Margit Schatzman is President of Educational Credential Evaluators, Inc. [ECE] and celebrated her 40th work anniversary this year. As a pillar in the applied comparative education field, she puts vision into action to support colleagues in her field.
Last week, at a professional conference of international educators, I stood up in a session on mental wellbeing and teared up in front of a packed meeting room. Hankie in hand, I came out as an introvert with imposter syndrome and recounted an early-career public humiliation that changed my life. Oh, and I also confessed that I loved my profession and I cared for all my colleagues in the audience.
My emotion was a genuine response to the heartfelt recounting of mental health challenges colleagues are facing during an increasingly stressful time in higher education and the post pandemic work world. Through 40 years in leadership positions at a non-profit organization, I have cultivated a professional persona, but sometimes my animated facial expressions and gestures…and yes, sometimes tears…give away my excitement and passion about issues close to my heart.
How do we show up for the people in our lives in a way that provides assurance, comfort, inspiration, and direction? How do people from the diverse human spectrum translate and project their uniqueness into the role of leader? The conclusion that works for me is to be my authentic self. That phrase, authentic self, has become a bit of a cliché, but what does it really mean? Everyone must define it for themself.
Being a Female Leader
How is being a female leader different? Different from what? Being a female leader is the only option for me. I am a white woman, first generation American (on my mother’s side), and grew up in a working, middle class family in a housing project in the 1960’s and 1970’s. As a native English speaker, I possess blond (now grey) hair, old woman, and white skin privilege. That is who I am, but not all that I know. Out of choice. I choose to look beyond my upbringing, my gender, my race, my age, to seek out experiences, education, and relationships that broaden my horizon so that I can bring myself, in all my dimensions and involvements, to working with others from many diverse backgrounds and solving problems with them.
The first time I remember tearing up in front of an all-staff meeting, I was mortified by my own behavior. Later, upon reflection, I decided that weeping about the retirement departure of a beloved, long-time employee was the best thing I could do in front of my staff at that moment. Showing vulnerabilities might not make me an attractive leader to some. From my perspective, there is a time for stoicism and restraint. In the real world, there is also a place for candor and compassion.
After I shared my story with colleagues at that conference last week, co-workers, professional colleagues, and complete strangers approached me with expressions of gratitude. The strength and beauty of the experience was not that I stood up and shared my vulnerability, but that so many people in that room felt comfortable sharing their own stories of fear, disappointment, sadness…and lessons learned. The sense of release and energy that was generated was possible because of the trust, bravery, and generosity of spirit of those attending.
Finding My Path
Finding my own way on a path of authenticity as a leader is an ongoing quest of learning. Along the way I have attended many seminars, trainings, attended classes, listened to podcasts, read books and articles, and joined peer and professional groups. I have seen management and leadership trends come and go. I have studied management theories, taken assessment tests, worked with a coach and appreciated mentors. Perhaps if I could devote a full-time job to learning how to be a leader, I could be a genuinely great leader. Sometimes I would walk out of a training program and calculate that if I implemented even half of what was being suggested, it would take up the entire day. If I filled in the chart, or had the requisite follow up sessions or performed the assessment exercises, when would I genuinely get my work done? I have learned to be selective and apply what is most important for me, my organization, my co-workers, and the situation at hand.
Leading the Way
Since I have a full-time day job as a leader, perfecting my leadership skills has often involved the messy work of actually doing the work. I have learned from making mistakes, trying to learn from the successes and failures and getting up the next morning with the goal of being just a little better, for the sake of the people around me. That has been the best teacher. And yes, those seminars, the reading, and the mentors all helped, too, even if to confirm that what I was already practicing was better or to completely dismiss an unworkable or inappropriate idea.
Each person in a leadership role, with or without the formal title of leader, will accumulate a constellation of ideas, practices, and beliefs that will point to their own North Star. Here are some of mine:
- Know your own and your organization’s values. Proclaim and practice them whenever you can. Put them to work especially when facing a dilemma or challenge.
- Let your people know you respect them…and try to like them. It is not impossible, but difficult, to lead and work with people who you do not like on some level. Respect is required. If there is not some level of respect on both sides, someone does not belong.
- Not every person is or needs to be a superstar. Each employee has value as a human and value in our working world. A phrase that was bandied about in the international higher education community for a while, especially in relation to competitive institutions, was the detestable “the best and the brightest.” Our world is made up of common people. I proudly count myself as one of those. The job of a leader is to help each person bring their best selves to work each day.
- Perfection is the enemy of great. Sometimes good enough is good enough. Recognize that and help others overcome unproductive perfectionism to get things done.
- Be comfortable with not always being liked. The job of a leader is not to win the popularity contest. You serve your people best when you take on the difficult and unpopular decisions for the good of the whole.
- Be willing to change your mind. When done judiciously and for the right reasons, this is a sign of strength, open mindedness, and the ability to grow and learn.
- Understand the role of recognizing intuitively sensible solutions. Look for solutions, methods, and processes that make sense. Don’t dismiss simple solutions.
- The 95% rule. Consider solutions that take care of 95% of the situations or benefit 95% of the staff or clients. Going through contortions to make everyone happy or solve a problem that has little impact on the majority can waste resources and lead to greater dissatisfaction.
- Learn to be comfortable saying “I don’t know.” This lesson was the one that I recounted to the professional meeting last week. It was one of the best, early career lessons that I learned. Here is what happened:
At a professional conference of university administrators in the 1980s, about three years into my career, I gave a presentation on the educational system of Cyprus. My boss at the time had pressed me into applying for a grant to write about the topic, for which there were limited resources in my area of international university admissions. I reluctantly took on the assignment, but soon embraced the project and the exciting and fascinating world of applied comparative education. The stuffy conference room in a hotel in Chicago was packed with professional admissions officers and registrars from around the country. Most of them were much older than I, had far more experience in the field, but for some reason thought that my session was worth attending. I was thrilled to present my research findings and ran through my overhead transparencies of educational charts, grading scales, credit conversion formulas, and snappy sample documents – all, naturally, with biodata redacted.
It seemed like the presentation had gone well. I opened the floor to questions from the audience. I answered a few easy questions and then called on a raised hand toward the side of the room. The question came from a giant in the field, who was a long-time friend of my boss and who worked for a competing organization. He asked a question that I was not well equipped to answer. I tried to respond, but the answer was clearly incomplete, and possibly not entirely coherent. Instead of giving me a pass or even politely correcting me, the questioner pressed me further. I bumbled on, trying to answer the question, digging myself further into a verbal hole and laying bare my inexperience and ignorance. And he pressed further. It was a humiliating experience. I finally turned to the room of attendees, feeling their embarrassment for my painful performance, and asked if anyone in the audience could add any helpful information.
This experience was the greatest gift my tormentor or unintended mentor (take your pick) could have given me. His persistence in getting an answer taught me two things:
- One of the most powerful things that a leader or anyone else in a position of expertise of authority can say is, “I don’t know.” Do your best to do the research, gather information, and make your analysis. Take it as far as you can and if you are at the end of your capability, or knowledge or ideas, say so.
- I learned the power of asking for help. Know that you might not be right or have all the information or answers. Let others enhance your work, add their input, and bring about a stronger, more informed decision or outcome.
Years later, as the man with the question announced his retirement, I took the opportunity to tell him the impact that his actions had on my future professional growth. I have him and that painful experience to thank for building my confidence, trusting myself, and being the kind of professional and leader that reflects my authentic self.