Leadership, Culture and High School Flashbacks
Today I was honored to be a guest in Thomas Montgomery's
"Character-Driven Leadership" class at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School.
Just the fact that this class exists says so much about my alma mater.
In prepping for the day, this wasn't the typical "tell us about your career path" type of speaking engagement... I was asked to think about things I haven't thought about in quite some time, or maybe even ever before. Things like my personal definition of leadership, my personal leadership style, my favorite leadership quotes; and lessons I've learned about leadership.
Faced with the task of putting together a presentation, I started to second-guess why Tom had invited me of all people to speak. But standing up there in front of those 24 young women, I realized I had a lot to share.
Things like the importance of having good mentors throughout your career, such as Kathy Schwab, Todd Taylor and Ellen Homb, to name a few; the difference between a leader you want to run through walls for and one who puts up walls or is a "leader" in title only; and most importantly, the role culture plays in the success or failure of an organization.
"Culture is not snacks in the break room," a past colleague once commented. The individual said it off-the-cuff, but it's a phrase that's stuck with me for quite some time because it's so indicative of the problem many organizations face. They think that offering small perks like snacks in the break room offset the expectation that you'll be reachable nearly 24/7, or that you won't receive a promotion because there is no clear path for growth.
"We offer unlimited vacation*!" they might tout. Sure, technically, it's written there in the handbook, but there's an asterisk, because there's always an asterisk. They don't tell you that there's really no good time for you to take a vacation because of the demanding business cycle. And that if you do book that trip, you'll secretly be looked down upon by your superiors (they never take vacation!); your colleagues will resent you; and you'll come back to an inbox so overflowing that you almost drown.
Now, post-pandemic, the option of working from home for a portion of the time is considered a privilege for many, but that often comes with the cost of inadvertently working more hours. You no longer have a commute, so that's an extra 1-2 hours you can tack on to your workday, right? And with your computer and desk just steps away from your spouse and children, it's that much harder to separate work and personal life.
There is not always an ulterior motive or malicious intent behind these types of perks; they are often created with good intentions by a well-meaning HR Department. It's "leadership" that makes the difference in how these policies play out, you see.
And it's leadership that has such a profound impact on our ability to grow and succeed, both personally and professionally.
Why then do we stick around in places with poor culture or fall for some of the aforementioned culture mirages?
Sometimes we can get so caught up in the day-to-day, that we're in pure survival mode and can't seem to get off the hamster wheel. It's only when it slows to a grinding halt that we see just how much we've been literally spinning our wheels. We might choose to overlook the bad because at the core, we genuinely like what we do. Or, it's implied that we're lucky to be in our position and can easily be replaced, so therefore we should be thankful for what we have. These situations can be akin to toxic relationships and they are usually just that.
Strong leadership creates a healthy work environment and a positive culture that encourages growth, not stifles it. So what's leadership to me?
• Challenging the status quo and encouraging others to do the same, even if that means challenging you personally.
Oftentimes, no one pauses to ask,"Why are we doing this?" If they did, they might be surprised to find out that the answer is typically, "Because that's the way we've always done it." [Insert mind-blown emoji here]. Innovation and progress don't come easy, so be leery of those who take this easy way out.
And be especially leery of those who don't like to be challenged. We can't let pride get in the way of progress. Don't be afraid to hire people smarter than you and/or those who have complementary skill sets. Trust your employees' expertise and encourage them to ask questions. The old adage is true: If it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you. And if you don't change, you're stuck doing things the way you've always done them, or you're waiting until the competition strikes first before you finally kick it into gear, at which point it is likely too late.
• Knowing how to inspire and motivate individuals- not everyone is the same; understand what makes them tick.
A good example of this can be illustrated through my experience in the fitness industry. One person may be motivated to work out and lose weight with a Jillian Michaels-esque approach, yelling and screaming at them to work harder, while others need someone to lift them up with positive words of encouragement. Others still might respond to little rewards along the way on their fitness journey. In the office, people respond to different approaches as well. Good leaders understand this, get to know what makes their employees tick; then they adapt their approach to get the most out of each one. Simply employing a "one-size-fits -all" approach isn't leadership, that's dictatorship.
• You're someone who guides gently in the calm times, the one people look to in times of turmoil and the person who helps others become the best version of themselves and leaders in their own right.
You hired your staff for a reason, so you trust them to do the right thing. Guide them in the right direction, be there to answer questions and lend support. You don't micromanage. You might ask questions, but you don't question them. When sh*t hits the fan, you stay calm and become more assertive if needed. You don't waste time placing blame or pointing fingers. You take responsibility for your personal role in a situation and figure out a way to right the ship. Most important of all, you place your ego aside and help others become the best version of themselves, even if that means that they surpass you on the org chart one day. Good leaders beget great leaders.
What kinds of Lessons in Leadership could I share?
The dangers of "managing up" and "managing down" as the extremes. Good leaders find the balance between the two.
How to manage and motivate people and, maybe more importantly, how NOT to.
The necessity of giving credit where credit is due; praising others both publicly and individually for their roles in a successful venture. Believe it or not, I've seen organizations that downplay employees' successes. They don't want to celebrate their awards or let everyone know how great they are. Perhaps they are afraid the star employee will get swept up by the competition; the superior might feel threatened that the individual is smarter or better than he or she is; or maybe they are just afraid the employee will start to realize their own worth.
If there are just two takeaways I wanted to leave these young women with today, it's to
1) Know Your Worth and Never Settle and 2) Don't Be Afraid to Try New Things and Face Your Fears.
Standing up there in front of the classroom, answering all the students' intelligent and thought-provoking questions, I stopped second-guessing myself and took my own advice. I realized my worth to them, as a speaker.
I thought about just how far I've come in the 20+ years since I literally sat in their seats. All the experience I've gained over the past two decades. The fact that someone who was so smart and creative, yet so shy and filled with self-doubt back then, had stretched herself at every opportunity and faced her fears. That young version of myself could never have imagined then that someday, she would be running her own company. That she'd find a way to marry her passions, finding both a sense of purpose and a work-life balance. She'd take great pride in her work, learn from her experiences, both good and bad, and one day, she'd be standing at the front of that classroom, reflecting on it all, hoping to inspire, in some small way, the future leaders staring back at her.