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As of tomorrow, my tenure as Acting CEO of Leadership Victoria comes to an end and I will be formally stepping into the COO role. All in all, it’s been about 7 months in a role that came completely out of the blue, presenting me with a unique opportunity to learn, to grow, and to (hopefully) create an impact on the organisation and the community in a meaningful way.

In many ways, the Acting role presented an odd combination of challenges:

  • It was for a long enough period of time that I can’t just be a placeholder, I need to make important decisions that progress the business strategy, supports the team, aligns with the Board, and engages the alumni.
  • This is a role that my CEO (Sally Hines) is returning to, so it was important to me that I preserve her authority and didn’t do things that would undermine her vision.
  • Because of the ‘Acting’ nature of the role – i.e. it’s a role I didn’t apply for nor was I specifically recruited for – I was mindful of challenges when it came to how much authority I could genuinely exert vs how much people expected (or did not expect) of me.

In the end, the way I approached this role was one of **learning**. This is such a unique opportunity: What could I learn from this experience? In this Ko Lab, I share the notes I’ve jotted down along the way, what I was proud of, and what I wish I could’ve done better.

On bringing all of myself to the table

I started the Ko Lab the day before I stepped into the Acting CEO role. At the time, I felt it was important to preserve who I was throughout the period, especially as I didn’t know at the time how I was supposed to show up in the role. Am I supposed to act a certain way now that I’m a CEO? Are there expectations of what I need to do that I’m not prepared for? Would I need to do things that aren’t authentic or true to who I am?

I’m pleased to share that by and large, the answer for me has been ‘no‘. Naturally, whilst I fulfilled the requisite duties and obligations of the position, I was largely able to show up as ‘me’. I could be free and unfettered in the way I work, and I could bring my purpose and all of my experiences to bear to create genuine progress for the organisation, which was ultimately a joyful experience.

On reflection, I think this sense of joy and purpose is what helped me remain resilient throughout the turbulence of work. It helped anchor and centre me, because I didn’t need to pretend to be someone I’m not or do things that were counter to my values.

I thought this was such an important experience that I did my best to try and inspire the same in everyone I worked with, describing it as the venn diagram overlap between: “What do you really want to do?” and “What does the organisation need?”

Lesson learned: Be myself, and help others be themselves. It’s more purposeful, effective, and fun.

On empowering others to take action

One of the most interesting dynamics I observed in my transition from being someone who reported to the CEO, to being the CEO, is one I’ll loosely describe as ‘permission-seeking’.

When I was the Program Manager, I would often think: “Oh maybe I can’t make this decision, I should check with the CEO first.” Sitting in the CEO chair, I now had everyone coming to me with a similar sentiment. The thing is, I’d say that most of the time, a large proportion of those decisions really didn’t need the CEO’s stamp of approval. Instead, what I realised I was observing was a dynamic in which people may not feel like they were empowered to take action.

There are many things that could contribute to this, from workplace culture to a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities. My challenge to navigate was not feeling responsible for ‘fixing’ everything, and instead focusing on working with people and empowering them to take action. Consequently, this also meant reinforcing an experimental mindset in which it was ok to make mistakes, as long as we learned from them.

Crucially, this meant that I could then co-create new processes or strategies with the team, and I get to learn how other people would approach challenges.

Lesson learned: Empower others to take action, and support that by creating an environment where the focus is on learning from mistakes.

On diversity of style

A natural consequence of empowering others to take action is that invariably, people will approach challenges differently. In fact, I would estimate that at least half of the ‘conflict’ I’ve observed in the work environment is down to a difference in style or a misunderstanding / miscommunication of intent than a genuine right or wrong mistake.

As I posited in my last Ko Lab, the whole point of diversity is that there is a difference in opinions and a difference of styles and approaches. The flip side is that naturally, this will also result in conflict. Thus, a large part of my approach when dealing with such conflict has been to help people clarify: “Did someone do something wrong? Or did they not do it the way you would have?”

I think remote work has made this harder, because there’s simply less collaboration and communication between people when it comes to doing work, meaning there are fewer opportunities for people to be exposed to differences in styles.

Lesson learned: To promote diversity, focus on helping people better communicate with each other and embrace differences in styles.

On systemic inertia

For long time readers of the Ko Lab, you’ll appreciate how much I love systems thinking. Systemic inertia is the idea that within any system, there are many factors that ‘keep things the same’. Typically, people tend to think about technical factors, such as policies, technology, operations, etc. What I hadn’t properly accounted for was the emotional layer of systemic inertia.

There were numerous occasions where I encountered resistance to an idea for change, or where I would be on the receiving end of comments that seemed arbitrarily aggressive. It took me a while to realise that on many of these occasions, I was ‘talking to history’. I was speaking to a level of emotional pain or trauma that stemmed from an experience that predates me.

Whilst I was not responsible for (or even knew about) those experiences, it nonetheless had an impact on what I could do or how I approached my work. I realised two things: Firstly, what sometimes holds back progress is not a technical system, but the people themselves. That it can be human behaviour (pain and all) that holds systems in place. And thus secondly, in order to progress to occur, sometimes the intervention required from a leader is not technical, but emotional.

It meant that more often than not, I had to let go of ideas or proposals for change not because they were bad, but simply because people simply weren’t ready for them yet.

Lesson learned: To create genuine systemic change requires equal parts technical expertise and emotional empathy.

On the loneliness of leadership

Yeah, it’s still a thing, unfortunately. Part of the challenge of being in a position of leadership, whether it’s running ColourSpace or holding down the fort for Leadership Victoria, is that it really can be lonely. Staff look to me for decisions and guidance, the Board hold me accountable for the sustainability of the business, and I’m never not aware of the public eye from customers, stakeholders, and alumni.

Whilst there’s a lot of commentary on the need for leaders to be authentic, vulnerable, and courageous, my experience so far is it isn’t always possible. Part of that is the simple reason that the buck does stop with me, at the end of the day. When a team member comes to me distraught because they need help dealing with personal challenges, I can’t delegate that away. When I make a financial or business call, I have to own the risk and be prepared to explain it to the Board. When someone is upset at me, even if it’s for an issue that wasn’t my fault, I’m responsible for bearing that brunt (I liken it to hugging cactuses).

I’m mindful of the narrative around ‘hero leaders’ – and I certainly have no intention of wanting to be a hero – but I’ve come to realise that this is one of the paradoxes of leadership: Sometimes I’ve no choice but to step up to the plate because that is my responsibility, and therein lies the loneliness of leadership.

So what did I do about it? Firstly, I frequently revisited my first lesson above on staying true to myself. When times got tough, I reminded myself of my purpose and true north, of my passion for curiosity, learning, and discovery. Every challenge became an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone, to learn something new, allowing me to approach each situation with open-mindedness. Secondly, I did my best to lean on my support systems who helped me along the way: my mentors, my peer coaches, my friends, and my supporters (you, dear reader). Thank you all.

Lesson learned: “With great power comes great responsibility.” -Spiderman

Pictured: What it sometimes feels like.

Ok, so at this point, I’m only halfway through my notes, so clearly there are a lot of lessons I’ve learned. What I’ll do is finish the rest in the next Ko Lab.

In other news

I was recently featured in the Valiant CEO magazine. If you’re still wanting something to read, you can check out my thoughts on purposeful leadership and what I believe is important for leaders and businesses to consider as we move into the post-pandemic world.

In closing

If you enjoyed this Ko Lab, I’d really appreciate it if you shared it with a friend or two you think would get a kick out of this. You can send them here to sign up. Time permitting, I’ll try and make it the most engaging and thought-provoking newsletter you get!

And if you come across anything you’d like to ‘Ko Lab’ on, send it my way! I’m equally keen to learn about and share new perspectives and thoughts.

Have a great week!

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