I recently spoke before a group of 35-40 undergraduate business majors at Emory’s Goziueta Business School. The class was “Leading and Managing Change,” and the professor, Richard Berlin, was kind enough to invite me to share my experience as a nonprofit leader and the pressures and challenges I face in running The Children’s School. Richard introduced me to the class and then opened it up to questions. The next day, in response to my thanks to him for the invitation and the discussion with his students, Richard wrote with a request from one of the students: Was it possible for me to send along ten pieces of advice (or tools) that would be helpful for them to know?
I’ve thought about this question for several days now: What is my top 10? What have I learned to trust and follow in the years I have led divisions, initiatives and now an organization? Here’s my first draft, in no particular order, that I sent to Richard to pass along to his class:
- Hire happy people. Unhappy people will be unhappy anywhere and with anything. Happiness, I’ve learned, is a mindset, an attitude. It’s a choice one has to make every day and, sometimes, many times in one day. Happy people also show more resilience and reinforce the resilience in others. They can manage the daily stresses and challenges and won’t shy away at the first sign of trouble.
- Never worry alone. No one can do any job today by themselves. I cannot do all aspects of my job on my own. I depend on my team and my mentors and, often, the advice of strangers I’ve only read about or heard somewhere. Although I own the final decision and outcome, I am fortunate to have people I can rely upon, who will guide me and check my assumptions and biases. And when I’m really challenged, they lift me up and make it possible for me to keep doing my job.
- Don’t make any unilateral decisions. Related to #2, this is an important one we talk about at The Children’s School all the time. Making decisions without talking to others and soliciting input or feedback is the quickest way any of us will cause trouble for ourselves, our teams and our school. Even I, as the head of school, do not make any unilateral decisions.
- You can’t listen to everyone. When you’re the head of school or the CEO, there will be many who will criticize you and your decisions. Many of them will likely believe that they can do your job better than you. All of that may be true but you’re the head or the CEO. The job is at least yours for now. Listening to every critic is the surest way I know to become paralyzed by indecision. If this is dangerous, so is the opposite – listening to no one. Figure out who has your back, wants you and your organization to succeed. I will work with those who build up. I resist those who only want to tear down.
- Know your non-negotiables. Almost no decision is ever clear or black and white. It’s all grey. When you have to make a decision with incomplete information, it’s important to be grounded in your values, your non-negotiables. What will you accept? What will you not? Having an inner guide in such circumstances is essential to your ability to withstand the inevitable ups and downs.
- Be a healthy skeptic of your own convictions. It’s easy as a leader to fall in love with your own ideas and decisions. If you’re lucky and good at what you do, then you will have a few around you that will tell you when you mess up or will mess up. They are invaluable and their #1 job at times can be to save you from yourself. Your responsibility is to listen to them but also learn to listen to yourself and call your BS when others may not. Cultivate a healthy skepticism to remain grounded.
- Question everything, deliberate slowly and act fast. Our culture doesn’t allow time for deliberation. People expect quick results. According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), more new heads are getting fired in their first two years. The old carpenter adage of “measure twice, cut once” is necessary for effective leadership too. We must slow down but slowing down does not mean we should drag our feet. Find opportunities in your day – and create the habit in others too – to question what’s in front of you. Slow down your thinking in those moments to avoid a rush to judgment or decision. Once a decision has been made, however, the team should execute as quickly as possible.
- It’s not about you. It’s never about you. Our culture elevates singular leaders as saviors or disasters. A great leader remains humble, builds a high-performing team and begins the execution of their own exit plan on day one.
- It’s almost never your fault but it’s always your responsibility. You will lose control the higher up you go on that org chart. I attend meetings on and off campus all day. There are tens and hundreds of micro and macro decisions being made by the students and employees at my school on a daily basis. I don’t approve almost any of them but I’m responsible for any and all outcomes.
- Go easy on others when you can, and learn to go easy on yourself. The job requires the internal fortitude to weather the roller coaster – the speed, the sharp turns, the climbs and drops, the 360 loop (or loops) and the screeching halt. There will be good and bad days. It’s easy to lose your sense of self in such moments; to believe yourself to be invincible when things are going your way and assume you’re an imposter when things don’t. Learn to treat every day the same. Find people and hobbies and distractions that keep your head and your heart clear and soft. Just like you will need to go easy on others at times, learn to go easy on yourself.