The Power of Connection
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
Louise Barden moved to Memphis from North Carolina in 1988, shortly after graduating from Florida State University. Her father had taken a job at FedEx, so the Bluff City quickly became home to a woman who had spent her youth bouncing around the country in a military family. Twenty years later, well into a rising career with First Tennessee Bank, Barden learned how quickly the business world could be turned upside down.
“I became a severe workaholic [in 2008],” says Barden, interviewed in her 10th-floor office in the First Tennessee building downtown. Upon being named executive vice president for corporate banking, Barden was greeted by the most dramatic economic crisis in generations. “We were understaffed. There was a lot of credit deterioration and a lot of pressure from the regulators to clean things up.
“[The financial meltdown] made me more patient, but also more cautious in some regards,” Barden says. “Our job is risk mitigation, so it has certainly enlightened me to the extraordinary number of risks that are out there. We tended to think of performance deterioration as being 10 to 15 percent. Most companies we deal with hadn’t dealt with severe revenue reductions. But during the late-2008 and 2009 period, we saw really good customers with 25 to 40 percent losses in top-line revenue.
“Fortunately, most of our clients have taken really hard steps and cut expenses,” Barden continues. “Most are on stable footing now.”
Barden oversees a division with 28 employees, one responsible for managing a portfolio of more than $2 billion, with more than $65 million in annual revenue. Leadership is at a distinct premium in this new economic world, where risk has been redefined and credit much more a privilege than a right. Barden describes herself as an analytical leader (in contrast to some of the social leaders she teamed with for Leadership Memphis). When she reflects on her eight months in the Leadership Memphis program, the word that keeps coming up is connectivity.
“I was in a group made up largely of people new to Memphis,” says Barden. “They were all established leaders, but from entirely different disciplines. I spend most of my time in the business world, with other bankers and CFOs. My class was at least 75 percent nonprofit executives. Some of them were corporate oriented, but everybody had a chance to see how much all these agencies are doing for the city, and how important it is to help each other. Even though I’ve been here 20 years, there were places we visited that were new to me.” (Each Leadership Memphis meeting takes place at a unique venue, pertinent to that day’s topic of discussion.)
As she met and got to know her LM classmates, Barden found herself gaining more from those around her than from any self-reflection the program offered. “It wasn’t so much about developing yourself as a leader,” she says. “It was about bringing your leadership skills to a new level for the Memphis community. Think about your leadership skills beyond your micro world. All of us, as individuals, need to get out and use our leadership skills to embrace the community. It’s that connectivity between different groups.”
Barden mentions a familiar philosophical irony to the way Memphians view their city, one that can often be measured on a negative/positive scale based on the length of time spent here. “The goal of Leadership Memphis is to build up the city,” says Barden, “and build up the city by building up neighborhoods and communities. And the main thing that came out of the class discussion was that folks who have been here a long time tend to think negatively about the city. But most of the new folks had a different impression. They were positive and readily able to call out the things that are good about the city. A resolution the class made is that we have to be the people who speak positively about Memphis.”
Among the topics Barden’s class covered was education in Memphis, with two full days devoted to an area that has burdened city leaders for decades. Speakers included the superintendents for Memphis City and Shelby County Schools. “We have a couple of severe problems,” notes Barden. “Our education level is not where we need it to be. And we have too high a poverty level. They go together. Everyone has to contribute to those needs. The city has to support those [impoverished] communities. This isn’t a new idea. It’s perhaps one that’s undersold, how much work and effort is going into this. Our group generally felt that the media is fairly negative in its portrayal. When people came to talk with us about the school consolidation, there was a lot of positive there.”
How exactly does a group of established leaders — with a variety of credentials — tackle a problem as profound as poverty (and its impact on education)? “Everyone can do something, no matter how little,” says Barden. “Participating where you can, supporting your schools, supporting your neighborhood. Our group was connected to the Binghamton neighborhood. Just going to Binghamton and using the restaurants, for instance, can help lift a community.”
Barden chuckles when she reflects on one exercise that led to gifts her class donated to a community. She’s been sworn to secrecy on the details, but let’s just say her team did some “building” beyond metaphorical terms. Brainpower goes a long way, but there comes a time for hands-on action. All a part of modern leadership, the Louise Barden way.
This is the third in our series on graduates of Leadership Memphis and the Leadership Academy. For more information, visit leadershipmemphis.org.