Note: Kendall College of Art and Design was founded in 1928 in Grand Rapids, MI, by Helen Kendall, widow of David Wolcott Kendall, who was known as the dean of American furniture designers. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, and in honor of the vision of Helen Kendall, the college presented a lecture and discussion series entitled "Gender and Leadership." The following article is adapted from a presentation given by the author as part of that series.
Over the years I've spent getting an education, including an MBA, reading, observing and working with people, I think I have learned a few things about what constitutes leadership, and how to apply leadership skills in the workplace and the world of design.
To me the first and most obvious quality of leadership is creating a vision that people can aspire to and follow. Creating a vision isn't talking about blue skies. It isn't merely talking about where you want to end up, but discussing and defining how you will get there. Vision also has to do with setting an example. It has to do with working with other members of the team and working with different disciplines within the design profession. Vision has to be shared. You want everybody to know what they have to do as a team and what each member's role is. You want everybody to buy in to your vision and pitch in to bring it to reality.
Leadership requires that we keep selling our vision. A leader always needs to be instilling optimism and making sure that everybody believes the job can and will be done as well as possible. To accomplish that, I think good leaders constantly reinforce the team message. They get people talking—and talking in terms of the team rather than about themselves. I know this may sound trite, but I have found that it is important to reaffirm constantly the message that you are all moving ahead, and in the right direction.
Another quality I think is vital is flexibility. It is no sign of weakness to say you think you have taken a wrong turn. Being willing to right a wrong course and to listen to others is critical.
Being willing to learn is another vital trait of leadership. We are never too old, too smart or too successful to learn from others, or to benefit from having mentors. Being able to talk, brainstorm, share ideas, problems and feelings helps us work smarter and maintain our sanity. These are very important relationships. Also, I think as women we can learn a lot from observing how men have been successful.
The next quality of leadership: never give up. I have always believed that tenacity is more important than talent. If you work hard enough and keep on going, you will get where you want to go.
The last quality I want to discuss is one I am not very good at myself: taking care of yourself and celebrating your successes. If, as a leader, you work like the Energizer bunny without stopping to take a breath, then people around you will feel compelled to do the same—and there is a point at which people run out of gas. A leader needs to pace herself, and in doing so, teach others to do the same. Informal group get-togethers can be a great way to relax and blow off steam, but it's even more important to make sure people have private time for themselves and their families and friends. Taking a moment to
celebrate individual and team success is important, too. Even if it's a small victory, take the time to say, "Wow, this really turned out nice." Designers need to feel good about their work.
I was raised in a southern family. We were taught to be very respectful of other people and never to be loud or to express our visions or energy to other people. We were taught to be very congenial. About three years ago someone referred to me as "a bossy Texan broad." So I guess I made a kind of transition between the time I was 12 years old and today. In fact, when I was a 12-year-old Girl Scout, I learned a lesson. We went on a weekend camping trip and everybody was assigned responsibilities. I was on the cooking team with a girl named Jane who decided that she was going to take charge. We had a great bonfire and she just went ahead and put everything directly onto the fire. She didn't wrap the potatoes or the vegetables in foil. She didn't wrap the meat or put it on a grill. And we all just sat there and watched as our dinner burned and disintegrated, because none of us felt comfortable saying, "Jane, maybe we better rethink this one." We all went to bed very hungry that night.
There is a value in your voice, in all of our voices. We need to feel confident in the value of our own voices. Being a leader is about helping others. Being a leader is good. True leadership is appreciated, not resented.
In high school I was involved in student council. In my senior year we decided to hold a big dance and raise a lot of money. We had the idea to tie it together with several other schools, something that had never been done before. Usually we'd hire a band that would play for $25. We decided to hire Ides of March with Chaka Kahn. They were just starting out, so they didn't cost a fortune, but they cost a lot more than we were used to paying for bands. It was big business to us—and something that had never been done at our school. So I went to our student council treasurer. Naturally he was a boy; we didn't have girl treasurers then. He didn't think we should do it, thought the risk was too big. But I found a way to deal with the student council treasurer; I went over his head to the school principal. He thought it would be a good lesson for us, win or lose. We took the risk, hosted this big multi-school dance and made more money than the student council had ever seen.
The lesson: Sometimes leadership involves risks—even big risks. You weigh the options. You gauge the up side. Calculate your odds of losing. Look for the best solution. But nothing is sure, and if you don't think big, you don't win big.
This is something that has always been challenging for me as a woman. It is challenging for men, too. Taking a risk isn't just a matter of putting yourself on the line. The risks you take affect the careers and livelihoods of other people, too. Am I always right? That's not possible. There is always a sense of doubt, but in the end, after you've done all the analysis and planning, I think you have to trust your intuition and your own spirit.
When I was in college, I was the social chairman in my sorority. (You may see a pattern emerging here.) There were roughly 50 fraternities on our campus, and we customarily had mixers with maybe three of them. It's just what we did. After I became social chairman, I found myself getting calls from lots of other fraternities inviting us to parties and other events at their houses. I had to convince the other girls that we should meet more people, broaden our horizons beyond the three or four frats that they considered important. This represented a major paradigm shift to my sisters, but they finally caved in. Our reputation for being elitist broke down over time. It was a great experience for everybody. And expanding the social network resulted in a lot of women meeting their husbands.
One of the great challenges of leadership is earning and building your team's trust. The business of design isn't like the army; people only follow leaders because they trust them. People want to know that you are concerned with their own interests. What's in it for me? That is ultimately how everybody evaluates everything.
At the company where I worked previously, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to build my own team. They are awesome people. My position was created so that I could build this team within our sales organization. However, our team had a different motivation from that of our salespeople. We were all about service, all about relationships. Salespeople are always driving for the kill, focused on each sale. Building relationships within the A & D community has a very different motivation, and salespeople sometimes have trouble getting used to that. So I learned to be a street fighter in business. I found myself involved in a lot of interdepartmental sumo-wrestling contests. As a leader you have to learn to fight for your team to make sure that they are fully supported.
Leadership also involves building a sense of community and having a common sense of purpose. You have to do your best to make sure everybody believes in the same things with regard to your business objectives and the way you achieve them. When people work together and feel that there is a sense of community and friendship and partnership and support, work becomes more than just a job. An entire social structure develops, one that is a very positive force.
So, building community requires that you constantly reinforce the team message. Make sure everybody feels the same as you do and visa versa. I think it's important that people sense you are no different from them, that when the car has a flat tire, you're willing to get your hands dirty helping them change it.
Resolving conflict promptly is also important to the community. Conflict is unavoidable, but you can't let it stew. You take care of it as soon and decisively as you can.
Diversity—It Takes all Kinds
You always have different personalities to deal with, and people who are stronger or weaker at fulfilling their roles. I used to think it was important to work with the weakest people first, giving them priority over the strongest people. I have learned that this thinking is backwards; sometimes you need to work the hardest or spend the most time with your strongest people to make sure that they are feeling supported and that their momentum is up before you focus on those who need more help.
Every organization is diverse. There are different personality types. People grow up in different kinds of families, have different histories, different belief systems. It is important to tune into each person's unique characteristics so that you can talk and listen to them more effectively. It's critical to take the time to get to know people well, make sure you're on the same wavelength and make sure that each person feels good about his or her contribution.
Flexibility is another important attribute of leadership. Sometimes it becomes apparent that the path you chose doesn't lead to the destination you want. That is when you need to be big enough to admit you need to change course.
Flexibility is also important when you hit an obstacle—in your company's progress or in your career—and if I can promise you anything it is that you will run into obstacles. For women, some of those obstacles will have to do with gender stereotyping and dealing with a male-dominated culture. But whoever we are and wherever we work, we will encounter roadblocks. The people who prosper are those who find ways over and around those barricades. Creativity in the face of adversity—the ability to improvise solutions in the heat of battle—may be more important than the ability to build great plans. This is true because none of your great plans will ever turn out exactly as you conceived them. You'll find that is true in both your career and in carrying out your company's business plans.
Establishing a vision. Finding your voice. Taking risks. Broadening your horizons. Building trust. Building community. Embracing diversity. Staying flexible. These are my eight keys to leadership. I think they're key to anyone's success in a leadership role, but I know they are especially relevant in a world where we still sometimes encounter gender stereotyping.
When Georgy Olivieri was a guest on the campus of Kendall College of Art and Design to deliver this presentation, her position at Teknion LLC was the Director of the Architecture and Design Program. She subsequently was promoted to Vice President for Sustainable Initiatives. Since then, however, Olivieri has been recruited by Haworth, Inc. and now serves as Vice President, Architecture and Design. We believe that her message on these pages has gained even more strength for our readers since she presented it at Kendall, and that Olivieri herself is a living example of the thoughts she shared in her presentation for Kendall College's Gender and Leadership series.