Our guest, Brenda Harrington, is what my daughter calls "a kick-butt girl."
Case in point, check out a quote from her recent book, Access Denied:
"Playing to win requires an understanding of the game, knowing who the star players are and developing and executing a playing strategy."
Brenda is beyond knowledgeable in terms of adaptive leadership and personalized leadership coaching and leaves us with tangible tips to better navigate our teams and our workplaces in an inclusive and persuasive manner.
Until next time, communicate with intention and lead with purpose.
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Brenda Harrington joins us today and chats about adaptive leadership. Brenda is a certified executive coach, and the founder of adaptive leadership strategies, LLC. She works with leaders globally and public, private government and nonprofit organizations. She spent more than 30 years in private industry. And she's recently published a book called Access Denied addressing workplace disparities and discrimination. I've really enjoyed this conversation, and I know that you will, too. Hello, and welcome to the communicative leader hosted by me, Dr. Leah Omilion-Hodges. My friends call me Dr. OH. I'm a professor of communication and leadership communication expert, and the communicative leader, we're working to make your work life what you want it to be. Brenda, we're so excited to have you on the communicative leader, and you've done and continue to do really incredible and important work in the leadership arena. And before we dive into this work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, maybe what brought you to this area?Brenda Harrington:
Thank you, Leah, I'm really happy to be here. And so, you know, by most standards, I would say, you know, I took a very circuitous route to get to where I am. But I always been a person who really focused a lot on values and lifestyle. And I haven't been what most people would consider a conformist, much to the dismay of many, because over the course of the arc of my career, you know, last 40 years, I've gotten a lot of questions and head scratching and things like that, why are you doing this? Why do you walk away from that? And, you know, I think the key thing is that, you know, I haven't always known, you know, what was next, but I knew that where I was, wasn't working for me. And so I started my career many years ago, and you know, traditional corporate America Mobil Oil, I went from Mobil Oil to at&t. And it's kind of like the Goldilocks story, right? too hot, too cold, I knew that. Those were not the types of spaces where I wanted to spend, you know, the majority of my life. And so that really is what initially compelled me to move away, I've always had an inclination and a desire to work with people, I didn't always know what that looked like. But after leaving mobile, I am sorry, I have to leave in a TNT, I did a lot of work in the area of, of corporate relocation, working with employees and executives who were impacted by, you know, move assignments and things like that domestically and internationally. And that really created a space for me to connect with people in a different way. And a lot of it was, you know, focused on lifestyle. 911 brought a lot of that to a halt. For obvious reasons, right, there was a lot of uncertainty. So I kind of broke my own rule, if you will. And I went in house, to a regional real estate management and consulting firm, where I thought I would spend six or eight months until they came together. And nine years later, I left as a senior executive, having been through a very challenging acquisition and dealing with the financial crisis and things like that. But I learned so much I affirmed, what I've always felt was that, which is that when we get the people part, right, and if we can focus on relationships, a lot of other things become possible. And so I decided at that point that as I thought about what would be the last chapter, if you will, professional life, that's where I want to focus. Yes, I can do budgets, and I can read financial reports, but I don't like that stuff. So and that's really when I both, you know, not really discovered, but when I embraced coaching, so I went back to school, I went back to Georgetown to get my certification and coaching and I started pursuing other certifications and psychometric assessments, development, and decided to form my own practice. And that's when adaptive leadership strategies was born.Dr. Leah OH:
Yeah, I love that. And I love the focus on relationships. Because what are we without relationships? And certainly we recognize organizations crumble, and they don't have that solid foundation. So you know, from that you have this quote that I really love and the quote is playing to win requires an understanding of the game, knowing who the star players are in developing and executing a playing strategy. Can you unpack this for us knowing the audience the contextBrenda Harrington:
Well, thank you for acknowledging this quote, it's from my book Access Denied, which is, which is a focus on work the workplace disparities and discrimination. But this quote actually applies across the board. You know, we come through institutions of higher learning, and we and we come into the we break into the world, in this kind of I love me phase, we were receiving all of these accolades. And we're getting all this attention for our wonderful accomplishments. But guess what, there are a lot of other people who are accomplished and smart, and all the things, you know, that we see in ourselves. And so we tend to make inappropriate Oh, pretend to have inappropriate expectations, I'll say and make inappropriate assumptions, assuming that because we have the credentials, and because of all the things we've accomplished, that that will continue, right. And that we will be automatically recognized and acknowledged for our work. And it's so important to really just read the room, you know, pay attention. It's almost like situational awareness when you're in a crowd, right? But pay attention in your organization, and in your field of study, or work or discipline? Who are the power players? What type of behavior is not only tolerated, but recognize, yes, it's great to have the mission statements and all of these things on the website and plastered on the wall. But pay attention to what's happening. What are they doing? And we missed that opportunity, so many times, and we are on autopilot thinking that, you know, it's just about us. Yeah.Dr. Leah OH:
Yeah, that's such a powerful statement. And that's something I see in the front end of that, I guess, as a as a higher ed educator, in students thinking, Well, I have my degree, so I should be a top leader now. And, you know, we've they've spent all of these years, you know, all of this focus this attention, this mentoring, and then this big disconnect when they realize, oh, there's a whole team and there are people who have more experience, and I'm going to have to put in this time. So yes, they certainly see see that from one end. And you're right, that unhooking that autopilot. And looking at the culture, looking at the artifacts, looking at how people talk, who, you know, has the leaders ear and all of those things, like you're saying, give us so much knowledge, and so much power. But a lot of times we don't even, you know, blinders on. So,Brenda Harrington:
and I become concerned leave when I hear people say I just want to go to work and do a good job and come home and I don't want to deal with the politics. Maybe just, you know, think of something else. Because if you're in a corporate or an organizational environment, it's going to be politics. And if you have an interest to move through that or up sideways, whatever it is to play, it's not discretionary.Dr. Leah OH:
Yes, exactly. And maybe not even play but stay in some cases. Right. onto that roll.Brenda Harrington:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. AndDr. Leah OH:
so Brenda, I'm going to ask you a question now about your book. And we know that you have all of this experience in leadership and across industries and organizations. So can you talk to us about some of the things that you either saw, or you experienced that led you to write your book access tonight,Brenda Harrington:
I've never thought about writing a book before 2020. And the events of the spring of 2020 were alarming and troubling, you know, alone. But what was as alarming, for me were the conversations that emerged. And I, I experienced that kind of as a call to action, actually, you know, for someone who really, I don't have any meaningful platform or anything like that, but but I felt that and feel that it's important for all of us to really live our values right now. And, and find a way to have an impact to make sure our voices are heard. And so I thought about a lot of my own experiences, some that I tell in the book and the experiences of others that they've shared with me. And I was very grateful that I was able to utilize or tell the stories of people which were very, very sensitive in some cases, their experiences in the workplace with with with disparities based on race and race and gender in some cases. How do we show what's what's it? Yeah. But you know, I mean, there are many there are certainly I tell a story about my experience, you know, that led to my set ratio from a TNT very blatantly the the manager I reported to wrote my name at the top of of a piece of paper this is way before, you know, computers on all desks and things like that, and just outlined a plan of how he wanted me to be removed from the payroll. And, you know, the first step was not to withhold my bonus and to give me an unsatisfactory appraisal for which there was no documentation. And he did that. And then replaced me with a white male colleague. Right. And I could, I could tell hundreds of those stories. And then another story, you know, which, which wasn't directly career impacting, but going back to the position that I described, toward the end of my career, before starting my practice, you know, at an executive retreat, I had no reason to believe that I was in any parallel or, or danger or nothing to be afraid of, right. It's there was a professional retreat. But the the CEO who organized the retreat, decided to go down this historic journey. In the in, in the, you know, events in the south leading up to the Revolutionary War. And so, you know, they're on set as the only black not only black person in the world. When an actor and characters George Washington, you know, made a comment about slavery, so things like that, you know, things that you just, you shouldn't even have to think about or tolerate, you know, certainly in a professional environment.Dr. Leah OH:
Yeah. Yeah. in any environment. Yeah. It is it when I hear things like that, especially as a leadership communication scholar, and just think, how, how is that the path that you choose to think about? Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, Brenda, and I'm so happy that you are able to share your stories and others in order to, to help others understand different experiences than their own.Brenda Harrington:
Thank you. Thank you. And, you know, I, I appreciate the, the apology. And I know that this is an awkward place for everybody. Right? And I'm not i For me, I just want people to be aware and to to be willing to have conversations about these things, you know, and I hear so much well, I didn't do anything, and it's not in my hand. And I don't want my kids to develop the kind of things. But I don't think that people really understand the pervasiveness of this, and, and the presence that everyone wants to quickly say, oh, it's history, you know, why don't we leave it? It's not getting out as historical, as you might expect. And so it's it's not only about things that happened, it's about things that are happening. Yeah.Dr. Leah OH:
Yeah. And that is a good segue to this next question. So also thinking about access denied, what are one or two leadership skills or strategies that our listeners could start to practice right away that would offer more inclusion, a better experience, a more intentional experience for all?Brenda Harrington:
Yeah, paying attention, just just, you know, lift your head look to the left to the right. And just to be more curious, is a good start, realize, and respect the fact that there are other perspectives than your own, other than your own, and, and be willing to ask questions, even when they're hot. Because, you know, two people can can look at the very same thing, obviously, and have very different interpretations. And it's important to know that, and when you feel that your interpretation is not being considered or is being left out, you know, that's, that's the beginning of a feeling marginalized. Just, you know, being shut out.Dr. Leah OH:
Yeah, yeah. And exactly. And we know from employee voice literature, when we feel like our voice isn't heard, then we stop sharing.Brenda Harrington:
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.Dr. Leah OH:
So now I want to shift gears a little bit, and we know that you embrace a new champion authentic leadership. And I really couldn't agree more. Because I've had pushback here, whether it's in the classroom or if I'm doing consulting work. The idea that I need to be a Democratic leader or I need to be a transformational leader is is the gold standard. The how do you then you know, considering authentic leadership as embracing who you are your natural strengths, how do you introduce and position authentic leadership?Brenda Harrington:
Being yourself? You know, certainly we have to regulate our behavior. Everyone does. Okay, but not are being expected to get in character in order to do your job. I can't tell you how many examples and stories I've heard of people, you know, trying not to speak with an accent, that's considered unfavorable for example, in the workplace, because, you know, it wouldn't, it wouldn't be well received. And, and so if you think about a battery, if you think about, you know, the charge on your cell phone or a technology, you know, piece of technology. And let's say that the battery when it's at full charge has 10 bars. And that's all we've got. That's all we've got. And so if we have to utilize, you know, the resource of one or two of those bars to get ready for what we have to do, you know, what's the point? I mean, it really is a an MIS, mis utilization, word or misdirection of resources. Right. Right. And so it's especially in the environment that we're in with so many challenges, as leaders, all of the uncertainty, the complexity, the ambiguity, you know, we need all of what we've gotten who we are to focus on the work, right. We're there to do. And so the the thought or the act of having to seek you out before you even get to that point of how you, you know, who you have to be in that role is counterproductive. My opinion, in my opinion? Yes, IDr. Leah OH:
couldn't agree more. And I love that metaphorically idea. You're already tamping down your own bandwidth. And that's a finite resource. Yeah. So there are so many better ways to use that.Brenda Harrington:
Absolutely. You know, what happens to that fallen when you're down to one bar, right?Dr. Leah OH:
Yeah, exactly. Yes, I'm gonna use that with my students. They love that in such a clear way of helping them to understand better ways to use your resources, your strengths, your talents. Yeah. We've talked about kind of the benefits of authentic leadership. And so let's look at that flip side. So what are some of the costs of attempting to lead in a way that's not natural or even worse yet comes across as performative.Brenda Harrington:
You know, people, I think people can sense it. And, you know, when it's not sincere, when it's inauthentic, it becomes a barrier to building trust, and developing relationships. And so if people, you know, you have that spidey sense. Oh, yeah, I hear what you're saying. And I see what you're doing. But it just doesn't seem real to me. Right. wolf in sheep's clothing kind of, might be a little extreme. But but that's the that's the challenge. And, you know, when I talk about leadership, when I've worked with leaders and cohort learning environments, a lot about the power and the need for influence. We're not We're not in a top down Command and Control place. Ship anymore. Thank goodness. Yes, yeah. Yep. And so in order to be able to develop that capacity for influence, we've got to be able to, you know, earn the trust of others, and build those relationships. So when you're not showing up as all of who you are you really creating a barrier. Okay. And, and it makes it more difficult for those things to happen.Dr. Leah OH:
Yeah, yeah, you're right. Because if we think about, I think leadership in its simplest ingredients, we have people in tasks, that if we're not able to form, like you said, those trusting relationships with people, then we know that the tasks are also going to suffer, or they're not going to be as optimized as they could if someone has the safety with us to be vulnerable to innovate. Right. So yeah, that's really powerful.Brenda Harrington:
Yeah, yeah. And we talk about and I'm sure you have to in your work, psychological safety. Work to be received accepted. What's going to happen if I make a mistake? Well, my team has my back, right? Can I express myself? Can I share my Is it safe,Dr. Leah OH:
right? Yeah. Yep, exactly. And if your leader feels like this moving target of how he or she or they're going to perform or act or communicate one day from the next, then we certainly don't feel safe or anything. Most people wouldn't be able to see through that and feel that sense of comfort, comfort and safety. That's right. That's right. Yeah. So Brenda, I have two more questions for you. So this first one on the communicative leader, we always leave our listeners With a specific leadership or leadership communication practices, so considering this, what is one thing you wish all title leaders knew? Or what is that one piece of advice you would give to title managers or leaders?Brenda Harrington:
Move the title aside? Don't expect your title to speak for you. Okay. So we were just talking about influence. And I think of leadership competencies as being on a continuum authority of one and influencing the other. Okay, I like that. And so if I am leading by my title, all the way over on that authoritative side, that we're back to that command and control, do as I say, do, you know, and you can get things done that way. But it's, it's a very limited source of power. But when you can move along that continuum and get close to a place of influence, people are with you, because they believe in you they trust you, in some cases, expect what you're able to do, line up behind you and come through for you. You know, and I won't say no matter what, you know, you can have a, you have a higher sense of higher degree of engagement, circumstances. And so to set the titles aside, yeah, yeah. Yeah, IDr. Leah OH:
really love that. That makes me think I just worked on a manuscript, we interviewed 60 managers, we did really in depth interviews. And then we had a collection of open ended responses from followers, and of those not entitled positions. And we asked them for their metaphor for managing. So someone, you know, if you're a lion, what is that make your work group, and we asked the followers as well. But the big takeaways at the end of the day, and looking at all of this data, was followers teammates, who really loved and looked up to managers who could influence the environment and influence followers. And that was really in awe. I mean, if I'm thinking of some of the metaphors one that sticks out, is my manager is beautiful willow tree, and I am the branches connected to her if we think about that type of relationship. Yeah, really powerful. Other folks, if we're thinking of authority, saying, my manager is a member of the KGB, or my managers, Hitler, I mean, some really loaded, powerful destructive metaphors. So yeah, I love that continuum approach. I haven't thought about it like that. And that makes so much sense.Brenda Harrington:
Yeah. No, it is so true. It is. And, you know, I think for a number of leaders, unfortunately, it's scary to set the title aside. And, you know, the, there's one word that that just makes me cringe, and that's boss, I have never used the term boss, certainly whatever, you know, applied to myself, and people would use me say, This is my boss. I said, No, I'm, you know, I happen to be your manager, you know, we're colleagues have not used it, relating to anyone else. That applied to me, because I think it's, um, you know, it's, I don't think it's an effective term.Dr. Leah OH:
I agree. I agree. Because then you think of, well, she's bossy or bossing someone around, which I think runs parallel to bullying in some ways. Right. So thank you for that. That's something I hadn't thought about, but I'm going to be really mindful of. Okay, Brenda, I have one last question for you. So we looked at advice for our formal titled, leaders. And I'm wondering if you what is the advice that you have for employees of all ranks across all industries? What is it that any employee could work on right now to improve their leadership abilities?Brenda Harrington:
You know, it's a combination, I think of everything we've talked about starting with authenticity, you know, who you are, and, and, you know, try to focus on nurturing and developing whatever that strength is. yours and yours alone. We all have it. We spend a lot of time listening to people, you know, say, oh, you should be more of this and less of that, going back to what you said, you know, at the beginning, you know, are you this, you know, should I be a Democratic leader? You should you should be a whatever you want? Yes, yeah. Some people have the gift of humor. You know, they walk into a room or they come onto a camera, and people start to smile in anticipation. Right? I work. So you have to find whatever that is, that's your own, and really develop it, and nurture it and figure out how to make it work for you. I don't want to be cliche, but how do you use that as your superpower? Yeah,Dr. Leah OH:
yeah, exactly.Brenda Harrington:
And I think that that really is the most important thing and going back to setting, read the room, you know, setting the right expectations for where you can make where and how you can make meaningful connections and build sustainable, lasting, professional relationships.Dr. Leah OH:
Yes, I agree. And I love when we think about reading the room, I think there is a lot of power there that often we overlook, because when we pick up on these things, we have more autonomy. And we can figure out what parts of our roles can we kind of stretch a little bit that we really like and lean into. And, you know, I think it just, it allows you to, as you're saying, lean into your natural strengths and talents in a way that is normative in your organization.Brenda Harrington:
And I want to go back to something we talked about a few minutes, when you talk about the type of leader or leadership doesn't necessarily sit at the top. Yeah, look at who the informal leaders are, that might be a think about who the go to person is, you know, what, what do people look to for extra support and insight and things like that? Or who was really driving? Often, you know, the person that's holding the wheel is not?Dr. Leah OH:
I don't know. Yeah, I remember learning that lesson. Because when I'm, like kind of second grown up job, I worked in a marketing department in a large hospital and the chief marketing officer was just pulled in 100 directions all the time. And I just felt like I don't have what I need. I need some information. I need this in order to do my job. And a colleague finally said Go ask Tyrone. Tyrone knows everything Tyrell and has the Chief Marketing Officers ear and it was like, Oh, this is like my my life. It's like I quit a part time job that was holding me back so I could fully be where I needed to be in that role. Yeah, yeah. Well, Brenda, thank you for joining us today on the communicative leader. I really enjoyed our conversation and I know that our listeners are going to as well.Brenda Harrington:
My pleasure. My pleasure. Thank you for having me.Dr. Leah OH:
All right, my friends. That wraps up our conversation today. Until next time, communicate with intention and leave with purpose. Looking forward to chatting with you again soon. I'm the communicative leader.