When did you first start thinking of yourself as a leader?
Early on people around me saw me as a leader, well before I did … teachers, high school peers, etc. had always chosen me to be the leader. When I began my professional career, my abilities were recognized and rewarded as I quickly moved up the corporate ladder and in my mid-20s I was recruited to be the operations director at a private school. Walking into the empty facility and hearing the owner’s vision meant I had to be the change agent to transform a struggling organization into a thriving and vibrant school. Here I stood … a 25-year-old woman, preparing to take on the biggest challenge of my professional career.
I was tasked to develop a program and lead a staff (all who were old enough to be my parents) to work toward a common goal; challenging how they had been operating for the previous four years. I questioned my ability to change a culture. Would they be willing to invest in my direction? If I failed, there would be people who were unemployed! Could I shoulder that pressure so early in my career? Rather than being paralyzed by fear, I began to lay out a plan. Having a firm education foundation allowed me to articulate a comprehensive action plan for the staff. Through our combined efforts, enrollment increased by 70 percent, and parents were eager to refer their friends to the school. I finally began to see what others saw in me.
The picture was not all rosy and the first year was bumpy to say the least. I set high expectations and demanded the same from my staff. A majority of the staff chose to move on in the first year of our transition. With that change came the opportunity to hire those who were invested in our vision. Seeing the fruits of our success in the second year of operation was a true affirmation of my leadership abilities.
What was one of your biggest challenges in leadership and how did you overcome it?
As stated above, the first year was very challenging and was a gut check for me. We lost 80 percent of our staff through voluntary and/or forced terminations and 50 percent of our students were lost through poaching from other educational facilities. Each passing day, I wondered if this would be the day that I would receive my pink slip. We were losing staff and the only positive was the fact that we were also losing students at a comparable rate.
As a young leader, my formal education provided me with context, but not necessarily the people skills to motivate staff through long-term sustainable change. I was stern and things were pretty black and white with me (very few areas of gray). The adage, “people leave bosses, not companies” is true and I was losing staff on a monthly basis. I had to learn to balance the organization’s needs (and my demand for excellence) with staff needs.
Seeking a mentor was key to helping me identify and work through challenges that would eventually lead to long-term success. My mentor had a spiritual background, and encouraged me to spend time in self-reflection. He provided insight and specific strategies that were personalized for me. With his feedback, I began to create opportunities for engagement by actively listening and truly respecting the experience that others brought to the table. Communication needed to be two-way, and developing my active listening skills helped to build an environment of respect, openness and trust. Leadership does not require you to know everything. A good leader learns to trust their staff to do their jobs and continually build those around them. There is no I in Team!
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Failure was not an option, and by my second year, we had successfully reached key milestones and experienced a positive growth pattern. During my 10-year tenure, the core staff remained intact as we outgrew and eventually expanded our facility.
What do you want young women of color to know about leadership?
There are 10 key principles that I have learned and share with others:
1. Don’t let people’s perceptions hinder you. You have to believe that you can do it. You have a voice and don’t be afraid to let your voice be heard.
2. Be authentic, no one can be a better you than “you”!
3. Find a mentor, someone who is honest and willing to provide you a road map to success.
4. Leadership ability lies within most of us. It is not some impossible trait that is beyond us and impossible to achieve. It is how you show up every day.
5. Be prepared. Do your research and never stop being curious and learning new things.
6. Nurture relationships. Most opportunities that I’ve had were due to a relationship where someone was aware of an opportunity and connected me to that opportunity.
7. Don’t assume that the path someone else takes to success is your path.
8. Practice self-care.
9. Develop your mantra or your personal mission statement.
10. Be willing to take risk and learn from mistakes.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
Most importantly, be willing to share your talents and gifts. It is important that we as women be willing to share our struggles and successes. It is our duty to connect and inspire the next generation of leaders. If someone helped you, reach back and help someone else in their journey.
“Everyone has a purpose in life … a unique gift or special talent to give to others. And when we blend this unique talent with service to others, we experience the ecstasy and exultation of our own spirit, which is the ultimate goal of all goals.”-Deepak Chopra
• Dorice Ramsey is executive director of the Jane Boyd Community House