Written by: Katie Maffeo
Leadership has taught me a multitude of things. As a ‘relatively’ young leader in the organization I’m a part of (and overseeing one of the most critical programs), I have witnessed first-hand what it takes to be challenged every single day. Whether it’s a consumer-related matter, fiscal concerns or circumstances involving the human resource component of my position, every single situation presents a learning opportunity to which I continue to be very grateful. I’ve learned that to be an effective leader, you must use situations as educational opportunities for not only those involved, but for myself too. However; I’m not just talking about learning from the outcome of the situation. Every step of our day and the decisions we make can all be excellent educational experiences that contribute to our development as effective leaders.
I admit, coming into my leadership position was pretty overwhelming. I was brought into a part of the organization that I didn’t have much exposure to. I had to quickly learn a laundry list of regulations, become familiar with the consumer-base that was being served, understand the best practices of the program and dissect the intricate inter-workings of the program. Little did I imagine that these would have been some of the easiest aspects of my newly appointed position.
One of the challenges I quickly realized existed was the cultural stigma that people immediately attached to me. No one in this program knew me. Therefore; most immediately disliked me for no other reason than the fact that they didn’t know me. If you’ve never been in this situation, consider yourself lucky. That was the day that I began to quickly become educated on the type of leadership that was needed. As all of you reading this know: leadership makes great demands on people. As a leader, you are responsible for your team’s vision, for upholding a standard most associated with the mission of the organization, often for being the group’s representative to the rest of the agency and its protector as well. These responsibilities might be shared, but in most organizations, one person takes the largest part of the burden.
In addition to its responsibilities, leadership brings such challenges as motivating people – often without seeming to do so – and keeping them from stagnating when they’re doing well. Leaders also have to motivate themselves and truly be authentic in doing so, enthusiastic about what they’re doing. They have to be aware of serving their group and its members and all that that entails. In other words, they have to be leaders all the time.
Today, I will highlight the top 5 lessons that I have learned which have contributed to my transformation.
1. Know Your People: An incredibly smart man once told me that “in order for you to be able to grow your people, you must first know your people”. Different folks require different styles of leadership. For example, a new hire will require more hands-on supervision than an experienced employee does. A person who lacks motivation requires a different approach than one with a high degree of motivation. You must know your people! The fundamental foundation is having a good understanding of human nature, such as needs, emotions, and motivation. These simple human elements help you connect with people on a completely different level. And, as I continue to know my employees so continues their growth, right next to mine.
2. Leadership Circle: One of the most important steps that I’ve taken in my leadership development is the creation of a team of people that help support my vision of a better me. These can be people from within or outside of your organization. I’ve been very lucky to have a variety of people that I consider part of my “leadership circle”. It’s best to surround yourself with an honest group of people who aren’t afraid of hurting your feelings when you need to hear the truth. These people should be dynamic and diverse, thus providing you with a deeper spectrum of experiences to learn from. I am very blessed to have about 6 people (whom I greatly admire) in my leadership circle. All of these people bring something different to the continued conversations that we have in relation to effective leadership.
3. Active Listening: Being a good listener is critical to so many avenues in life, especially as it relates to inter-personal relationships and helping shape people’s perception. In leadership, I’ve found that participating in ‘active listening’ is a best practice. If I were to simplify this term, I would do so by stating that it’s best to listen to understand and not listen to respond. If you truly hear what people are telling you, they are more likely to communicate appropriately with you once you’ve established that level of trust, no matter the situation. I do caution anyone pursuing this, though, as it is quite time consuming. But, in the long run it pays off. As in most things, closing the loop on ‘active listening’ is the only true way of being effective. This is an imperative piece of the active listening. If you listen but don’t act, folks stop talking. This is a mistake that kills employee engagement. Listen well and follow through.
4. Educate your Team: The benefit of education goes without saying. But it is truly astonishing how many companies and organizations have staff that just don’t know why they do what they do. And, I’m not talking about how they do their jobs. How many of you have heard, “we’ve always done it this way”? While there is a lot of negativity that surrounds that saying, there is also opportunity. I know what some of you are thinking. Yes, it presents you with an opportunity to change things – wrong. The first few times I heard my employees say this, I dug a little deeper. The more questions I asked, the more I realized that these really good people just didn’t understand the WHY as to what they were doing. At the highest level, I had to get my team to understand that is was ‘ok’ to share information. For so many, it was a big secret to share how decisions made at each individual levels had an impact on the fiscal health of the program. Sharing anything related to finance was voodoo. Further exploration uncovered that a lot of people didn’t know that most of the best practices that we had established as a program were mostly derived from the need to maintain compliance with regulations as set forth by the State of Pennsylvania. The more we teach our team members the WHY behind what they do, the more empowered they are to do their job correctly and with pride. This really came as a ‘no-brainer’ to me. And the most beautiful thing about this is that this new way of thinking has been adopted organization-wide. Huge WIN!
5. Stay Authentic and Humble: An effective leader must be vulnerable enough to have an authentic connection to others, charismatic enough to engage others and humble enough to realize that true leadership involves being of service to others. Leadership is not a title, it’s a way of life. An authentic leader tends to be more interested in empowering employees than they are in money or personal power. These type of leaders tend to be guided by compassion and heart in everything they do. Remaining authentic allows you to not be afraid to admit mistakes and work to overcome shortcomings. This requires constant self-reflection which contributes to staying grounded and becoming a better you each day. One of my favorite sayings is “every day you come to work is another job interview to keep your job”. Remaining authentic and humble helps remind me of this daily.
When leaders show a commitment to the growth of others, the same primal emotions are tapped in those who have been affected. Employees are motivated to reciprocate, expressing their gratitude or loyalty by going the extra mile. If you want to inspire the best from your team, advocate for them, and support their training and promotion.
It’s through daily experiences as a leader that I realize I have absorbed so much. Yet, I still have so much more to learn. Never stagnate in your development. Take the time to invest in your future. Attend seminars, participate in workshops, webinars, podcasts and other professional development events. Talk to other leaders and see how they do things; exchange ideas.
The more you continually evaluate yourself and your practices and search for as much information on leadership as possible, the more you will be able to keep up with changing times and the better leader you will be for it.