What today’s leaders need to know

How can we support leaders throughout their careers? Today we are talking with Forrest Helvie, Director of Professional Development for Connecticut Community Colleges and Melissa Harris, Director of Network Services at Fio Partners about leadership programs for seasoned leaders


Cynthia Rojas 0:02
Hi, everyone. Good morning, and thank you for joining Coffee Time with Masterminds. For the last several weeks we’ve been talking about leadership programs. My favorite topic if you’re not tired of me saying that. But I could talk all things leadership and I have just enjoyed the guests that we have had on. We’ve talked about leadership programs focused on bypassing emerging leaders and why that’s important. Last week, we had Fahd Vahidy and he talked about a leadership program that is not only fostering leadership in New Haven Connecticut. They are over 600 strong and they are just blowing out the park and changing the nonprofit landscape and New Haven. Today, we have an exciting show, we’re going to talk about why season’s leaders should continue their learning and what they should know about leadership in complex times. Join us.

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Cynthia Rojas 1:28
How cool is that. Welcome everyone and thank you. Thank you for joining us. If you are watching us, please put your name and where you’re from in the comments. We also want to welcome our listeners in Australia, thank you for joining us. And the people around the world who listen to us on their own time to hopefully learn all things leadership from mission-based organizations, so welcome. I am excited to bring on my co-host Pieta Blakely. Pieta, how are you?

Pieta Blakely 2:08
Good. How are you?

Cynthia Rojas 2:10
I’m really good. Today is another exciting show about leadership. Are you excited?

Pieta Blakely 2:15
I am. I mean, the more we talk about this subject, the more I realize there is to learn.

Cynthia Rojas 2:20
Yeah, there is a lot to learn. Today, we have two amazing individuals. That’s rare, where we have two guests. We used to have a lot of that in the beginning, we often had one guest and today we have two. One guest is Melissa Harris and she works at Fio Partners and Melissa is coming on because she developed an amazing leadership program on adaptive leadership. And then, we have Forrest Helvie. Forrest works for fostering leaders all throughout the state of Connecticut and all the community colleges, so that’s a lot of work. So, today we are going to talk about why today’s leaders need to continue their learning, especially during these times. Hello, Melissa and Forrest. How are you?

Melissa Harris 3:16

Good, thanks for having us.

Pieta Blakely 3:18

Thank you for joining us.

Forrest Helvie 3:20

Thanks for having us.

Cynthia Rojas 3:21

Yeah, this is great. We’re so excited.

Pieta Blakely 3:23

I usually think of leadership development programs as being for new leaders or emerging leaders or people who are about to transition into leadership. But today, we’re talking about programs for people who are already in leadership roles. Can you tell me why that’s important.

Melissa Harris 3:46

Of course, you want to go first since you kind of working across the spectrum.

Forrest Helvie 3:50
Sure. I think one of the things that struck me was. You know, in higher education, up in the past year. I was full-time faculty, as the coordinator for professional development at Norwalk Community College Department Chair. One of the things that really struck me in higher education, my experience kind of bear-out with colleagues across the country, really is. How often are people trained for the positions that they’re going to step into. Frequently in my world as a faculty member, you’re brought on you teach for a few years.

And then maybe you moved into a coordinator role. And then the coordinator may get moved into a department chair. The department chair may get moved into the academic dean position. At which point, you’re overseeing all academics at your respective college. How many deans have ever been actually trained to do the job that they’re doing and yet consider the impact that their work has on hundreds, if not thousands of students. Certainly, hundreds of faculties and staff, the risk is really high to play that loosely in my mind. So, I will say, you know, after I graduated college, I spent four years as an artillery officer, which isn’t necessarily the most smooth-transition from being an English faculty. \

But we learned about succession planning and you always learned two seats up, in case you knew you had to step in temporarily and film. I think you may be living in the moment in your current role but you don’t know when that next opportunity is going to arrive, and have you been properly developed for it so that you can be successful and that you can help the team that you’re going to work with be successful. I think, having that long-term range and planning is essential for organizational health and wellness, short and long term.

Cynthia Rojas 5:36
Yeah, I love that. Forrest, you said two seats up. So, is that the organization should be thinking about its potential leaders and grooming them for two seats up, or should we have enough bench strength. Tell me, a little bit about what two seats up.

Forrest Helvie 5:58
Well, I think the principle behind it is that, just say as a faculty member, just somebody who’s teaching his classes, and that’s my focus. If I understand the priorities and the concerns that my coordinator, my department chair. Then, from a conceptual perspective, I understand better how I fit into that larger picture. And, if I’m growing as a professional with a constant understanding of how I fit into a bigger picture. As I move up, then I continue. I’m thinking big picture. I’m not focused just on my narrow lane, and I think that that’s an essential skill for leaders at all levels. Whether you know emerging leaders, those continuing mid-career leaders, or senior leaders. Think about those organizations where we’ve been most frustrated. What was their conceptual understanding of what, what’s the big picture here. What’s the ecosystem that we’re operating in and not just in my lane.

Pieta Blakely 6:51
So many organizations talk about being siloed, right. Programs not talking to each other. What amazing potential if everybody was thinking about the organization instead of just the program that they’re running.

Melissa Harris 7:08
Absolutely. If we then think about that, in terms of the experience of seasoned non-profit leaders. It holds true in that space as well and everybody is slammed, right now. And so, even though seasoned leaders need that intentional space to slow down and think strategically about challenges. How to communicate them and how to bring people along in a way that’s aligned with the organization’s values. And that’s where these programs I think can really help is, giving leaders, even seasoned ones, that dedicated space to just take that breath. Think about these things and be reflective in a way that they often don’t get on a day-to-day basis because they’re so busy running their agencies.

Pieta Blakely 7:50
I think that they especially haven’t had in the last two years. I mean, it’s been a lot of frantic adjusting, and you know, the word pivoting is super overused. Like, it was a pivot the first time, now it’s just now I’m just making adjustments. But the idea that like you have to go slow to go fast. That you better like to step back and think strategically, even in the midst of all that turmoil.

Forrest Helvie 8:23
Yeah, one of the things I always try to think about is, and we hear. You know, we have to think strategically, but how do I actually do that. And how do I set the stage so that my organization has a culture of thinking strategically. I kind of think that it doesn’t have to necessarily be two seats up. That was just kind of what I remember kind of growing up with as a young military officer, but that concept of putting people into positions early on. That maybe that’s not their formal role, but giving them those opportunities. You know, if Melissa is my supervisor, maybe once in a while she lets me go to the staff meeting so I can kind of see what all of her peers are concerned with, and then I can kind of report back. I think when you create those spaces and opportunities. You’re growing as strategic thinkers. You’re growing folks who have that ability to slow down and see how do these other parts all fit and move together. Both parts, within your internal organization but also those external stakeholders you’ve got to engage with.

Cynthia Rojas 9:28
I love this. You know, we mentioned the term seasoned leaders. Someone’s that’s been doing this for eight-nine years. What else do you think they have to learn? What is its difference?

Melissa Harris 9:49
There are obviously so many frameworks and approaches to things, and more than any one framework being better than another. Every framework has its shortcomings, but I think it’s just more that discipline around stopping and breaking down a situation. Thinking about the different aspects of it, and then again, how you communicate it. Think about the different aspects of change and how to bring things, how to bring somebody along. In the case of the cohort that we develop, adaptive leadership was just, you know, it was kind of the overarching framework. But there were a lot of other frameworks we brought in, too, to help folks with the different aspects. But I think there’s always something to learn. It’s more the thought exercise for me that’s important. And again, that intentionality around a space to slow down and think through something that you don’t often get.

Cynthia Rojas 10:44
Yeah, I agree. When I was leading, there were nuggets of my leadership that I would tell people that I was looking to hire during interviews. There are nuggets of my leadership that are not going to change because I personally like them. But I also think that I evolve and change all the time. Times change and sometimes relational leadership is key because the organizational culture is suffering and so building those relationships and trust, is really important. Melissa, your leadership program at Fio Partners on adaptive leadership, touched on managing change and engaging staff during really complex times. So, that’s a different type of leadership style that some leaders may not have and yet may need during these times. Or, like what we found in the leadership program, they were already adaptive leaders but didn’t have the actual framework to understand how much deeper they could go with this. And so, I thought that’s what made the program amazing.

Melissa Harris 12:03
Exactly, and I just hope we supply them with a bunch of different frameworks. And so, the hope is that they go back and they continue using them. We worked really hard as we were going through the program to encourage them to think through a particular situation they were dealing with now. But to also save the materials and go back to them later, because this was just the challenge that was currently top of mind for them. There’s going to be a million more challenges. So, it’s more around the discipline of building a mindset. Adaptive leadership was selected by the funders of the program as the overarching framework because we saw just the scope and degree of change.

And the concepts are really built around those disciplines of diagnosing tough challenges, making the best use of existing strengths, and resources adapting to the experimental, recognizing the human elements of change, and valuing diversity and shared power. Again, it’s not complete and we brought in other frameworks around like, Williams, Bridges, work around, managing and communicating change. So, we brought in other elements, but as an overarching framework. It felt to the funders of the program like the right fit for helping even seasoned leaders slow down. Think about how to manage these challenges and bring folks along, and make the most out of what they have.

Cynthia Rojas 13:29
Yeah, what are you learning as you are part of the ecosystem that’s training, and building the skill sets of season readers. What are you learning through your work?

Forrest Helvie 13:46
How to dance. I always try to give folks in my program, cohorts, you know, a little bit of that caveat emptor of, I would love to hand you a nice, neat bow-tie package of solving your problems. But I’m not going to be able to do that and they’re going to throw questions at me that are very raw, very real. And I’ve got to try to figure out how to dance and how can I provide them with some guidance, some clarity, some ideas, or resources without giving that fake, nice try, little answer. It’s just that ability to be flexible and, listen even when you’re hearing something that’s right out, they’re in left field. So that you can help them move through whatever the challenges that they’re working through.

Cynthia Rojas 14:46
Melissa, what are you learning from the adaptive leadership program or working with seasoned leaders?

Melissa Harris 14:55
That it looks different in every single organization and that’s why pairing the learning sessions with the individualized coaching was so important. I’m so grateful to the funders for making that investment because it allowed the leaders not only to think about how to apply concepts. But it just gave them the space to be able to talk about what was on their minds. The first part of each coaching session was a kind of guided exercise that helped apply the thinking from the learning session.

And then, it was an open space, just talking about whatever was on their minds. So, that ability to meet them with individualized support in a place where they could really just talk about what was weighing on them. I think that was really important. And then they also built those relationships with each other, too. In those shared learning sessions where, we would have little groups where they would talk about issues. The concepts are great, but that ability to, just as Forrest was saying, be real and talk about what’s actually going on and what it really looks like looks different in each organization.

I just remember, one person in a feedback session early on was just like, it is so great to know I’m not alone. You know, that other folks are going through this too, and just that relief of being able to be honest around what was happening and to not feel alone in those struggles. I think was just as important or not more important than any framework you could have put in front of them.

Cynthia Rojas 16:29
Yeah, I can totally relate. Forrest, I want to go back to something you said in the very beginning, which I think is really important and happens to many people, it’s called the Peter Principle. When we are good at what we do and so what happens is that we get promoted into a leadership role because we are good at what we do in our staff role. However, sometimes, you can end up in an institution that forgets that leadership is a role within itself and needs new training. So now, you have promoted someone to their highest level of incompetency.

Pieta Blakely 17:13
Then we’ve got to talk about things like what radically different skills they are. You know, being an individual contributor versus managing other people.

Forrest Helvie 17:24
Yes, I think that can be a real strength, in some ways. If you think about it from the perspective of, you know. If you have a supervisor who was maybe a peer or served in your role, did it incredibly well and has moved up. They can be a great resource for their staff and from a technical perspective right. But you do run that risk of that person can also become a micromanager because they know how to do your job really well and they want to see it done well. And, if you’re not doing it the way they want it, that can be, I think, an organizational source of frustration.

Pieta Blakely 17:58
And they’re more comfortable and confident with doing that job versus the management job that they were never trained to do.

Forrest Helvie 18:09
I think it gets to the root problem, at least, that I see. I’m not saying it’s a sole one, but it’s certainly a challenge, and that has to do with you thinking about approaching our work from a growth mindset. That mental flexibility, and this is always, I think, something that you would ask about, what do seasoned leaders need to engage. I think it’s maintaining or growing that growth mindset. I’ve shifted into a new role what other possibilities are there for me now beyond what I used to do. And kind of being willing and flexible to embrace something new and different versus falling back into the old comfortable, even though you may be very good at it. So, I think that that to me is always something we need to be focused on is being flexible and adapting and changing with the context as it adapts and shifts, as well.

Cynthia Rojas 18:57
Yeah, I think one of the defining moments for me, was when I worked at an organization that prided itself in promoting people from within and that was a core value. I was leading HR at this time and we promoted someone to a supervising position. So, I don’t think she was a manager, but she was supervising. We also had a union and I went in to her office the second day to check in and see how things were going. I said, “hey, how are you,” and she looked like she was about to cry, and I said what was wrong? And, she said, “you know, yesterday, I was in the union and today, I’m supervising my friends.”

It never occurred to me that that happens with the switch of the light and here I am happy for her and she’s having the worst day ever. From that moment on, I looked at training very differently. I dedicated all of my work to training and grooming our leaders so that they can be prepared for what the tsunami of stuff that comes to them. But that did it for me and that’s very real, it happens. How do you manage your friend.

Melissa Harris 20:30
Yeah, and you’ve been thinking about in any change process any leadership role, just where loss comes in. And as you’re trying to help folks meet a challenge or navigate a change. Being able to spot where you have those feelings of loss that need to be acknowledged and reconciled and moved through in order to help somebody get unstuck and move through a change. You know, those are the things, again, that as we get so busy and just the everyday doing, we often forget to kind of do that stop and pause and say, wait a minute. Like, what’s really feeding this resistance here. What’s really going on, and again, if we think about it, why would seasoned-leaders need a chance to stop and do that kind of thinking. It’s because we just get so busy doing that it’s hard to just stop and ask yourself that question.

Cynthia Rojas 21:25
Yeah, so, Forrest, in higher education, if somebody was to start supervising or become a become a dean. Is the leadership program mandatory. Is it voluntary.

Forrest Helvie 21:45
So, every piece of programming that I offer across the state, whether it’s faculty staff, combined, take your pick. Everything is voluntary, so there’s nothing that I do that’s required. There are some different kinds of programs that are out there that they do require, but by in large, that tends to be a little bit more of a process. Just because we work in a matrices unionized-environment. There’s a lot of negotiating that takes place for any kind of required trainings. My belief, though, is that I may have rose-colored glasses on and a high-in-the-sky, kind of look.

Cynthia Rojas 22:19
That’s okay.

Forrest Helvie 22:21
People want to do a good job. I think, genuinely speaking, people who go into education are there because they want to have a positive impact ultimately on students. No one likes their time wasted so if it’s training that’s just kind of checking blocks and then it’s hard to care. But if it’s something that’s actually going to serve you and your goal of supporting students, then people want to be involved in that. I think that’s kind of the approach that I look at is, how is this training going to help you do your job well and feel successful in your work. And, if I can’t answer that question, then, I shouldn’t be offering that program

Cynthia Rojas 22:58
Yes, this is great and what an investment. I, too, believe that people wake up to do great work, or to do great things, and then we leave the house.

Pieta Blakely 23:16
Like we talked about in so many things like then the rest of your actual job. What has changed in the last couple of years, especially in the era of covid. Or, what do you think is new that is an exciting innovation in the field, right now.

Forrest Helvie 23:38
You know, one of the things that I’m really passionate about injecting into any of the different kinds of training that I’m doing is bringing a focus. And Melissa touched on this and it’s bringing a focus to the social emotional aspects of what we do. In education; social, emotional learning, we see a lot of that. One of the precepts in social emotional learning is like we’re trying to educate and support the whole student, not just the academic piece. If the student’s not doing well, they can’t perform in our class as well.

But what often gets overlooked in the hustle and bustle when we leave the house is that if we aren’t taking care of the educators and the support staff and the administrators. If they’re not doing well, then, the organization’s not doing well. Which means, students aren’t going to get the good access to education that they need. So, that’s something that I really try to make sure that we’re doing more of and shining more of a light on is how are we, not just self-care. You know, take good care of yourself, but how are we helping take care of each other and bringing that to life.

Cynthia Rojas 24:42
Yeah, Forrest, you said something really important. I’ve been in a lot of conversations and everyone’s talking about the mental health impact of the pandemic, especially in our young people. How depression rates are rising and there are all sorts of things that are occurring. Then one day I was at a meeting and someone said we have to check on the mental health of our leaders. Because we do think that they continue to lead for many industries.

The pandemic is still very real and very much still a crisis. Let’s look at our food industry, and food banks are still trying to figure things out, so, we still have industries that are knee-deep in it. I was talking to a leader, recently, and she’s taking her first vacation since before the covid. I was like, oh my, she’s been working 29 months straight. And so, we have to pay attention to what our leaders are going through. Because, remember, the thing about the pandemic was that we weren’t just helping a group of people that were being impacted. Everyone was impacted, everywhere, even the caretakers, right. The people who were supporting the ones that most increased, they too were in a crisis. I’m glad that that’s being talked about and becoming a focus in leadership programs. Melissa, you talk to leaders all the time in your work. Whether or not they’re joining a leadership program through the field. What are you hearing in terms of needs for leaders?

Melissa Harris 26:36
I mean, I do think burnout is real. We did a survey earlier in the year of organizations across the state. One of the findings that was not surprising and was consistent with what we saw at the very beginning of the pandemic was that, we’re looking at about 20 to 25 organizations looking at an executive leadership transition within the next year. And so, when you think about that, like Forrest was saying with educators. There’s opportunity in terms of new leaders being able to step into those new roles and seeing some exciting transitions happen there with a new generation taking on leadership opportunities. But there’s just also general concern in terms of, how are leaders being taken care of. You know, not taking a vacation for 29 months, that’s concerning. Leaders are burnt out and need a chance to kind of recharge and reconnect with themselves and just take care of themselves, that’s important.

Cynthia Rojas 27:44
Yeah, it is. Well, we’re almost close to the end of the show. I’m so happy to have the two of you on here and bring this angle so that season leaders realize that continuing your learning is not something that should be frowned upon but should be celebrated, right. But I wonder, what tidbits or final thoughts do you have for our audience, as they think about and continue on their leadership path. Melissa.

Melissa Harris 28:20
Yeah, I think you said it earlier. Cyn. It was slowing down to speed up. I guess, it’s having that permission whether you kind of need the structure of an intentional program or you need to do something to just give yourself space. You’re going to block off some time in your calendar to think about things or go for a walk and think about things, you know. Just having that intentional space to slow down your thinking in order to speed up your work. And to help remind yourself of some of those fundamentals that are important no matter what stage of leadership you’re in. Especially, if you’re trying to also nurture and bring folks along in the process.

Cynthia Rojas 28:59
Yeah. Forrest.

Forrest Helvie 29:01
Yeah, I think, leaders need to always ask themselves, is how am I a team-ready organization and how am I helping lead a team-ready organization. So, not just how are the employees going to be ready to work and help affect our outcomes. But how am I supporting every different kind of employee that’s on my team, wherever they’re coming from.

That’s taking that SCLPs kind of, into account. It’s thinking about the fact that the landscape has changed drastically over the last few years. So, how am I adapting and changing so that I can support all the different folks on my team. And how can I also model that. I think that’s important. I’m not withholding vacations for myself for two years because everyone on my team sees and knows that. There’s the implied expectation that I will follow that, and how damaging can that be for the culture that you’re trying to create. So, I think just thinking, how am I helping lead and model a team-ready team-focused organization. Learning is an absolute essential part of that for leaders.

Cynthia Rojas 30:09
Yeah. Pieta, you said, you’ve been learning these past several weeks, the different angles. What are your biggest aha moments or learnings?

Pieta Blakely 30:25
I think one of them was this real gap in succession planning that we’ve talked about before. About having people think one or two levels ahead, but that’s not like an individual responsibility. That is an organizational responsibility to keep bringing up the bigger picture, you know. I think about how I work with organizations that are struggling to map their individual programs to their organizational strategy and mission, and it’s because that communication is not happening, right.

Cynthia Rojas 31:03
Yeah, I love that. I, too, walk away with this two-seats up concept that I had not thought of that way. Thank you, Forrest, for bringing that to the table and bringing it to our viewers. Okay, Melissa do you want to say something?

Melissa Harris 31:20
Well, I was just going to say the other thing that’s just striking me is the need to connect with other leaders. That is something that a leadership program brings is that sense of I’m not alone. I have a space leadership when you’re in the organization can be very lonely. And so, that’s I think another thing that these leadership learning spaces provide is that connection to other folks. So that, you can talk about things and not feel alone and of itself, I think is very valuable.

Cynthia Rojas 31:49
Yes, all right. Well, those are great words to end by. We want to say thank you to Forrest, and, Melissa. Also, to our listeners and to our viewers. Have a wonderful weekend and we’ll see you next week.

Pieta Blakely 32:00
Thank you for joining us today.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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