CCA President Ellen Kleinstuber

Leadership Lessons from a New Grandma

June 16, 2022

Earlier this week, life bestowed upon me a title that I never thought I’d have - Grandma. As I watched my stepdaughter prepare to become a new mother, I’ve seen her grow and gain confidence. I also heard her worry about what was going to happen during delivery. She is someone who likes to be in control of the situation and have a plan (and backup plan) for everything. I’m sure those who have been through labor and delivery can attest that there is very little the mother-to-be has control over. In our case, the new mother was forced to change plans as her doctors decided to induce her and deliver the baby a few weeks early. And labor and delivery did not go as she expected, forcing her to tap deeper into her reserves of resilience and patience.

Much of the support her father and I offered during this time was reminding her she is stronger than she thinks, and the only things in life she can control are her thoughts and her actions. 

This is a good reminder for all of us in life, and in leadership. There are always going to be things outside of our control. Maybe a client calls an audible and asks you to rush a project you thought you had more time to finish, or a member of your team decides to take another job, leaving you short staffed. You can’t control the actions of your client or your staff. What you can control is how you respond, and how you choose to manage through the situation. 

Focus on Changing What You Can

When you stop worrying about what you can’t control, you have the time to change the things you can control. Use the frustration or disappointment you feel in these moments to motivate you, rather than just letting it annoy or distract you from focusing on the bigger picture things. Instead, focus on: 
  • maintaining a positive attitude,
  • assessing the situation and taking decisive action.
  • building a good team around you, trusting them to leverage their talents and
  • executing on the plan. 

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Watching how the delivery day unfolded (there was some chaos involved) reminded me of another important leadership lesson– actions speak louder than words. As a leader, the first step in guiding your team is to know exactly what you mean to say. The second step is to clearly say exactly what you mean and do so consistently. Someone is always watching the leader for guidance, even if you aren’t aware of it at the time. Your team may be confused or lose confidence in their ability to execute on your vision if: 

  • your words aren't clear,
  • your message isn't complete, or
  • your actions don't align with your words.
As minor complications arose during delivery the doctors decided to switch from a natural birth to cesarean to preempt an emergency that could present a risk to the life of either mother or baby. My stepdaughter and her husband were shaken by this news and they didn’t process the entirety of what the doctors were saying – they only heard “emergency”, and “we could lose both the mother and baby”. 

In times of crisis or stress, people may not hear all the words you speak or only hear the anxiety-inducing ones. Watch your team and make sure their actions are consistent with the words you think you spoke. If they aren’t, reinforce the message to ensure everyone stays on track and knows what to expect from you, and what is expected of them.

It’s been a week full of excitement and unease for our family. Now that our beautiful granddaughter has arrived – and our daughter is recovering well -- I’m turning my focus to how I can help the new parents raise their daughter to become a strong and confident woman. When I was growing up, my mother had a copy of the poem Children Learn What They Live, by Dorothy Law Nolte hanging on the wall in the kitchen. I’ve re-read that poem a lot over the last few months and have discovered that there are a few lines that speak to me as both a new grandma and a leader. I’ve taken the liberty here to replace “children” with “people” as I relate these to my experiences.

If people live with encouragement, they learn confidence. Henry Ford asserted that whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right. Leaders who offer encouragement to try new things or learn new skills and create a supportive environment for their team set the stage for growth. In today’s world of continual change, building your team’s confidence in their abilities will position them to respond to change, and continue to grow through it. 

If people live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and others. A leader’s job isn’t to tell their team how to do something, or to just do it themselves. It’s to clearly communicate the objective and the parameters they must work within then give their team the freedom to figure it out for themselves. Sometimes this means giving blanket authority to complete the task as they see fit. More often, setting boundaries for when you want to be included in decision-making will eliminate the risk of shaking their confidence if they feel you’ve second-guessed or vetoed their decisions. 

If people live with praise, they learn to appreciate. Two of the most powerful words a leader can use are “thank you”. Praise should be frequent, specific, and strategic – and always genuine. It’s also important to connect your praise to the mission or goals of the team by explaining why the behavior being praised is important. Leaders who recognize these one-off efforts can generate short-term goodwill and inspire others to recognize the accomplishments of those around them. Recognition can be contagious!

Recognition is also fleeting and tied to something that happened in the past. However, when recognition is coupled with appreciation for an individual’s inherent value as a person and teammate, teams experience increased engagement and productivity. Leaders can make a real difference when they make a habit of showing appreciation for those around them. Take time to get to know and understand your team – how they are doing, what is challenging them, and what can you do to help them be more successful. 

As a leader, always remember that people matter. Your team may not remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel. When they feel confident, appreciated, and secure about your trust in them, you’ve done your job as a leader. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a little granddaughter waiting for me to snuggle and love on.

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