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Leadership Style: Authentic, Warm, and Instinctive

Posted by Mary Ellen Holahan Feb 2, 2012 , , ,

A few years ago, as a mid-level consultant, I was given the opportunity to lead a project with a longstanding client. It was a low-risk situation and a great opportunity for me – and it turned out to be an experience that influenced how I think about things even now.

I scheduled a meeting with Emily Crespin, then the business unit leader under which my project fell, for advice. I was frustrated with a senior person on the team because I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously as the project manager. It almost came too easily for me to blame him and come up with a laundry list of things that annoyed me. I’ll never forget Emily patiently letting me vent and then her question landing like a ton of bricks: “how was I contributing to the situation?”

Wait, I had some accountability for the situation? It was a hard pill to swallow, but her question brought crystal clear clarity to the situation, and I understood what she was saying. You teach people how to treat you. If I wasn’t happy with how I was being treated, I needed to change my behavior and re-engage. I stumbled through sorting things out on that project, and everything was resolved in the end. I’ve thought about Emily’s advice so often that my natural tendency is now to consider my role in a situation, and to then determine the best approach.

Emily is now the Vice President of SRA International and Managing Director of the Touchstone Consulting Group. Because she had such an impact on me, I wanted to talk to her especially about her leadership style.

When I asked Emily what three words best describe her style, she said authentic, instinctive, and warm. She brought up a time shortly after college when she was asked to set a goal about the type of person she wanted to be. She answered ‘the type of person other people want to be around and the type of person that feels better when they are around me.’ She explained that when she makes an authentic connection, she can have an impact – saying that when she is true to who she is and operates from her instincts, that’s when she shows up as a leader. Emily also describes her style as being warm – for example, a few days before I interviewed her, the SRA CEO was at our office. When they said goodbye, Emily gave him a hug. It was her way of making a connection by coming from a place of warmth and communicating that “we are in this together.”

We discussed that being in a leadership role means that certain situations require you to adapt your style. Emily commented that she is experiencing that right now – her group needs her to call the shots, to tell people what to do, but her natural approach is collaboration and building consensus. Emily said she’s found herself ‘commanding’ more now and that it is a surprisingly comfortable spot – the more you stretch your muscles outside of your comfort zone, the stronger the muscles get and the better you are at it.

In closing, I asked Emily one thing she wished she knew before stepping into her role leading Touchstone. She shared that she underestimated the jump from being a manager to being an executive. Specifically, the need to make decisions and take actions faster and a piece of advice that she received resonated with her: make decisions with your head and communicate with you heart. While everyone has their natural styles and strengths, leaders are expected to step outside of their comfort zones – what got you here, won’t get you there.

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