What is a leader? Buffy Van Brocklin was a customer service representative at a manufacturing firm. Buffy answered phones, entered customer orders, helped with technical product questions, and was a “go to” guy, both within the organization, and outside the walls with customers and vendors. I don’t know how he got the nickname, Buffy, but he was affectionately referred to as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I never saw a problem that Buffy couldn’t solve. His tools were patience, some technical prowess, an unquestioned work ethic, and a passion for helping people. While I’m sure it was not anyone’s plan, Buffy’s daily habits created a “can do” culture within his company, and that culture remains in place today… several years after his retirement. Buffy wasn’t anybody’s boss, in fact, being a manager was never something he aspired to. Buff (for short) was content to do a great job, and help his co-workers and customers do the same. And while he was not technically a manager, Buffy’s presence was critical to the mission of the company. Almost all his human interaction was over the phone, and yet, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was “the face” of his company. That’s a leader. Definitions for leaders and leadership vary from resource to resource. I’ll offer up my simple description: A leader is someone who gets things done. At work, at school, at home, and in our communities, a leader sees a need, and fills the need. It's that simple. Not everyone aspires to have a title, not everyone has the need to be a boss. But I believe most of us want to contribute in a positive way, make a difference, and be appreciated for our efforts. So here are a few things Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and others, have taught me about leadership on my professional journey. A lot of it comes down to good intentions, self-awareness, and some good old common sense. It also helps to have a good leader or mentor to model those leadership traits. 1) Be Reliable Show up every day, on time, and ready to work. This “common sense” habit is not just noticed by your managers, it’s noticed by your co-workers as well. Being a reliable teammate is one of the first steps in leadership recognition. The best ability is availability. Be there. 2) Be Flexible There should never be a job, that’s “not my job”. If you can do it, do it. I worked for a gentleman who owned an industrial supply company that did $50 million in annual sales. Simply put, he was rich! I came back to the office late one night, and he was emptying the office wastebaskets. When I jokingly asked if he had been demoted by his business partner (his wife), he laughed and told me that when they started the business, they knew the key to being successful was to “never be too important to take out the trash.” The cleaning staff had an emergency and couldn’t make it in that evening, and he did what had to be done. This was such a great lesson for me as a young professional – both in flexibility and humility. 3) Become an Expert Know the job. Know the mission. Know what the end result is supposed to look like. You may have responsibility for a small part of a bigger project, but whenever it’s possible, know the whole project. Becoming an expert shows interest and initiative. Being an expert makes you someone that others can turn to for help. Showing interest in the bigger picture creates value. Expertise is always valued. 4) Share the credit… own the blame This is sometimes a tough pill to swallow, but it’s what great leaders do. In the professional world, we rarely win completely on our own. Whatever the end result is supposed to look like; a workspace realignment, a new product design, a World Series championship…the program analyst, the engineer, or the closing pitcher did not win it on their own. Good leaders will always acknowledge the team before themselves. This is always true. But sometimes you don’t win, you don’t get the deal, or the project fails to meet its expectations and it may have had nothing to do with your efforts. Good leaders own that blame, and never “point fingers.” This is always true. (And it’s always tough!) 5) A good leader praises publicly and loudly, but critiques and corrects quietly and privately. On this point, we could substitute the word, “leader” with “person.” Find a way to make somebody feel good about who they are, and what they are doing, and bring it to other people’s attention. A good organization has no unsung heroes! However, if something (or someone) needs improvement, or an all-out change of direction, remember to do it privately and with as much compassion as possible. This point applies anywhere in an organization’s hierarchy. If you take nothing else from this article, take point #5 and the understanding that everybody is entitled to their dignity. 6) Show Passion Being reliable, and showing up are important, but showing up is just a part of the leadership recipe. Being an expert at your craft, and at the team’s mission is also important. But being passionate about being there is vital to your success as a leader. Passion is infectious (but in a good way!!), it’s how you affect and improve a culture. And while I don’t know everything about anything, I do know this: If you can’t be passionate about what you’re doing during the 8 or more hours of your workday (1/2 of your waking life!), then for your own sake, do something else. Be your own leader. Make passion your personal brand. Leaders come in lots of different and diverse packages, and many of those packages are not accompanied by a title. You don’t have to be “Division Manager” or “VP of Marketing” to be a leader, you just need to care about what’s going on and show that attitude and passion to others. You could be a supply clerk, you could be a regional sales rep, you could be a dude named Buffy the Vampire Slayer…You DON’T have to be a “boss” to be a leader! Ask a mentor: At your next mentoring meeting, share with your mentor your definition of leadership and ask them what skills, qualities and attitudes make a difference. Some questions you might ask: What is your definition of leadership? Do you have an example of someone who was a natural leader? What most struck you about them? Are there areas where you see a need for leadership at all levels in your environment? What does it take to become recognized as a leader in your field?
After bidding adieu to 2020, many of us look to the new year as the thing that will invigorate and set us free. But the truth is, while many good things await, 2021 still requires resilience and flexibility. Some of us will be transitioning into our offices after many months away, others might be shepherding children back into the groove of in-person school, and almost all of us will still be waiting for some signal that everything has returned to “normal.” In some ways, the most demanding part of managing these historical circumstances is the endurance run. Coming up on nearly a year since the pandemic changed life indefinitely, at times it seems as though the needle has barely moved. It might be harder to see through traditional news years’ resolutions… but do not despair. The coming days offer an opportunity for getting on track while being a light for others. As we continue wading through these challenging times, how can you stay positive and stand out as a leader? Avoiding overthinking Right now, even the most decisive personalities can fall into the pattern of over-thinking. Every time we leave our houses, we weigh calculated risks: “Should we sign up for this?” “Is that safe?” “Should I just ask someone else what they think about it?” There are opportunities to second-guess ourselves at every single turn. It makes it even worse that we are not getting the kind of positive reinforcement that goes along with face-to-face interaction. When it comes to work, seeing facial expressions at a conference table or bumping into people in the hallway is sometimes how we know a colleague likes an idea or isn’t frustrated. Without those subtle cues to assure us, we can overthink a reaction- or lack thereof- for a long time. That kind of circular thinking can cause decision-paralysis. Psychology Today recommends setting aside time to “ruminate.” Clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema says that scheduling daily rumination time will bring on the process of either moving on or finding a resolution. For example, if you’re nervous to put something on your supervisor’s calendar (Was she annoyed by my email earlier? I wonder if I should wait on this?), stop. Take a deep breath. Put the meeting on her calendar and commit to thinking through this action at 4pm during the 30-minute rumination time. Tell yourself you do not have time to worry about that right now. You can now successfully complete the rest of today’s tasks without fretting about what is worrying you and it is no longer taking up mental real estate. Take control of the work/life pendulum Professional and personal lives jumbled up in one big heap is a sign of the times. But even before all this, finding work/life balance was an endless journey. Perhaps the word “balance” sets too high an expectation. Life and work are on a pendulum and sometimes one side is swinging higher than the other. That is okay- just remember to give an occasional push to swing it back. If a work project is going to take tremendous focus and energy, let your family know. Ask them to share in the effort by giving you some extra quiet time and approximate how long you’ll need whether it’s an hour or two weeks. If something at home is continuously slowing down your workload, maybe loop in your supervisor by asking for patience and tips for keeping the ball moving. Map out the estimated duration of a commitment to prevent over-promising and under-delivering. Proactiveness demonstrates to others that you have a handle on things but also might truly help you get a handle on things. Be a beacon. It’s hard to imagine taking on one more thing right now but staying positive can lift up the people around you who are experiencing the same transitions. Here are some simple ways to encourage others: Make time. If a colleague attempts small talk over email or even during a work-related call, make time for it. They might need a sense of connection. Ask how things are going for them too. Don’t complain. Resist the temptation to join in when others are commiserating. There could be clumsiness in getting the office back on track and there’s no reason to contribute to negativity. Be observant. If you hear it’s someone’s birthday, write a quick text or e-card. If a colleague makes a great point in a meeting, tell them. Being noticed makes people feel really good. Find empathy. Even if you find your way, not everyone is having the easiest time right now. Consider how their personal situations are playing out in their behavior at the office. Each of us is steering our own ship.
Many of those in leadership positions, whether middle-management, team leader or senior executive, know they should be delegating tasks – probably more than they already do. Do any of the following “reasons” sound familiar? “I just can’t seem to let this task go!” “I am worried this will fall off the radar.” “I don’t really trust anyone else to get this done.” “This is really complicated and would take more time to explain than to just do it myself.” We can self-talk our way out of delegating to others - and justify it every step of the way! But if we continue to hold on to tasks we could delegate, we are not only holding ourselves back from reaching our full potential, we are holding our team back from reaching their full potential. Sometimes, it’s difficult to discern what tasks are ripe for delegation and reflects that internal struggle we experience between the work that could be done and the work that should be done. If we review our to-do list, we can start to categorize each item as either a strategic task - working ON the long-term goals of the organization - and tactical work – working ON the tasks that implement that vision. Examples of a set of tactical tasks includes the daily work surrounding project management, product development, service delivery, preparing and reviewing financial reports, keeping facilities maintained, training and supporting employees, etc. Strategic tasks focus on the future – those improvements, innovations, growth planning and succession planning efforts that support the overall mission of the organization. In short, strategic tasks are the work we do to set the course and direction, and tactical tasks are the “turns” we take to follow the course. It would follow that the more effort and energy expended on the strategic tasks, the more effective, efficient, and productive the resulting tactical tasks. After reviewing our to-do list, we need to start collecting data. Just like a diet – start tracking everything we spend time on– because we can’t change what we don’t know, and we don’t know what we don’t measure. Pretty quickly, those tactical tasks we just can’t let go of will equate to real time we are losing – resources we are wasting. Still not sold? Here are some other benefits of delegation: Lower Stress! By not delegating, we place a heavy burden on ourselves – we can become so overwhelmed that our functioning and our health suffer. Delegating tactical work can relieve and return more time to us. Build Communication Skills! The process of delegating can break down the sense of hierarchy between us and our team. Explaining tasks and sharing ideas together will lessen the distance among the team’s workers and help continue building trust and respect overall. Efficiency! Effective delegation allows us to maximize time and resources, as it decreases delays in achieving tasks. Effective delegation should be seen as an investment not only in our team, but also in the long-term health and success of the organization. Support Mission! When we delegate, we are required to do the front-work of identifying and putting to paper those clear goals and milestones – the strategic plan - in support of the mission, from which those tactical tasks then spring. Process Streamlining! If we truly invest the time in our strategic tasks – a comprehensive strategic plan supporting the mission – the tactical tasks and the steps to achieve each goal and milestone will be clearly defined and focused. The more we can delegate, the better the plan, the more efficient the task accomplishment – and all comes full circle. “But how do I get my team onboard when I am giving them more to do?” Our employees want to grow, so integrate a development plan into an employee’s Individual Development Plan (IDP) so everyone is on board with how (certain types of) tasks will be delegated to support the employee’s continued professional advancement. Also, delegating is less about giving up responsibility, and more about allowing others to lead. That doesn’t exempt us from speaking up when we see things getting off track, but it does mean letting the employee guide the ship as much as possible.
If a leadership position is something you hope to achieve, signaling this goal to others is a powerful first step. Talk to your supervisor or a mentor (informal or formal) who can offer insights to management, facilitate network-expanding introductions, and plan assignments that hone leadership competencies. Show your dedication and seriousness by actively seeking leadership experiences that you can measure and quantify on your resume. In this month’s newsletter, we will map out some universal leadership competencies and share strategies for cultivating them through hands-on learning and mentoring work. We will also suggest best practices for relating these experiences. Speaking competently about your accomplishments will assure current and future managers of your capabilities. Most Valued Leadership CompetenciesBoldness, decisiveness, effective conflict management...when we reflect on the best managers we’ve encountered, these attributes often come to mind. The best leaders show confidence in their work. The Harvard Business Review asked nearly 200 organizational leaders from around the world to consider which leadership competencies they have found to be most important. Their feedback boiled down to a thematic list that we will share here in ranking order. According to the survey, an effective leader: Maintains high ethical standards while creating a safe environment. Is able to delegate and rely on others to get things done. Communicates frequently so that employees feel connected. Is open to new ideas, willing to learn. Helps others to grow and meet their potential. In other words, being an effective leader takes more than being self-assured. It’s about holding up the organization’s values and mission while nurturing others’ growth and development so that they can do the same. To show your capacity for leadership, consider opportunities to weave these competencies into your mentoring goals. Writing Leadership into Your Development GoalsWhen writing measurable goals that lean into leadership, be practical. Include benchmarks and clear activities that you can easily report back to your supervisor or mentor. For example, if your objective is to expand your network, you might attend an organizational event at a level higher than you would normally (a Director’s meeting, strategic planning session, or budget hearing, for example) to learn new perspectives on your agency’s mission and future. While the primary aim is to expand your network, you will also gain insights into the trends that are impacting the agency’s mission and shape the views and priorities of key stakeholders. Once completed, analyze and summarize your experience so that you are prepared when a supervisor or mentor asks, “Can you tell me about how you are building coalitions?” For example: I attended a Director’s staff meeting to learn about their initiatives and meet the key players who participate. Learning about the department’s contributions to the agency illuminated a new perspective on the strategic direction our organization is going in 2020. It also gave me some ideas for things we can prepare for on our team. More Examples of Leadership-Oriented ActivitiesLooking for more ways to weave leadership into mentoring goals? The best way to make sure your mentoring plan covers leadership opportunities is to actively pursue them. Make time to brainstorm with your supervisor and talk about what you want to accomplish. Here are a few ideas for meaningful assignments to tackle with your supervisor’s support: Form and lead a cross-sectional task force to tackle a division-wide initiative (for example, training on a new procurement system or organizing the summer internship program). Offer assistance to an agency leader to plan a quarterly town hall or state of the organization meeting. Foster new technical skills by partnering with a colleague in a different division to complete a project. Organize a networking event with a small group of program participants to discuss the impact of specific legislation on your agency’s mission. Keep track and be prepared to speak confidently about how the assignments you choose are contributing to your leadership potential. Plan an Informational Interview with an Organizational LeaderDemonstrate your curiosity by speaking with one of your organization’s leaders to find out what qualities they most value. Ask for your mentor’s help in setting up an informational interview. Ask direct questions, such as, “What is the profile of someone you most recently hired into a management position? What stood out about their abilities and experience?” or, “What experience best prepared you for this job?” and maybe even, “Who depends on you most? In turn, who do you depend on most?” Getting acquainted with the leadership culture where you work will flesh out your understanding of what it takes to succeed in a leadership role. Show Passion in All You DoWhen talking about what makes a great leader, we can’t underestimate the impression that passion makes. Energy, optimism, and zeal for learning often mark the divide between those who are simply doing their job and those who have enough charisma and positivity to lead. Smile, mind your posture, get to know your colleagues. Show excitement for the work and ask questions. When you’ve completed an assignment, solicit feedback from your peers and managers. Tell them how their comments will help you do an even better job next time.