Conversation with Tracy Barlok, Vice President for Advancement, College of the Holy Cross and Janis Martinson, Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Lesley University
Cynthia Woolbright: Today we want to talk about effective leadership in advancement, Tracy, how would you define that? What makes an effective leader?
Tracy Barlok: I think an effective leader is synonymous with being an effective role model. Modeling good behavior and learning the importance of this early on in your career is a great way to build and develop your own leadership qualities and then show others your leadership skills.
Cynthia Woolbright: Would you find that comparable for example, for a president of a university, but also in your role as a vice president or is there any nuance to exhibiting effective leadership in advancement?
Tracy Barlok: No. I think it is the same. You learn to be an effective leader by watching others. Whether you're the college president or the vice president for advancement or an assistant director with aspiring career goals. You develop a management style and you become effective as a leader by watching how others do it really well or not so well and how you personally respond to these styles.
Janis Martinson: I think Tracy is absolutely right, that modeling of extraordinary behaviors is a big part of leadership. You're asking people to work hard, to commit themselves, to think broadly, and you have to be able to demonstrate those things as well. What I feel is unique in advancement leadership is that you're leading people in both formal and informal ways, because you have a team of employees that you're working with, and some of those structures lend themselves to more traditional hierarchical forms of leadership depending on your style. But then you also have this large group of people that you're leading who are making decisions that are completely voluntary on their part. It stretches your leadership skills to be working in advancement. You really need to be able to stretch into those places that are sometimes kinder, gentler, to inspire people around a shared vision and shared goals.
Janis Martinson: Setting standards and expectations applies both to employees and to volunteers. People want to know what they're expected to do, how that's going to make a difference, and why it matters. Providing inspiration and encouragement is a big part of leadership. Part of that encouragement is reflecting and noting the success and celebrating it with people. That's important for employees, but it's really important for volunteers.
Cynthia Woolbright: How did you learn your leadership? What were the circumstances in which you learned leadership, and when did you begin to realize that you in fact possessed leadership traits and abilities? Let's start with you, Tracy.
I was privileged to be put into a leadership position in my first job right out of college. I had no previous management experience so I had to jump right in and learn to manage while I was learning a new job. I was trusted with a lot of responsibility and I knew that expectations were high. You learn an enormous amount when you watch how others lead, and then reflect upon what you are drawn to personally and professionally. What qualities motivate you or inspire you? How do various leadership styles motivate or inspire others? I had some incredible role models and I quickly learned that asking for help and being inclusive was the key to success. At the same time, I had to show that I was savvy, bold and in control. Balancing humility with confidence can create the perfect recipe for success. As Janis said, you've got to lead the troops. You make mistakes and that's okay. You change it up and figure it out and keep moving forward.
And you thank people along the way. You learn to create a culture of sustainability where everybody is feeling valued and you're working together toward a common goal.
I think like many women, I needed to have someone say to me, "I see leadership qualities in you. Thank you for your leadership." I saw it as a matter of taking responsibility, not a matter of taking leadership. It was critical for me to have mentors and role models who were encouraging me to understand what I was doing if I was going to do it in an intentional and thoughtful way and be the best possible leader, I needed to think of it in terms of leadership.
Cynthia Woolbright: It's interesting that you referred to the women aspect in terms of women's leadership. Tracy, did something of that sort occur to you at all? Did someone have to reflect to you that you were a leader?
Tracy Barlok: I'm not so sure that my gender necessarily played a role in this reflection as much as my youth did at the time. Certainly others had confidence in my abilities, but honestly, I didn’t know any better. For me starting off, it was really about the opportunity – somebody gave me the opportunity to to be a leader – to innovate and create and said, “you can do this.” And I didn't think that I couldn't.
Cynthia Woolbright: What might be some attributes of an effective leader?
We've been working here at Miss Hall's School in a program where we help girls to develop their leadership expertise. We've really studied what are the behavioral components that everybody can adopt, because these are teachable skills. They're things that you practice and develop and strengthen. We've categorized those under four headings of vision, voice, interpersonal efficacy, and resilience. Those are four qualities that we develop as human beings for navigating our lives as a whole, because leadership is a continuum. It's not something that arrives like a crown landing on your head when you reach a certain role or take a certain position in life. It is about having personal agency and being willing to influence other people and navigate very complex dynamics.
Those four areas of competence sum up a whole – you could talk for a long time about each one of them. But they really resonate for us in working with students, and I think they continue to resonate for adults.
I think we would all agree that those areas of competency are fundamentally core to what we're talking about here. I would add that being politically savvy is very, very important, and that means understanding yourself, understanding your audience and understanding the world in which you're working and living. Making connections is extremely important as is understanding how you are perceived. A good leader is able to read the landscape and stretch or mold their own style to adapt appropriately. Finally, showing humility or vulnerability is critically important. It helps build loyalty and it helps create an environment that accommodates growth and mistakes. I'm a big believer in allowing people the room to do their jobs. You hire good people and you let them do their jobs but you support them and help them along the way.
Cynthia Woolbright: How does someone in advancement go about developing effective leadership for themselves?
I encourage all of our new staff members to find somebody within our division–or at the college whom they believe models good behavior . I want them to find somebody whose leadership style seems to mesh with theirs, Build some sort of mentoring relationships with other people and watch how they do things and talk to them about it.
I reward independent thinking. I'm a big believer in not necessarily putting a square person in a square hole. I think it's good to shake things up a little bit because it makes people work outside their comfort zone, and you often get really good results from that with the right kind of encouragement and support. I encourage lots of conversation around the table. I don't think you should sit back and listen all the time. I like active, engaged partners.
So, Janis? How would you encourage a young entry level person to think about how they might go about developing their leadership in ways that would be effective for them then as well as later?
What Tracy has said is very comprehensive. One thing I can think to add is that helping people to broaden their understanding and definition of leadership is important because, again, I think so often that word is very fraught with some outdated and really limiting definitions. And to help people understand that any time that they are moving the group forward, moving a team forward, or an idea forward is a form of leadership and that there are all kinds of different styles of leadership. And so, again, any time you can tap someone on the shoulder and reflect to them that they have changed the dynamics in the room or changed the direction of a project or created a new possibility, that helps them to understand where they're adding value and to build their confidence and to do more of that.
This is what I loved about Tracy's answer she was really talking about a set of behaviors rather than a particular role.
Do circumstances define the leader or does the leader define the circumstances?
Tracy Barlok: A good leader would take a question like that and say “it depends”! a good leader will gather the facts before reacting, but their response will reveal their leadership style and create buy in. On the other hand, getting out in front of things and being the one leading and directing also brings people along. So I'm not sure there's a right answer here.
Janis Martinson: I don't think it can be an either or. Part of being a great leader is analyzing and understanding circumstance very quickly and very accurately. A one size fits all form of leadership is the worst thing you can do. When I read this question, I was thinking about "Invictus" and Nelson Mandela. He responded very much to the specificity of his situation, but there is no doubt that who he was as a human being and his tremendous skills as a leader changed the course of that country. I would say that a leader uses the circumstances, but that the leader is the person who has the most influence on the outcome, who really determines the outcome.
Janis Martinson: Leadership is something that can be learned and developed. I deeply believe that. And at the same time, a big part of it is attitude and temperament. And so in this question particularly made me think about a leader's ability to convey calm in the midst of chaos and to connect deeply with other human beings and convey real care for other people and to convey a reality-based form of optimism, a realistic kind of optimism and enthusiasm, and energy for the work ahead. Those things are real qualities of temperament that transcend circumstance and skill.
Tracy Barlok: Creating a sense of passion and pride really does build trust. That's so important. But it really has to be authentic or people will see through it. Being an effective manager and a charismatic leader is extremely hard work. It's the human interactions, it's the management and leading that is so demanding because it takes patience and it takes sensitivity. And we all know that if you don't have a good team around you, you're not going to be successful. So it is incumbent up on you to put so much of your effort into building and leading and creating a very talented team.
Janis Martinson: I couldn't agree with you more. And I think your point about authenticity is right on the money. If you stand back from leadership and think of it in this very mechanical way, decisions about budgets and timelines and all of these logistical aspects of the job, when the really difficult decisions are the ones that have to do with human beings and with integrity and ethical situations which are often not at all clear cut and very murky. It takes a tremendous sense of your own core as well as the core identity and values and mission of the organization that you're serving. And so I love your point about authenticity. I think it's a really big one.
Cynthia Woolbright: What lessons have you each learned as an effective leader?
Tracy Barlok: I've had three significant jobs in my career. I've learned a lot in those three places. My leadership style has certainly evolved, but one of the most important things I have learned is that the more responsibility I have, the more important is it to be reflective. It's easy and tempting to jump in and say “let’s do this, let’s change this” but it is very important to give yourself time to reflect and to make sure that you're moving the ship in the right direction. Your decisions need to be strategic and mission-centric and your team had to support you. Over time, I've learned not to move so quickly.
Cynthia Woolbright: And for you, Janis…
I don't think it's been any one lesson for me, but a host of them. There are a couple that I would say are big lessons. One is similar to what Tracy said, which is to spend less time on the details and more time on the big picture. I think that's something that comes with experience.
But the inverse of that is when it comes to relationships, it's almost the opposite. There's always this tension in advancement work because you have a certain amount of work that has to be very high volume and then a certain amount of work that has to be very, very customized and personal because we're working very individually with human beings. And so in those instances, when you're working with people and you're developing relationships, the little details count a tremendous amount, and that's just specific to advancement work. And the same working with a team, those moments that you take to check in with somebody can matter a great deal.
But the other lesson, because we're serving an organization and we have this sense that we're serving our donors, and then when you're in management also serving your team. It 's very important to come forward and sit at the table and do that fully and consciously, that you are a partner with all of these people, not only a servant. And it's very easy for people who are younger in the profession or who have been socialized a certain way to get stuck in that servant position. You can integrate respect for people and care for people along with seeing yourself as an equal partner and even at times a leader and someone who can be a guide through the process. It's very important to have that maturation and development within yourself, go forward and not get stuck.
Well, this has been a wonderful conversation on effective leadership. I've learned a lot myself, so I really thank both of you for this.