2019 WISE Women of Distinction honoree Michele A. Roberts is the first woman to head a major professional sports union in North America and serves as the primary advocate for all players in the National Basketball Players Association. Here, the executive director talks about establishing herself in the courtroom and the importance of earning respect.
Who has been the most influential person in your career and why?
While there have been a number of people who have had a significant impact on my professional development, if I have to identify the “most influential,” that’d be my mom, Elsie Clara Roberts. Without her support, encouragement and confidence in me, I would never have dared dream I could achieve anything short of mere survival in this world — if that.
Describe a moment in your career you consider pivotal to your professional journey.
It occurred very early in my career as a public defender. I was representing a juvenile in connection with a criminal charge at a “bail” hearing. The judge was someone who I had previously been warned was a dyed-in-the-wool racist. True to form, he was humiliating me in open court in the presence of my client. I stood there virtually frozen. When the hearing concluded and I watched my young client being led back into the holding cell, his release having been denied, I felt like I had just emerged from a fog. All that I could remember was that I was consumed by the way the judge was treating me rather than what was being done to my client. At that moment, I vowed I would not allow anyone’s ignorance, judge or otherwise, to distract me from doing my job and doing my job exceptionally well. That posture best served my clients and demonstrated the ignorance of the people seeking to belittle me.
Thinking back over your career, how has your leadership and management style evolved?
As a public defender, a lawyer never chosen by her clients and assigned to represent folks who were immediately suspicious of my talents, I learned the necessity of having to earn respect. As a manager, I allow and encourage members of my staff to demonstrate their ability to grow their positions and earn increased responsibility.
Where do you draw inspiration from to keep your ideas and contributions fresh and relevant?
I interact and listen to my juniors — both in person and via social media. My principal source of inspiration comes from my faith in God.
What advice would you give women who are looking to succeed in the business of sports?
Reject the notion that being a woman is a burden. It is a blessing.
Fill in the blank …
I wish I had known … that life truly comes in stages.
Growing up, I wanted to be … the best damned trial lawyer on the planet.
I can’t live without my … family, both human and feline.
On the weekend, you can find me … in the gym preparing for an afternoon of TV binge-watching.
My biggest pet peeve is … dishonesty.
Roberts will receive her WISE Women of Distinction Award at the 25th Annual WISE Women of the Year Awards Luncheon on June 19 in New York City.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.