September 30, 2020
Leadership is complicated. I grew up the second oldest in a large, latch-key family. Leadership was thrust upon me as a practical matter. It was a way to bring organization and structure to the chaos of what would now be termed a “free-range” upbringing. As I grew, those leadership traits served me well; captaining sports teams, editing school papers. When I started working, I found myself moving into leadership naturally, even though the payoff was sometimes dubious—manager of the chain family restaurant meant much longer hours, with no pay increase—but still, I moved forward.
Eventually, I found myself in the insurance industry where my professional growth continued, and I was faced with new and different challenges than I’d ever dealt with before. Dealing with siblings is one thing—birth order gives you a leg up, and tact and grace are less important than the ever-present threat to “go tell mom.” Advancing in some of those early jobs was more about my willingness to say yes, work hard, and show up. Innate leadership skills were secondary to reliability. Now, I was challenged to really understand and lead people. Understand their motivation and make them care. About insurance. We used to joke that no one grows up dreaming of being in insurance. However, we’ve all had that story, that one claim, that changes us. That makes us realize the industry is, at its best, about helping people. An injured worker with a family that needs support. A policyholder wondering about what the future holds after a catastrophic loss. We have the ability to teach people to care.
However, like all things, an idealistic simplification ignores the struggle. Now that they care, how can I keep the day-to-day pressures from leading to disillusion and apathy? Maintaining that empathy can be challenging if my team doesn’t feel supported by me as a leader. I have to say, these are the life skills that you do not learn wrangling siblings. These are the skills—and gaps—that I think about every day, and work toward improving. For me, my leadership may come naturally—I see it in the miniature version of myself I’m raising—but being a natural leader can only get you so far. Throughout my career, I’ve learned just how important it is to continuously work on my skills, especially my leadership abilities. For example, here are a few areas I’m honing in on right now:
- Listen more, solve less: I have so much mental clutter at times (who doesn’t these days with everything going on?), that I deal by trying to knock things off the list quickly. This is a very effective time management technique, but it can create a gap by not giving my team room to problem solve. It can also lead to jumping to the wrong conclusion in an effort to move on to the next item on the list. Speed can be counterproductive, so I’m working on being fast when fast is needed, and taking the time when available to allow others to problem solve.
- Re-read to add the please and thank you: You asked a question, I answered. I had a question, I asked. By focusing too much on the issue at hand, I can lose the pleasantries. I’m trying to do better at… Stop… Breathe…. Be Polite. I know, basic life skills, but this can be so easy for us to forget!
- Practice Gratitude: This is true on a personal as well as professional level. Research shows that thinking about things you’re grateful for is one of the keys to happiness. Sometimes, life is tough and my list contains pretty basic things, like “the smell of coffee in the morning.” Other times, things are great and I am thankful for “epic vacations” (I reallymiss epic vacations). At work, I’ve heard the question posed “Why should I thank someone for just doing their job?” And, besides being, you know, nice, it’s a recognition to yourself, as much as them, of what you have to be grateful for. I’m working on bringing gratitude into everything that I do.
To say the list above is a work in progress is an understatement. I am in debt to the amazing team I have around me; for their support, their dedication, their patience, and their hard work. I am always seeking, challenging, and trying to improve. One day, I’ll figure out how to achieve the proverbial balance of assertiveness. I’ll remember to show my gratitude in the moment, all of the time, and not just in my midnight musings. The quest continues. In the meantime, I thank my colleagues for being much more cooperative than my siblings.