Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Leaders don’t wait, they create

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If you’re aiming for a leadership position, trade any potentially inhibiting passivity and inertia for initiative, perseverance and drive. As an anonymous quote says: “Leaders don’t wait. They shape their own frontiers.”

I spoke with Farrell Chiles, author of “As BIG As It Gets” and board chairman of Blacks in Government (BIG) from 2002 to 2006. He offers these strategies for shaping your own frontier:

Absorb knowledge. Gain expertise in all business functions of your organization — including procurement, human resources, contracting, information technology, budgeting, project management — even if these topics don’t interest you. You then will be prepared to make sound business judgments about all office operations.

Identify your knowledge gaps and then fill them by seeking appropriate projects, detail assignments and volunteer experience, and by exploiting training opportunities offered by your agency and professional organizations.

For example, BIG runs a highly competitive leadership academy for its members and has sponsored lectures from Senior Executive Service members on how to qualify for the SES. Many other professional organizations similarly provide leadership training.

Be first. “When I ran for elections in BIG and other organizations,” says Chiles, “I tried to beat others to the punch — to announce my candidacy first and early.” Chiles publicized his support and asked others to endorse his candidacy in order to convince potential rivals of the futility of competing against him.

Toughen your skin. “It can be lonely at the top; you have to be prepared for that,” Chiles warns.

”Being a strong leader sometimes requires making unpopular decisions, and even sometimes making decisions that you might not necessarily agree with yourself,” he says. “You must be prepared to take the bull by the horns, and bear criticism and negative responses from others. But remember, business decisions are not personal — they are business decisions.”

Chiles also emphasizes the importance of providing clear, cogent rationale for decisions after the fact. “I had to explain the consequences of our actions and our inactions,” he says. “You listen to the objectors. Try to respond in a positive, professional manner. And thank others for their different points of view.”

Go for the long haul. Don’t let occasional defeats paralyze you. You don’t need a 100 percent success rate to maintain a leadership position.

“I have studied leaders, especially political leaders,” says Chiles. “They don’t win every election and might not be on the winning side of every vote. But you have to stay in the game, and have a generally good win-loss record. Most importantly, persistence with integrity pays off.”

Get beyond flattery. Get outside of insulated bubbles filled by ego-boosting “yes people” and aggressively solicit candor from advisers. Create a safe environment for colleagues, staffers and others to provide honest feedback — including opposing arguments — on your decisions, speeches and strategies.

Reward others. Part of being a benevolent and popular leader is to publicly thank hard-working staffers for their contributions. For example, while Chiles was president of BIG’s Los Angeles/Long Beach Area Chapter, he helped initiate various awards, including Public Service Recognition Awards to deserving BIG members and to particular federal agencies for helping to foster a positive image for government service.

“The intent of the PSRA,” Chiles writes in his book, “was to provide recognition to our members who seldom received awards or recognition at their agencies. We presented each award at the recipient’s agency in front of their peers and bosses. The agency award was given to one particular agency to get more buy-in to BIG and to get unspoken commitment to support our programs.”

Give personal touches. While serving as board chairman, Chiles sent holiday and congratulatory cards to board members, issued end-of-term awards to departing board members, and sent cards acknowledging major milestones in BIG members’ lives, such as promotions, anniversaries, birthdays, college graduations and retirements.

Such seemingly small gestures may make big, lasting impressions on those whose support you need.

Successful leaders know how to ‘work the room’

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Kenneth Blanchard, author of “The One Minute Manager” and a management expert, said that the key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority. And the keys to influence are relationships, advises Farrell Chiles, author of “As BIG As It Gets” and board chairman of Blacks in Government (BIG) from 2002 to 2006.

How can you — as an aspiring leader or current leader — build potentially pivotal relationships?

Network aggressively, Chiles said in an interview. It is easier to win votes for a run for an elective office or gain support for your ideas from people who have previously enjoyed favorable contact with you — even if only in passing — than from complete strangers.

Likewise, people will generally be more eager to join your organization if you attempt to recruit them via personal contacts than via anonymous solicitations.

Following these principles, after reading several books by networking guru Susan RoAne, Chiles embarked on a bold networking campaign that involved “always doing my best to approach people at all levels of the hierarchy, ask them how they are doing, thank them for all they do for BIG, and try to show that my leadership is a caring leadership,” Chiles said. “Wherever I go, I try to put myself in the position of a host and introduce people to one another.”

One way that Chiles does so is by arriving early for meetings and conferences, walking the meeting area, greeting attendees regardless of whether he already knows them, initiating light conversations and introducing attendees to one another.

He recommends kicking off such interactions by asking attendees such questions as: “Have we met before?” “Where are you from?” and “What brought you to this event?”

In addition, Chiles arms himself with conversational points for such interactions by reading the newspaper and watching the news every morning.

Also, Chiles takes care to remember peoples’ names after meeting them and to use them whenever he meets them again. He follows up with new acquaintances via occasional or strategically timed phone calls or emails.

In the past, such follow up “allowed me to continue to sell myself and my abilities as board chair, and gave members venting opportunities,” Chiles said. In fact, Chiles attributes his record-breaking longevity as BIG’s board chair, in part, to his ability to “work a room” and his dedication to maintaining positive one-on-one relationships with each of the 24 BIG board members who voted on each of his five bids for the board’s chairmanship.

Study public speaking, even if you hate it, Chiles said. Though he has always been eager to interact with small groups of people, he long dreaded public speaking. Nevertheless, early in his career, Chiles realized that he would have to become an inspirational public speaker in order to become a leader.

And so many years ago, Chiles began working doggedly to improve his presentation skills by attending executive speech courses, joining a corporate speech club and participating in public speaking competitions.

Even so, Chiles’ biggest dread remained delivering opening presentations at annual BIG meetings that were typically attended by more than 3,000 members. “Each time, all I wanted to do was to get up, speak for less than eight minutes, and sit down,” he says in his book.

But recognizing the importance of working on weaknesses rather than ignoring them, Chiles continued to hone his public speaking skills by immersing himself in the topic at hand, repeatedly rehearsing his speeches until he could deliver them flawlessly, working to exude confidence and passion and pumping himself up before each speech via self-talk and mind-mapping — imagining himself succeeding at the podium before each speech.

The result: Chiles earned critical acclaim for many of his BIG speeches and is now regularly offered paid speaking gigs — which he actually enjoys pursuing.

Which just goes to show: You don’t necessarily need to have a natural affinity for an activity to ultimately excel in it.