, by example and instruction, that it was possible to achieve your goals despite the barriers others may place before you. 

Additionally, although the focus of this interview is black history and influences, I will say there were a number of people of various races that made an impact and had major influences on my career.  I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention one of them, Ms. Deb Greening.  She was my project management mentor early in my career.  She really took me under her wing, and it’s not lost on me how that impacted my career and growth as a project manager.  If you ask her, she will say she didn’t do anything but I know differently.  It goes to show that you never know the impact you can have on the life of someone else.

How have your experiences influenced your career path?

An experience that impacted or influenced my decision/path is when I was able to take an attorney’s office, which was known for disorder (to the point that you had to enter their office sideways) from a mess to organized within a week.  This attorney had apparently worked this way for years.  After her office was organized, people in the firm started taking field trips to see the office.  Seeing the impact organization and developing processes had on her, the way people treated her, and her quality of work really showed me my real purpose. I realized then that organization and process had a major impact on people’s lives and was needed not only in corporate America but also in the lives of those who work in it.

How has your career grown since starting at Waller? 

Wow!  I mean I’ve literally spent half my life at Waller and I wouldn’t change it for the world.  Waller is a great place to work and grow as a professional because there are so many opportunities to contribute to the day-to-day activities of the Firm.  I started at Waller as a Legal Assistant in the Tax Department because of my tax background.  I didn’t feel challenged in this role so a year later I became a Help Desk Coordinator.  This allowed me to put my process and organizational skills to work to improve functionality at the help desk and within a year, I moved to Help Desk Manager. While in this role I was asked to manage the training program as well.  The training program was eventually moved into its own department and I transitioned to the role of Project Manager.  I obtained my certification and began developing our project program. I now manage enterprise-level projects, external project managers and our IS project portfolio.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Often times when we (all people) think of black history we only think about slavery or MLK.  Black history, however, goes so much deeper than that and I feel that Black History Month gives everyone time to learn what they may not have known before.  Speaking personally, it’s a time when I can learn and celebrate those fabulous American’s that have come before me, especially those we don’t often hear about, because truth be told I am still learning black history that I was never taught.  I’m excited to see what this year’s Black History Month reveals to me and those who take the time to learn.

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Who is an influential black figure in your life and why (could be a family member, colleague, historical figure, anyone!...)?  

Oh gosh, my parents, Henry Clarence Wilson, Sr. and Sarah Wilson, would have to be #1. My parents gave me, my siblings, extended family and all of our friends and co-workers unconditional love and guidance.  If you were in their children’s lives the door was open to you.  They spread their knowledge and lessons learned with any and every one that came around them and because of that, they have impacted not only my life but the lives of countless others.  They also showed me by example what focus and determination can achieve.  I owe a lot of who I am to them.  I don’t think I would be the project manager and coach I am today without their influence.

Michelle Obama would be the most influential historical person for me.  Yes, she was our First Lady, but it wasn’t really about that for me.  It was about the poise she had despite the way she was treated. To see her breaking the rules of what people expected because it was the right thing to do…to see how she lifted others up whenever she could from choosing to wear clothes from up and coming clothing designers, to planting a garden on the white house grounds, to just being approachable (well as approachable as one can be as First Lady).  Although she is no longer in the White House, she is still impacting the community and the world in a positive way. 

Oh, and I have to mention Ms. Phylicia Rashad.  I mean, come on, Claire Huxtable was everyone’s T.V. mom!  I mean seriously…the way she carried herself, the way she kept that family in line and the way she commanded respect.  That was when I first thought of becoming an attorney.  Not to mention the way she continues to carry herself in everything she does from acting to singing to directing. To me, she embodies black excellence.

To round this out, there were a lot of unintentionally influential people around me and each touched me in a unique way. From Mrs. Sander’s, my high school English teacher who taught to be on time was to be late and to be early was to be on time and assured us all we were destined for something great,  to Ms. Hood and the late Mr. Webb, the John Overton High School Marching Band directors who had a way of guiding young people to take pride in the art of marching on a field while introducing people to art.  To my guard director, Bo Brown, who commanded excellence without even really knowing it and instilled in me a sense of belonging.  To my Inroads coaches and mentors, who conducted countless mock interviews which helped me address my shyness by showing me what I looked like when I didn’t look people in the eye.  To Judge B who while in a college class saw greatness in me and asked me to work for him in court during the summer. And to countless other people that it would take me way too long to name.  Not all of the people were people of color, but they left an imprint on my life that made me into the person I am today.

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Describe a challenge you’ve faced (at Waller or elsewhere) as a black professional and how you overcame or dealt with it. What advice do you have to young black professionals beginning their professional journey? What do you wish you had known?

People of color, especially black women, are often accused of being harsh, demanding and mean. When you receive a comment that eludes to that it really is like a punch to the gut.  That’s exactly what happened one year on one of my annual reviews.  Now mind you, up until this point, I had never had a bad review in my life and honestly, this was the only one I’ve ever received.  There have always been notes of ways I can improve, but never negative comments about me or my work ethic.  Having someone take the time out to write what was said about me was shocking and honestly really hurt considering I pride myself on being a team player and always looking to help others. 

My boss advised me not to worry about the comment because the person obviously didn’t know me or regularly work with me. He assured me that he did not agree with it, but it was still hard to take.  I decided to confide in a peer who I knew would be straight with me and asked if he thought that was a true depiction of me.  He advised that he can see where someone who didn’t know me may think that I was harsh or demanding, but it’s just that I am direct and expect everyone to be professional when it’s time to work. Not everyone can handle that. 

I took some time to really marinate on not only the comments, but also how I wanted to portray myself to others. This soul searching lead me to make two key changes.

The first was to begin prefacing direct statements with, “I don’t know how else to say this so I’m just going to be direct” because that’s exactly how I felt.  Apparently, when you let people know ahead of time that you are being direct, it shifts their thinking and comes across less harshly.  I also began to guide people to understand what I wanted to be known for, not only through my actions, but by the information I share.  Doing this completely changed my life because it reaffirmed that I had the power to control the narrative and that someone else’s assumption about me was not my reality. 

I am happy to say the changes worked and I now teach the concept of “dropping seeds of knowledge” and share my take on emotional intelligence with others during speaking engagements.  To hear the impact that my stories have had on others is beyond amazing.  Honestly, without that negative comment on my review, I don’t think I would have gone on this self-discovery journey nor started teaching and sharing my advice.  

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So, my advice to young professionals is to first do some soul searching to identify what you want.  How do you want to live your life? If you died tomorrow, what would you want your legacy to be?  Work on building that.  Set goals for yourself based on what you want, not what is expected of you. Remove the things and actions that are no longer serving you from your life and focus on things that do. Your time is too valuable to waste. We all get one life and you have the power to control yours. 

I also encourage you to not always see the negative in a situation.  As hard as it is, try to find the lesson in both the good and the bad things. Try to determine what lead to that moment.  Honestly ask yourself: could you have done anything differently or could anything that influenced this situation have been misconstrued?  Don’t just make assumptions or take things at face value. There are often other factors at play.

Finally, even if the situation is just as you believed it to be, ask yourself what the lesson is because there is always a lesson in everything, you just have to look for it and learn to ask questions.

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