Three Simple Steps To The Top

A superachiever's guideposts to success

Call her Pamela Thomas-Graham the First. She was the first graduate of Detroit's Lutheran High School West to go to Harvard University, where she earned undergraduate, law, and MBA degrees. She became the first African-American woman--at age 32 in 1995--to make partner at McKinsey & Co., the prestigious management consulting firm. And now, as an executive vice-president of NBC, and president and CEO of, she is the highest-ranking woman executive running a division at NBC.

Superachievers such as Thomas-Graham can teach by example. So we asked her to explain what wisdom she has gained that might help others build successful careers. In other words, what guiding principles were behind her rise to the top? She had three, and described how she has applied them in her own working life:

AIM HIGH: This was a parental value Thomas-Graham took to heart. Her mother was a social worker and her father worked in real estate. But both derived inspiration from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and they had high aspirations for their daughter. As a result, Thomas-Graham wasn't daunted when her high school guidance counselor tried to talk her out of applying to Harvard. "I learned from my parents to set very high standards," Thomas-Graham says. "If you have to be the first, be the first, and take it as a challenge, not something to discourage you."

FIND MENTORS: Thomas-Graham has been cultivating mentor relationships since college. "You can't have a successful career without several mentors who each have different skills," she says. For example, she has had a mentor to coach her in public speaking, and one to help her weigh her early career opportunities. "Find people who share common interests with you," says Thomas-Graham, who has mentors from college, graduate school, and McKinsey. It's best to let a relationship evolve rather than to ask someone to be your mentor. "That implies a one-way relationship, when it really benefits both people," she says.

It was one of these mentors who helped her land her current job. After Thomas-Graham put out the word in the spring of 1999 that she was ready to leave McKinsey, the mentor arranged for her to meet General Electric Chairman Jack Welch. At McKinsey, Thomas-Graham was a partner in the retail and media practice, helping clients build Internet businesses. So GE, which owns NBC and, was a logical place for her to seek a job. As luck would have it, Welch wanted to transform from a promotional tool for the CNBC cable channel to a full-service financial site. He and Thomas-Graham liked each other, and a few months later, she accepted his offer to head the site. Thomas-Graham relished the opportunity to be at the helm of a business in an exciting, new industry.

MAINTAIN BALANCE: It's hard to imagine Thomas-Graham has time or energy for anything but work. But she sits on several boards, including the Inner-City Scholarship Fund. She also writes murder mysteries, getting up at 4:30 a.m. each morning to pound at the computer. "I find writing very cathartic," says Thomas-Graham, who expects Simon & Schuster to publish her third novel, Burnt Orange, next year.

She spends her evenings with her 2-year-old son, Gordon, and husband, Lawrence Otis Graham, a writer and attorney who is running for Congress from Westchester County in New York. "If you're too single-minded about your career, you're at risk for burnout," Thomas-Graham says. By adhering to her principles, she keeps the flame burning professionally and personally.

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