A conversation with Eric Turner—Business leader, ‘CEO Whisperer’ and Lasell’s first Black president

Eric Turner has spent his life discovering himself and adapting his journey with what he’s learned.

He wanted to work in banking but discovered he liked sales more. He wanted to work on Wall Street but found opportunity on Beacon Hill. He wanted to move back home after college but met the love of his life in Boston.

Adapting to grow is the theme of Turner’s life, and as president of Lasell University—its first Black president, as a matter of fact—he’s guiding others to find that growth through self-discovery.

How it all started

Born and raised in Memphis, Tenn., Turner moved north to New England when he attended Harvard. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and later his MBA at Harvard Business School.

Turner always wanted to work in business, in some capacity, since he was a kid. That’s why he majored in economics as an undergraduate (Harvard doesn’t offer professional business degrees).

“Economics was where you could take the one accounting course that Harvard had, and that course you needed to apply to Harvard Business School, so there was a little bit of method to the madness,” he recalled.

What has he done with that madness? A lot.

“I thought I was going back to Memphis to live for the rest of my life, but I met my wife in college,” Turner smiled.

Wanda Whitmore, the woman Turner would stay and brave the New England winters for, was from Baltimore.

“Not that we have anything against each other’s towns, but I wasn’t going to live in Baltimore and she wasn’t going to live in Memphis,” he laughed. “So this was the compromise.”

When opportunity knocks

After he finished his undergraduate degree, Turner went to work in sales and marketing for IBM in Waltham for a few years before going to business school.

“I had a territory of—I think it was about 10 or 12 small businesses in the Greater Boston area—everything from a clothing manufacturer named College Town out in Braintree to a cutting tools business out in Fitchburg,” Turner said. “It was kind of all over the place.”

That diversity in clientele in his first job out of college shaped Turner’s career with an ability to adapt in the moment and work with a variety of personalities to get a job done.

Turner served as deputy treasurer of Massachusetts under Gov. William Weld and then executive director of the Massachusetts State Lottery.

He and his wife were living in New York City and he was in between job on Wall Street when Massachusetts Treasurer Joe Malone reached out.

“He was looking for a deputy treasurer, and that’s what I came up to do. I was going to do that for two years and then go back to New York,” Turner said. “And about halfway through that commitment, the lottery job came open and he asked me to do that.”

Turner ran the state lottery department for about five years. That involved running the agency, streamlining operations and making sure the businesses involved with the lottery had what they needed.

“The best part, of course, is giving the winners their checks,” Turner said. “I used to say, ‘People like to hug and kiss me like I’m giving away my own money.’”

Turner later served as vice president at State Street in Boston and as managing director of the New England CEO Network before launching his own consulting firm, Waban Consulting, guiding other CEOs—most of them small business owners—through their own career journeys.

“It’s funny, what I used to call myself was a ‘CEO whisperer,’” Turner joked. “But the reason I did it is because I’ve got all this corporate experience. And why can’t I help some of the small guys and gals with some of the stuff I know that they can apply to their small businesses?”

Back to school

Turner’s wife, Wanda, runs her own business, a communications consulting firm. In June, they will have been married 42 years.

The couple has four kids (and a new son-in-law) in addition to two nieces and a nephew they’re taking care of, making for a lot of faces at family events.

“It’s a full table,” Turner smiled.

“We’re such different people. She’s creative, she has a small video and film production company, she’s an African American studies major, she’s got a journalism degree,” Turner said of his wife.

“We’re intellectual partners,” he continued. “She keeps me on the straight and narrow and has a good sense of humor. So it’s a good partnership. And that’s why it’s lasted so long.”

Turner has seen business through the lens of a salesman, a government official and a mentor. That almost kaleidoscopic perspective landed him a vice president spot at Lasell University, a school he had been involved with for a couple of decades already.

In 2020, Turner became provost at the university. And last spring, he became the university’s first Black president.

“I think it means—not just for students and staff of color, but for I think for all students and staff—it’s about modeling, it’s about showing that you’re trying to do the right thing, and it’s about demonstrating achievement and accomplishment,” Turner said.

“The funny thing is, I suspect I was the first Black chairman of the board, the first Black treasurer of the board, and so on,” Turner mused.

“I think it reflects to a great extent the continued evolution that Lasell University has undergone—from two-year women’s to four-year, to co-ed, to a retirement community on campus—so this is all part of that evolution,” he continued. “I think there probably were times when no one ever expected men to be on this campus. No one expected Blacks or Hispanics to be on this campus. This is very much a part of who we are and part of our success is the fact that we have evolved with the world. And on this planet, you either evolve or you die.”

The world of business is always evolving, too. People sell and use cryptocurrency without knowing what it is. Coworkers can live on separate continents and have all their meetings on Zoom.

And Turner wants Lasell to stay at the forefront of that changing world and for business education to stay apace with it.

“I think it’s going to focus a lot on the results of, and the people who are disrupted by, the natural forces in society,” Turner said. “And these days, that’s artificial intelligence and other technologies, it’s global competition, it’s also just the rapid change in dynamics of business and the world in general. All of that has sped up.”

That continuing, fast-paced change is why Lasell focuses on lifelong learning, Turner said.

“We all need to relearn, retool, gain more education,” he said. “So what better segment of society to help with that than a college or university?”