5min readPeople 15 May 2019
You may recognize Judge, Tanya Acker, from her political and legal commentary on different networks and shows like Good Morning America, The Talk, Wendy Williams, CNN Reports or The Insider. Acker is more than an experienced commentator. She is also a Judge on the fifth season of Emmy nominated CBS show, Hot Bench.
The show, created by Judge Judy, is a new take on the court genre. Alongside Acker, are two other judges: Patricia DiMango and Michael Corriero. Together the three-panel judges take viewers inside the courtroom and into their chambers. “I feel like my responsibility on the show is, to be honest, fair, [and] to try and give people a just and equitable result," Acker says. She is accomplished, honest and especially passionate about her career. In fact, Acker likes the fact that she is able to help people solve problems. “I think that efficient ways of solving disputes are really at the core of modern life.
“We are a very diverse community [with] different values, backgrounds [and] beliefs. It's inevitable that we're going to find ourselves in some conflicts. I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.
Acker's career has been built around key moments and professional experiences in her life. Particularly, her time working right after college impacted the type of legal work she takes on now.
SHAPING HER CAREER
Acker didn't foresee doing this kind of work on television when she was in college at either Howard University or Yale Law. “I was really open in college about what would happen next," Acker comments. “In fact, I deliberately chose a major (English) that wouldn't lock me into anything [because] I wanted to keep all of my options open." Her inevitable success on the show and throughout her career is an example of that. In fact, after graduating from Yale, Acker served as a judicial law clerk to Judge Dorothy Nelson who sits on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
It was not only her first job out of law school but also one of the formative experiences of her professional life. “[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law," she exclaims. “She delivers it all with a lot of love." Judge Nelson is still on the bench and is continuing to work through her Foundation: The Western Justice Center in Pasadena, California, where Acker serves on the board. The foundation helps people seeking alternative ways of resolving their disputes instead of going to court.
“It was important to her to try and create platforms for people to resolve conflict outside of court because court takes a long time," Acker explains. “I'm proud to be a part of that work and to sit on that board."
After her clerkship, she was awarded a Bristow Fellowship and continued building her career. Outside of the fellowship, Acker's legal work incorporated a broad variety of matters from civil litigation, constitutional cases, business counseling, and advising. One of her most memorable moments was representing a group of homeless people against the city. “They were being fought for vagrancy and our defense was, they had no place to go," she shares.
As part of her pro bono work, Acker was awarded the ACLU's First Amendment Award for her success with the case. Though, she has a hard time choosing from one of many memorable moments on Hot Bench. Acker does share a few of the things that matter to her. “Our show is really drawn from a cross-section of courtrooms across America and the chance to engage with such a diverse group of people really means a lot to me," she discusses.
HOW DID ACKER BECOME A JUDGE?
In addition to Judge Nelson, Judge Judy is certainly among her top professional influences. “I think it's incredible [and] I feel very lucky that my professional career has been bookended by these incredible judges," she acclaims. “I've really learned a lot from Judy about this job, doing this kind of job on television." Before Acker was selected for Hot Bench, she hadn't been a judge. It was Judge Judy who recommended that she get some experience. Acker briefly comments on her first experience as a temporary judge on a volunteer basis in traffic court. “I was happy to be able to have the chance to kind of get a feel for it before we started doing the show," she comments. “Judy is a wonderful, kind, generous person [and] she's taught me quite a lot. I feel lucky."
Photo Courtesy of Annie Shak.
ACKER'S TIME AWAY FROM HOME
Outside of Hot Bench, Acker took recent trips to Haiti and Alabama. They were memorable and meaningful.
Haiti, in particular, was the first trip she excitedly talks about. She did some work there in an orphanage as part of LOVE Takes Root, an organization that is driven to help children around the world whether it's basic aid or education. “Haiti has a special place in my heart," she began. “As a person who's descended from enslaved people, I have a lot of honor and reverence for a country that threw off the shackles of slavery."
She was intrigued by the history of Haiti. Especially regarding the communities, corrupt government and natural disasters. “They really had to endure a lot, but I tell you this when I was there, I saw people who were more elegant, dignified, gracious and generous as any group of people I've ever met anywhere in the world," she goes on. “I think it left me with was a strong sense of how you can be graceful and elegant under fire." Acker is optimistic about the country's overall growth and success.
“[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law."
“There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," Acker says. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving."
Her other trip was different in more ways than one. She traveled there for the first time with her mother as part of a get out to vote effort, that Alabama's First black House Minority Leader, Anthony Daniels was organizing. “It was incredible to take that trip with her [and] I've got to tell you, the South of today is not the South of my mother's upbringing," she explains. Originally from Mississippi, Acker's mother hasn't been back in the South since 1952. “Every place has a ways to go, but it was a really exciting trip [and] it was nice for me to connect with that part of the country and that part of my history."
OVERCOMING RACIAL BARRIERS
As a black woman, Acker has certainly faced challenges based on her race and gender. But it doesn't define who she is or what she can accomplish. “There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," she says. “There's no sort of barrier that someone would attempt to impose upon me that they didn't attempt to impose on my mother, grandmother or great-grandmother." In a space where disparity is sometimes apparent, she recognizes that there is no barrier someone would try to impose on her that they didn't attempt to impose on her mother or grandmothers. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving," Acker states. The conversation continues truthfully and seriously. Acker shares what it can be like for black women, specifically. “I think we're underestimated and we can be disrespected, whereas other folks are allowed the freedom to enjoy a full range of emotions and feelings," she articulates.
At times black women are often restricted from expressing themselves. “If someone wants to make an assumption or jump to a conclusion about me because of my race or gender, that's on them, but their assumptions aren't going to define me," Acker declares. “If something makes me angry or happy I will express that and if someone wants to caricature me, that's their pigeonholing; that's not my problem." A lifelong lesson she learned and shared is to not let other people define who you are. It is one of three bits of wisdom.
THREE PIECES OF ADVICE FROM JUDGE ACKER
THE POWER OF SELF-AWARENESS
“It's really important that you have a really firm sense of what you want to do and be, and how you're moving in the world because when people try to sway you, judge you or steer you off course you've got to have some basis for getting back on track."
KNOW YOUR SUPPORT SYSTEM
“Have a strong community of people who you trust, love and who love you," she advises. “But also learn to love and trust yourself because sometimes it's your own voice that can provide you the most comfort or solace in something."
LEARN FROM YOUR EXPERIENCES
“Trust yourself. Take care of yourself. Don't be too hard on yourself. Be honest with yourself.
“There are times when it's not enough to say this is who I am. Take it or leave it. Sometimes we've got things that we need to work on, change or improve upon," she concludes.
Acker stands out not only because of her accomplishments, but the way she views certain aspects of her life. These days, she's comfortable accepting what makes her different. “I think there's a time when you're younger when conformity feels comfortable, [but] I'm comfortable these days not conforming," she laughs. She enjoys being a decision maker and helping people work through it on Hot Bench.
6 Min Read
When you are in leadership, you are going to receive critical feedback either from your team, a client, or even your manager. How you receive that feedback will be crucial to your path as a leader and the respect you earn from others.
There used to be an expectation that you needed to receive feedback dispassionately (AKA: with stoic resting jerk face). Emotional responses were a detriment to your career and used to paint a picture of irrationalism, reactivity, and immaturity. As women in leadership have taken a more prominent role, leadership styles have shifted and the ability to marry intellect with compassion has become the new standard.
The truth is that people (on average) are compassionate, emotional beings – and that is a strength when you use it constructively. It's crucial for you to understand who you are, how you respond to feedback, and why you respond the way you do. Once you have that understanding, you can develop a process for positively addressing criticism and using it to drive your organization forward.
Step 1 - Ask for time
If the feedback has sparked some intensity within you, you are likely best to ask for some time to consider the feedback and set a time to sit down and discuss. It is easy to feel like you have to address everything on the spot, but the truth is that you don't.
At times the person with the feedback can feel the need for immediacy because they have been thinking about it for a while, and now they are ready to give the feedback to you and have you respond immediately.
While there will always be a situation where you do have to respond on the spot, know that responding to this game of hot potato is like hitting REPLY ALL to an email when you're mad. When words are spoken, they can't be taken back.
Think of this as a cooling-off period. You can call it what it is. Saying something like, "NAME, it seems like this is important for you, and it is bothering you. I want to address your feedback in a positive way for the betterment of all, but it seems like we could use a brief cooling-off period to do so. If we take this time, I can consider your feedback, and both of us can come to the table with solutions. Could we meet about this on DAY and TIME?"
Step 2 – Allow the emotion
Everyone reacts in some way to feedback. Maybe you feel defensive. Perhaps you feel angry, or it may touch that place where you don't feel worthy and it brings up feelings of doubt. Think back to the last time you received feedback that felt critical. What was the first thing you felt? Can you make space for that feeling without having to react from it right away?
Brene Brown has great insight to help you allow your emotions without being ruled by them, especially when it comes to shame. Her book, Daring Greatly, was life-changing for me and how I managed my feelings. I can be very stoic on the outside — because I am going off like a powder keg on the inside. When I grew up, I learned not to show my emotion because it was used against me. That was a defensive and subconscious coping mechanism that helped me in my childhood, but hindered me in my adult life, especially when it came to being the leader I needed to be in my business.
The concept that stuck with me from Daring Greatly was allowing yourself to feel the emotion and then let it pass. While I don't dig into the why of the emotion for long periods of time, I do ask myself why I am feeling this way. Is it the comment, the person it's coming from, is it how I am feeling about myself, or is it something in my past that is showing up at that moment?
The answer to that question is essential because it helps me understand what to do next. If the emotion is coming from me, then that is something I need to address and separate from the issue at hand. If the feeling is related to the situation, then I can manage that as well.
Step 3 – Assume everyone is coming from a good place
Let's face it, in our age of digital and social technologies, the ability to communicate effectively and positively is working its way out of our lexicon. Even if I don't agree with the feedback or how it was delivered, I go back to the fact that the person is good.
If you can assume that they are a good person, coming from a good place, then you can have compassion with them and the situation. The person has the right to feel and perceive what they feel and perceive.
Try putting yourself in their shoes. What created the reaction for them? What is the story they may be telling themselves about the situation? What is it that they desire to come out of the situation?
Remember that whatever the other person is thinking or feeling, it is real to them. You can honor that, even if you disagree or see things differently.
Considering all these questions may make you feel like you need to be a sleuth or a psychiatrist, but it's essential to finding a resolution. Only when you understand how the other person is feeling about a situation can you create real solutions.
Step 4 – Plan acceptable resolutions
Once you have an understanding of how everyone is feeling about the situation, it's time to craft a few acceptable resolutions or recommendations to bring to the table.
When you know what you can agree to in the beginning, you can allow the other person to present first. There is ownership that happens when people can bring up feedback and impact the solution. If you disagree with the proposed solutions, you can still negotiate a win-win. Often, because you've done your homework and can see the other person's perspective, you can agree and move on.
Also, to keep yourself on track, plan out an agenda for the conversation. In cases where you are receiving and resolving feedback, it can be easy to let a conversation snowball into an entirely different discussion; things just get out of hand. If this happens in the conversation, feel free to add the new feedback to the parking lot until you have resolved the original feedback.
Step 5 – Keep your word and invite positive feedback
Keep your word on any next steps you agree on as part of the solution and provide updates to the other person when things delay or change in scope. Your team wants to be heard, and your ability to listen and then take affirmative action builds their respect for you, even if they are not in agreement.
The key to being effective as a woman in leadership is not to shun emotions, but use them in positive ways to treat people like people and have authentic and honest communication around points of conflict. In doing so, you knit together your team in a way that makes them feel valued and encourages them to trust you as their leader.