This past year, I’ve had the honor and privilege of serving as president for Apra, the professional association to which I belong. It was an extraordinary experience. It was also hard! It involved diplomacy, a lot of listening, understanding different perspectives, having difficult conversations, getting people to consensus and the occasional “herding of cats.”
But here’s the thing: If being president of Apra were easy, I wouldn’t have learned or grown as much as I did. Brene Brown sums it up well: “One of the most important findings of my career is that daring leadership is a collection of skills and practices that are 100 percent teachable. It’s learning and unlearning that requires brave work, tough conversations, and showing up with your whole heart. Easy? No. Because choosing courage over comfort is not always our default. Worth it? Always.”
During my time as President, I had the opportunity to learn and practice two critical leadership skills: difficult conversations and active listening.
Leadership involves awkward conversations
In my time as President, I had to have some difficult conversations. They were awkward. And uncomfortable. As the year progressed, they became less awkward. I went from cringing during these conversations to embracing the opportunity to discuss, communicate and come to a consensus.
It was hard, but that was ok.
Think back to a time in your career when you had to have a difficult conversation, make an unpopular decision or admit to a mistake. It probably felt uncomfortable at the time, but you learned how to manage those feelings and avoid repeating those mistakes in the future. Lessons were learned, and once you got past the discomfort, you became more skilled at it.
Leadership involves a lot of listening
In addition to leading discussions and participating in conversations, leadership requires active listening.
A past president gave me some great words of advice – as a leader you cannot drown out the voices of others. They are all passionate, smart and have great ideas. If you are always speaking, how can they be heard? If you state your belief first, will they be reluctant to provide an opposing view? Failing to listen means you minimize the diversity of voices on any given decision. The perspective, opinion, and input of others are important, and your role as a leader is to ensure they are heard.
So how do we become leaders? How do we embrace difficult conversations and be better listeners? One way is to practice being more coach-like. The Coaching Essentials Course I took with Fundraising Leadership helped me learn how to ask more open-ended questions driven by authentic curiosity. Also, I’ve found that imagining myself sitting (or, actually sitting) on my hands reminds me not to interrupt or talk over someone.
Leadership may be hard, but that’s OK. You can do it!
Liz Rejman is Associate Director, Fundraising Operations for Pathways to Education Canada and serves on the board of directors for Apra International. When she isn’t working on her leadership skills, she enjoys digging in her garden, traveling to exotic locales and checking out the local arts scene.