Q&A with Anne Harris Carter: 'Influence goes beyond titles'

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When did you first start thinking of yourself as a leader?

I became familiar with the role of a leader at an early age. My parents were deeply engaged in the community and various initiatives and my siblings and other relatives were also role models — through their academic achievements, excelling in sports and other extracurricular activities, and volunteerism. As a result, I developed high expectations for myself.

My involvement in music provided some of my first official leadership roles. In junior high, I served as president of Mozart Club (yes, Mozart Club!), through which I first learned about Robert’s Rules. Through many years of playing in orchestra, I initially observed how concertmasters led not only the violin sections but also needed to have a connection with the conductor and the entire orchestra; that was my preparation for subsequently serving as concertmaster myself. Additional leadership roles continued as my education and career progressed.

I once heard author, coach, and speaker John Maxwell offer a simple description: leadership is influence. I am mindful that influence goes beyond titles. I am also mindful that influence comes from indirect exposures as well as direct interactions with others. It is important not to underestimate who is observing you and how others might interpret your conduct.

What was one of your biggest challenges in leadership and how did you overcome it?

My first job after college was a department manager in the largest branch of a department store chain. The sales volume of the store meant extra visibility from both the operating division and the corporation. In preparation for my first corporate visit, during which staff were expected to stay well past midnight, my sales associates started to sign out at closing time. I had assumed they knew the expectation to work late and I was extremely upset that I would not have adequate help for this important visit. My supervisor, the assistant store manager, accompanied me to the parking lot to walk around, give me time to compose myself, and pep me up for the task at hand.

That was a memorable lesson in delegation. I still have to remind myself to resist the temptation to do everything myself; that journey has involved overcoming a perfectionist mentality. Now I seek to be intentional and consistent in building relationships. Often this results in personal discoveries.

Relationship building is key in inspiring collaboration — an art that includes supporting the professional development of others, identifying talent, sometimes drawing out those who do not raise their own hand, recognizing a job well done and being fair and constructive in sharing feedback.

What do you want young women of color to know about leadership?

The reality is that some people, perhaps many, will look at your skin color and gender and question your qualifications and ability. This may take the form of subtle references to your education, or even less-than-subtle references to affirmative action. However, it is counterproductive to assume those questions exist. In this type of situation, I ask myself if unfavorable bias might be a factor and I seek to express my perspective. Doing so usually leads to a candid exchange of perspectives and, in my experience, respectful and productive relationships.

Building relationships across difference — visible and invisible — is an especially high priority for me. Sometimes all it takes is a firm handshake accompanied by a gracious smile.

Anything else you’d like readers to know?

My mission is to make a positive impact in the life of my family, my workplace, and the community — by asking daily whom I can help and whom I can ask for help.

The pursuit of balancing personal and professional life is a topic that generates much discussion. Rather than balance, I think of it as integration. For me, the key is identifying your priorities and acting accordingly. I acknowledge there are occasions when priorities flex. The very pursuit, evolves over time — which is what makes life so exciting for me.

• Anne Harris Carter is Director of Energy Efficiency for Alliant Energy.

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