Have you ever met someone and thought to yourself, “Wow, what a natural leader?”
I'm not one of those people.
I can still hear my heart thumping as I feel the rush of blood to my face, and dread fill my body when the teacher called out my name to stand up and read out the next paragraph in High School English class. English is my first language and I was still stuttering over every other word.
My assertive communication and leadership skills were hard-fought and it’s taken years of mistakes and self-reflection to get to the level it is at now.
It wasn’t until 2013 after I had graduated from my undergrad and moved to South Korea to teach English, that I found my voice. I got some very good advice in my first weeks there.
Teenagers can smell fear. When you walk into that classroom, you have to KNOW you are the coolest person in there. Don’t let them sense your insecurity; at the end of the day, you know more than them so don’t let them think otherwise.
In that room, I learned to speak; how to pretend that I had confidence till I did. I made jokes that didn't land but once I started getting comfortable with the silences. I stopped worrying about the minor details and could focus on my goal: tricking children into thinking they were having fun when they were actually learning.
Mistakes didn't seem as big of a deal and this translated into my personal life.
I was speaking to people in a way that was genuine and honest. I try to be kind but if that person didn't like what I was saying and they were not up for a discussion then those were not people that I wanted in my life.
As any twenty-something year old who found the holy grail of advice, I over-corrected. I had found my voice and been promoted in every entry-level position into one of management or training soon after so I got it in my head that I was born to be a leader.
You can’t hear it but I am laughing as I write this.
When I got to Vietnam to work for the sister start-up of the company I left in Korea, I tried to copy-paste what I had seen as successful. I was placed, haphazardly, in charge of over 300 ex-pats and EVERYTHING related to them. This included but was not limited to contracts, immigration issues, teaching quality, promotions, firings, conflict situations, and subs if they were sick.
Please note at this point, I had previously only been the mentor of 4 teachers at a time. I was severely under-qualified and under-supported in the position.
To make things worse, we had a crippling problem. Our ex-pat teachers and managers weren’t staying long enough to get their year-end bonus. They were passing up free money because they were so unsatisfied with work. That’s hundreds of hours of training and our product quality down the drain because we could keep people happy.
I came in with the newly-learned mentality that had served me well in Korea: Head up and pretend you have all the answers.
Spoilers: it didn’t work.
The Ugly Learning Curve
It ended in shouting matches, needless arguments, tears, mistrust, and a whole lot of stress. The worst of it came to a head with one of the teachers I was managing directly.
He had a son my age and more than triple my experience in teaching but he wasn’t teaching in the way that the company expected. I told him as much and when he didn’t implement the changes I had laid out for him, I kept hammering the points away.
Embarrassingly, it ended when I yelled at him and his students as his charges were running around and jumping on their desks during break time. I told him off for not stopping them and berated him for being so irresponsible for the kids’ safety.
He was placed under another manager as we clearly couldn’t work together.
Looking back with the wisdom I have gained over the years, I can identify a whole host of things I did wrong. I should have approached with more patience and a curious mindset gained trust and looked for strengths rather than only the negatives.
I went into that situation wanting to replicate how I had learned in Korea without taking into account all the differences. Korea was a mature business with proven results and relationships amongst the staff and management whereas Vietnam did not.
It Gets Better
Over time and a lot more mistakes, I learned and built an environment that I was proud of. By the time I left the company, employees were signing on to their second, even third contracts. I had gained the trust of my team by being honest and transparent but also sticking up for them when I felt they weren’t being treated well and vice versa.
I had learned humility, active listening, and how to recognize strengths in others that I didn’t have. By identifying what others were good at I could encourage them to grow while also teaching them the things I was good at.
When I was ready to leave the company, I had a plethora of managers that I knew could grow the position and company in a way that I couldn’t. I could also see this in my managers’ teams; because they foresaw upward mobility in the future, they wanted to have a competent successor who could take over.
By the way, that embarrassing example of my initial unprofessional behavior does have a happy ending that exemplifies my growth.
A year later, that same teacher sent me an e-mail. I was not the first person he reached out to but I was the first and only to respond. He wanted to raise a concern that was not at the forefront of our teacher’s minds; the parent-teacher relationship. He had valuable points and provided a simple solution to help increase the satisfaction of parents, aka customers.
We collaborated in fine-tuning his delivery and presentation and I encouraged him to run a workshop for 20 of my managers.
He was grateful for the opportunity and did an amazing job. We were also able to laugh about our rough start, apologize for our behavior and applaud each other for the growth we had found in such a short period of time.
Communication & Leadership Style
Effective communication leadership comes in many different forms and depending on the company’s values, culture and maturity, it can change over time.
My personal belief is that communication is most effective when there is honesty and respect while leadership is a balance of decision-making and getting out of people’s way.
There needs to be a level of trust and competence to ensure everyone is contributing towards the same goal. Teams should also be encouraged to cooperate rather than compete.
The biggest errors I’ve seen people, including myself, make lies in not actively listening and undervaluing their intuition. Our self-doubt can cloud our communication which makes for a feeling of frustration later on down the line.
What I Do
My journey from being a shy student to the communication specialist that I am today was long and arduous but yours doesn’t have to be.
My greatest joy in that stressful job was passing on the learnings I have made over the years and creating space for people to grow their own strengths. I love when someone walks into a situation feeling empowered and with confidence. Especially so if it had been a situation that would have kept them up all night preparing over.
I work with clients from all over the world to find their confidence and communication & leadership style in meeting rooms, presentations, interviews, and even at home.
My goal with this blog is to share information.
It will come from tips I’ve shared in a client session that I feel could help a larger audience and books/podcasts that have guided me.
If you have any questions regarding workplace communications, submit them in the contact us section and they may be featured in a future post.
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