Effective Leadership: Working From the Inside Out

What I wish I knew when I took on my first leadership role:

When I first started my consulting gig as the Film Commissioner for the city of Indianapolis I had a lot of request for meetings.  This was the first time the city had ever dedicated an entire initiative to the film community and people were really excited.  This, in turn, made me really excited.  "Wow, all of these people are excited about our initiative! Change and implementation is going to be so easy with all of this support," I thought, sitting in a coffee shop waiting for my next meeting. Every single day for the first year I spent time with complete strangers, there was not a familiar face in the mix and this was both invigorating and epically lonely. I listened, I encouraged, I presented, I smiled.  

I also tried to do all of the things all of the time. I was so inspired by the energy coming from the community but I was unaware of the marathon of leadership. I had also come from environments where we had plenty of money and resources to get things done. This was my first experience in the wild wild west of true entrepreneurship; no money, no staff and little resources. In this environment, things just don’t happen in a sprint. 

As I look back on the first two years and work with strategic partners to help shape the next three-year phase, it is apparent to me that there are so many things I did not know that I wish I would have known when we started. I remember moments sitting at my desk wishing someone understood what I was feeling or could tell me how to proceed or how to overcome.

Now, as a certified professional business coach, I am a firm believer that giving advice is not the way to get someone to take action.  I see it every day in my work with my clients; they must come to realizations on their own through deep exploration of their values. However, a roadmap is absolutely an effective tool to have as a leader and it is every bit the roadmap I wish I had when I started, so I am sharing mine with you.

The theme to this roadmap is that effective leadership is always about you.  It is not about your resources, the amount of money you have to spend, the community you are serving or the role your advisors play in your decisions.  It is absolutely, positively, about what is going on inside of you and how you are approaching your staff and your environment. The below can be applied to an organization, a company, a startup, a volunteer initiative or even your personal life.  This roadmap will help you lead more effectively.  And like all things I present here, it is a tool, but coaching is what will take your leadership to the next level.  If you are looking for a coach or accountability partner let’s talk!

In the beginning, promise nothing: First and foremost, promising nothing is really hard.  When you have hundreds of faces of extremely talented people staring back at you asking for support and resources, promising nothing is really hard to do. However, when you are building something for the first time there is so much you do not know.  You are in the trenches in unknown territory, own that. Remember how it feels when a politician campaigns and promises the world and then delivers on none of those promises? It feels really awful, right? You lose hope and you lose faith. The same standards apply to you.  And at first, you are going to feel like you can indeed do all of the things you desire, but there is so much more to implementing programs and changes and policies than the desire to do so. So protect yourself. Understand that an evaluation period is absolutely necessary. Gather the intel, meet with advisors, understand your community, then act. Here is a sentence you should learn and use often. "I really appreciate you sharing. I am not exactly sure how this fits into our current goals but I will review it.  At this time, if you don't hear back from me please assume we had to table this idea for future consideration".  

Find a way to separate your identity from the initiative: Why? Because if your identity is tied to the organization, every time you fail it will feel personal, very personal.  When I first started to come around to this idea it felt like if I separated myself from the initiative that I must no longer care.  Wrong.  You can absolutely care about the work you are doing and still have an identity that is separate.  Please remember this.  During meetings that go nowhere, disappointing phone calls, failure to raise funds, failure at all, any failure--just remember, this is not a reflection of who you are.  All you really can control is how you show up and how you react.  Showing up at all, especially after multiple disappointments, is success. 

You will make a lot of mistakes: Listen, you are going to trust the wrong people. You are going to spend the little capital you have in the wrong areas.  You are going to take a business trip that leads to nothing, you will even engage free labor and get nothing out of it.  It happens.  You will also have bad days.  You are not perfect.  You are not the savior for whatever cause you are championing through this initiative.  You are going to let people down.  It sucks.  Get used to it.  In my opinion, if you aren't making mistakes you aren't trying hard enough.  Disappoint people, have people wish you were different, let someone down, say no, blow it up.  Change often happens when we try things that no one has tried before which upsets order and causes criticism. Try anyway. 

Listening is your job: Understand that when you take on a leadership role sometimes your job is just simply to let other people talk.  You will want to solve all of their problems and execute on all that opportunity to serve, just stop.  Stop and listen and let people tell you what they think and what is going on with them and the status of their project.  The most important aspect of your leadership is listening to your community.  Most often, other people's ideas are better than yours, your job as a leader is to enable them to bring those great ideas to life. And sometimes, people just want to know someone is there for them. One day after handing over our contact page messages to my assistant she said to me, "People just want to be heard. They just want to know someone cares and is listening." She was right. 

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: When I first took on the role of building the film office I was so energized and I was spending my time on everything.  I had a hard time finding a communication strategy that worked for me and my bandwidth.  What that means is, as a new leader it will be impossible to do a lot of things you want to do but communication should be a place where you try to excel.  There are so many things that I just assumed were not important to my community.  I didn't think they would want to hear about the mundane or get the play-by-play of our week or the small projects that were coming through the office.  I assumed they wanted to hear from us when we had big news, but that was not the case. Share as much as you can.  Share every day.  Find a medium that is comfortable for you and just communicate.  People love transparency and if you design a reasonable communication plan in the beginning it won't be hard to keep up with it.  Promise nothing of course, but give yourself goals you can actually achieve. 

Set the bar low: Ok, I know what you are thinking; what a lame piece of advice to give to new leaders.  Stick with me. You can have giant dreams for the organization.  If you don't, I would suggest it actually isn't the right organization for your leadership.  You should want to go to the moon, metaphorically.  However, set your expectations low.  Expect nothing and celebrate everything.  Keep the plans to go to the moon to yourself and a select few advisors. Communicate small, tangible and executable goals outwardly. You are always going to have very high expectations for yourself, you do not need the added pressure of everyone expecting that of you as well.  Manage expectations. 

Set Boundaries: Ok, I talk about boundaries a lot on my blog because they are very important both in our work and in our personal lives.  But in leadership, they are imperative.  Your time is extremely valuable, especially if you are the only person in the organization.  Where you spend your time literally equates to whether the organization moves forward successfully. No one told me this.  No one told me that I was important.  It felt really icky to think that I was. I am just a woman trying to establish and grow a new initiative. The truth is you have to understand how valuable your time is or you will never get to the moon. Protect it.  Understand why people are asking for your time and what they want to accomplish. Then make sure you have time for it or that it fits into the goals of the organization.  If it doesn't, you can say no. You have to find a way to politely help people realize that without dedicated time to the goals of the initiative you will never succeed.

Know that you are invisible: This one came to me through a mentor. You are working really hard.  You are sweating and hustling and showing up in the press and holding meetings and attending events.  You think people know about you and your organization and why you do the work you do.  News flash, they do not. Consider yourself invisible.  Consider that no one knows a thing about you and execute that way each and every day.  When you think you've convinced someone of something, you probably need to articulate it three more times before it lands. Do not take this personal, it is not a reflection of your work, it is the law of nature and well, sales. 

Be the champion: As the leader you are the advocate. You are the advocate for the community, the needs of that community and yourself.  I came from a humble background, I was told to be kind and polite and to never boast.  I get all of that, I get that we want to be kind and not arrogant and not seem egotistical but let me tell you something, if you do not champion your needs or the needs of your organization they will never be met.  If you do not convince people that the organization is important and valuable they will not see it.  You have to boast. You have to be the champion for the cause, which means, making sure the cause is not invisible, which means shouting a little louder and boasting often. Make noise. Please whatever you do, make some noise. 

Be willing to pivot: In life there is so much we do not know.  As a first time leader you will be learning something new every day.  You will also be evaluating that information and using your unique skills and perspective to try to shape success.  You must give yourself time for this evaluation period and you must be willing to pivot from the original plan.  This is not to say that you should abandon your values or your mission.  When you are clear on your mission pivoting is actually much easier.  Leadership is not banging your head against the wall over and over again and seeing if you can make a hole in the wall to get through.  It is banging your head a few times and saying, "well this is a waste of time, how do we build a door?".  Building that door may require failure, compromise and pivoting. Be flexible but married to the mission and you will get there. 

If you have any questions as a first time leader or just simply want to engage in dialogue about leading your organization get in touch.   I love working in this space and there is so much we can do together! 

Teresa SabatineComment