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  • I. J. Neal

Leader is More Than a Title


Some of us spend considerable time building a network. Trying to meet the right people to further our career. Thinking if only we get with the right people, in the right circle, our career will take off and reach the heights we imagine. Don't get me wrong, a vast network is very valuable. But without substance, you will be what, when I worked at IBM, we called "an empty suit"--a lightweight on substance but a heavyweight name dropper.

We each bring our personal life experience to every position we have in the workplace. So I am going to walk down memory lane to make four specific points about being a leader:

I went to a public under performing grade school, a "Lean on Me" (like the movie) high school. (For those of you too young or have not seen the movie, "Lean on Me" stars Morgan Freeman as a new principal in a school where almost everything was wrong from a shortage of books to alcoholic teachers.) I went to a public university. When I entered the workforce I did NOT know anyone of influence. NOBODY. NADA. My parents did not have a network. They were the working poor. My first job I applied at the largest city newspaper carrying a great high school transcript and some college credits. I was interviewed by the Director of Advertising for the position of advertising/marketing assistant. The interview went great. I had a feeling I had gotten the job.

Insight 1: Learn how to sell yourself. The only thing you need to do this is to believe in yourself!

I was told my references would be checked and I would hear something soon. A short time later I got a call and was told that I had the job and that I was getting a raise of $100 more per week than the starting salary because the Director had heard such good things about me. WOW! A raise before the first day on the job!!

Insight 2: How you present yourself EVERYDAY in EVERY situation is the real testament of your leadership!

My advertising/marketing assistant job turned out to be cutting ads out of the newspaper, gluing them to cardboard and mailing it to the customer as proof that their ad had run!

Insight 3: Do not settle for a dead end job! If the job does not move you forward toward your career goal, find one that does!

A Toxic, Sexist Work Environment

I landed a job that paid double but I discovered the environment was toxic. It was 99% male management and 100% female staff. All the women had to ask their male managers for permission to go to the bathroom. Not "hey can you cover for me while I go to the ladies' room". NO. Raise your hand or use the intercom and say: "May I go to the ladies room please?" Some of the male managers thought it was funny to answer NO. There was also one senior manager who, if you were female and he was passing you in the hall, he patted your butt as he passed! He was an equal opportunity female butt swatter! All the female staff learned to move to the other side of the hall to safely get past him. This was a unionized office and eventually the sexist practices boiled over to the threat of an employee strike. When the strike was nearly imminent, the top executive tried a "hail Mary" and asked for an employee focus group to discuss the issues. I was drafted. The meeting was the top management and ten staff. Let me set the scene. Management team of 6, 5 of whom were male. 10 female staff including 1 African American. The tension could be felt the moment we walked in the room. There was shouting, crying, talking over one another. I was quiet. When asked to speak, I used the softest voice I could muster and still be heard. My demeanor was calm. I was unemotional. I outlined the toxicity, how it devalued the work force. Then to Management's surprise, I suggested solutions.

Insight 4: Stun Your Management. Never identify a problem without a proposed solution!

Finally, good leaders do not prejudge where or from whom the solution to a problem will come. Sometimes the person you least expect will be the one with the best solution. Block out the messenger and listen to the message. The best leaders listen!

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