A recent Inc. post referencing a meta-analysis of 57 studies about destructive leadership and its outcomes got me to thinking. There's frequent discussion about the negative effects of bad leadership, as evidenced by the over 200 studies that were then pared down to the final 57 in the aforementioned meta-analysis. But, we don't talk about the positive effects of leadership enough.
Let's start with the bad news
It's easy to come up with examples of poor, incompetent, toxic, or destructive leadership.
Everyone reading this can likely think of a boss or leader that negatively impacted their confidence, career, or worse yet, outlook on life. According to the research, destructive leadership can have effects that last a decade or more.
Much like the vast amount of studies on the topic, this is going to be a a rather lengthy post. If you're here to learn about some of my most influential leaders, skip to the good news.
I have one example that comes to mind when I think about how I don't want to be viewed by the teams I lead, the individuals I mentor, or the teams I'm part of.
Very early on in my career, when I was admittedly overzealous and a bit naive, I had a leader who didn't appreciate or encourage my ambition. I can remember a town hall meeting with a VP-level leader that I found particularly inspiring. This leader wrapped up the chat with a common refrain: "If there's anything I can help with, don't hesitate to call or email me." I think most senior leaders genuinely mean that when they make the suggestion. What I didn't understand at the time is that they likely don't have the time to engage and respond with everyone that decides to reach out. I also didn't know they usually have a Chief of Staff (CoS) or assistant vet their email. So my ambitious, over-zealous, naive, very-early-in-my-career self sent an email to this inspirational VP. I thanked them for their time and insights and told them of my aspirations, asked if there were any leadership training or executive MBA-type programs I should look into, and generally just asked for their advice on what a young up-and-comer like myself could do to get ahead at SBC. While I didn't copy my leader at the time, the CoS did share the email with my boss, and that was the start of a frustrating work relationship.
Personally, I don't like the term boss. I associate it with negative leadership qualities. A boss tells you what to do and expects you to do it. A leader inspires you to take action, supports you along the journey, and guides you in the right direction if you need it. This distinction provides important context into how I use the term boss in this post.
My boss at the time took this as an affront to their status and the pecking order in our organization. It was viewed as though I skipped over them in the chain of command to ask for advice or direction. I was admonished and basically told to stay in my lane and worry about what I was assigned and nothing more than that. I was reassigned to lesser important projects and made to feel like I was walking on eggshells any time I engaged with this particular boss. There was even an individual on the team who essentially tracked when I came and went as though they were looking for a reason go give me further demerits. For some time, it affected my confidence.
I can't say how long it was before I was confident enough to reach out to another senior leader. I know my approach was certainly different once I did. I did eventually get past this example of toxic leadership, but it was impactful enough that I haven't forgotten it almost two decades later. I'm still occasionally hesitant to reach out to a skip-level leader, even though all of my most recent leaders have encouraged it.
Now for the good news
I'm fortunate that in my career I have far more examples of great leaders that made a lasting impact on my career than I do toxic ones. These individuals not only impacted my career and provided me with opportunities, but they positively influenced how I lead. As one of these inspirational leaders often said:
"Leaders should be leader makers."Andrea Sutton
I'm going to name names here, because each one of these individuals is a great leader in their own right and I use the tools they shared with me every time I encounter a new or challenging situation as a leader. This isn't a comprehensive list. I've been influenced and inspired by so many people over the years, but these are the ones whose ideas, style, and vernacular I find most often represented in my adaptable leadership style and approach.
Some of them have positively influenced me for a over a decade. All of them made an impression that will last a lifetime. Without further ado ...
Ann Lakin was my most influential leader for the better part of the first half of my career. She was originally a team lead of mine and then progressed up to Senior Technical Director, and Director while I was on her team - a few different teams in fact. I'd have to write a series of books to capture what I learned from her and the impact she had on my career and my leadership style.
I was a project manager then requirements analyst when I first started working for/with Ann. I learned some very valuable lessons about project management from Ann, but pretty much from the start, I learned how to be a more effective leader. What I learned from Ann ranges from how to proactively complete all administrative tasks so they don't clog up your schedule and how to expertly craft an email on a difficult topic or to a difficult recipient to how to handle myself in challenging HR situations involving the gamut of human emotions.
More than anything, I learned how to look out for and support a team under Ann's tutelage. Few leaders will have your back and support you in challenging situations and through your mistakes like Ann. When you've earned her trust, you are given almost free reign to run with your ideas and given the latitude to make the mistakes you need to learn valuable lessons.
That trust also earned me opportunities to work on projects and teams where I had no experience. Ann took a new role managing the content team in a design org that was eventually referred to as the Creative Experience Team (CXT). She asked if I was interested in moving into a new role on a new team. I've always been one to get bored easily and enjoyed trying new things, so I jumped at this new opportunity that eventually lead to the content leadership track I'm on now. Ann was the first leader that taught me that when you find, hire, or inherit talent for your team, you do whatever you can to help them grow and provide them with opportunities. "Share the goodness" - one of many "Annisms" that still finds its way into regular conversation.
Doug Reston came to AT&T from Citi with an influx of talent from their digital design team. I experienced a number of career firsts working for and with Doug. Much like Ann, when you earn Doug's trust, he gives you the freedom to spread your wings and grow, and make mistakes along the way. Doug gave me my first opportunity to travel for work at AT&T. I was sent to Atlanta for a workshop to plan a major redesign of our myAT&T experience. I was there to be the face of our content team and it was the first time I was given an opportunity to truly put content first in design strategy sessions.
I was also promoted into my first supervisory role under Doug and Ann. I learned some valuable lessons about team leadership, making hard decisions, coaching and guiding teams, and building teams. Doug recommended and helped hire the first content strategist at AT&T and eventually gave me the opportunity to build the first dedicated content strategy team at AT&T.
Mary Garcia-Durkee also came to AT&T from Citi. I worked with her team of information architects and designers as a peer at first. It was a few years before I had the opportunity to direct report to her. Mary helped grow my confidence significantly in a very short period of time. I used to be one of the quieter ones on her team, lacking the confidence to share my ideas, ask questions, or provide constructive feedback. Mary really helped me to step out of my comfort zone and get out of my shell. She would call on me in meetings and ask my opinion and encourage me to share my ideas and insights at times when I otherwise would've likely deliberated quietly and followed up after the fact with my ideas.
The first time I used some crude combination of SnagIt and MS Word to MacGyver a wireframe and suggest a change to a page's information architecture to solve a problem, Mary not only praised the idea and thinking, but immediately got me access the same tools our information architects and designers were using so I could collaborate with them more effectively. You could say that Mary paved the way for the content-first approaches I would lead in the future because that's exactly what she did. She gave me and my team the tools to enable content to have an equal seat at the table.
Daniela Jorge came to AT&T as our first VP of Design, marking a significant shift in our ability to improve customer experiences and impact the bottom line through design systems, content consistency, and quality. She really put design on the map with executive leadership with AT&T. She brought attention to design as a foundation to achieving business and organizational goals, empowered and enabled her team, and built teams that were truly diverse. I still love this HuffPost article she wrote and curated input from her leadership team, many of which I mention in this post.
Daniela doesn't only impact organizations with her ability to evangelize the merits of leading with design. I learned so much from her on how to manage difficult conversations, present constructive feedback, and how to disarm a potentially negative conversation. I recall a number of different meetings we were in where the environment was contentious and where if I was the primary presenter, I would've likely lost my cool. Daniela's ability to empathize with a stakeholder and speak to an issue on their terms is something I've often tried to emulate and incorporate into my repertoire. You know the line - often imitated, but never duplicated (but not for lack of effort). My peers and I would often debrief after those meetings and talk about what we learned from how Daniela handled the situation and guided the conversation.
I learned how to build and scale a team while working in Daniela's org. She was also the first senior executive to give content an equal voice in the many projects we worked on. She is extremely knowledgeable about all aspects and disciplines of design and always had great feedback and guidance to provide any time I wanted to push the envelope and try and disrupt the status quo. She also had the experience and knowledge to know whether or not the timing is good for a potential disruption to be successful, allowing us to make those decisions strategically and not go into them unprepared for the consequences.
Tricia McKinley is a leader that I worked with on peer teams for some time before a reorganization placed her in charge of a consolidated content practice for consumer, small business, and enterprise customers. I knew Tricia fairly well at that point, but I learned so much after becoming a direct report of hers. She is a leader who truly embodies Steve Jobs "we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do." Tricia trusts the expertise of her team and empowers them to do what they do best. If you have an idea to innovate on a process, improve the team skills through training, provide thought leadership - whatever it is, she has your back.
Tricia is one also of those leaders that can lead right alongside you. She's not shy about getting in the weeds to help develop a new process or influence a new stakeholder or organization. She's thoughtful in how she approaches conflict. She can be tough as nails when the situation calls for it, but when it's about building or expanding a relationship, she's equally adept at that too. That adaptability is something I've learned and admired about Tricia and Daniela alike.
Much like Ann earlier in my career, Tricia provided me with so many opportunities to grow. Whether it was the trust and empowerment to bring in an otherwise unknown third party like Content Science to help train and upskill our team and trial a new tool like ContentWRX, the free reign to organize and host a personalization summit with a whole host of leaders across the country to progress how we work develop personalized experiences, or encouraging me to engage in thought leadership and writing external publications, Tricia was behind significant growth and development of my confidence.
Andrea Sutton - I didn't waste much time quoting her here and with good reason. In the short time that I was on Andrea's team, she had a significant impact on how I lead and how I prepare for certain conversations. You could fill a book with her quotes and insightful ways of framing and approaching problems big and small.
First and foremost, Andrea taught me that one of my primary responsibilities as a leader is to build and empower other leaders. It goes without saying that you should always look out for your team, but Andrea took that a step further. She trusted her leadership team and the leaders they identified on their teams and she would make opportunities for them to shine or connect them with other people they hadn't worked with that she knew would spark brilliant work. I make sure to incorporate that into how I lead. It's always inspiring to connect smart and capable people that can make each other's work even better.
Andrea also taught me a thing or two about how to prepare for meetings with senior leadership. On one trip to Atlanta for a planning session, a peer of mine had the opportunity to have lunch with Andrea. Neither of us had prepared an agenda or anything of the sort. We were both excited to get to speak with Andrea in person since the three of us were based out of three different states and didn't see each other frequently outside of video conferences. We had a really good and insightful conversation and one of the lessons Andrea shared was about how she prepared herself for conversations with CEOs and other c-suite leaders. She talked about designing the conversation and knowing what you want to get out of the discussion - what you hoped to achieve. From that day forward, anytime I have the opportunity to speak with Andrea or someone of her stature (or anyone really), I always come in prepared.
To say that Zavida Mangaru had a profound impact on my career and the way I lead would be an understatement. Zavida came to AT&T to lead an innovation team that became known as Experience Insights (Xi). Tricia McKinley actually paved the way for me to join the Xi team when a reorganization was being planned. Tricia knew I was up for a new challenge and recommended me for the team. I can still remember my introductory call with Zavida. I was sitting in an AT&T open office space I reserved for the day in Des Peres, MO. and it was the first time I got to hear Zavida's enthusiasm for innovation and customer experience. It was infectious. We spent the better part of an hour talking about what opportunities there were to grow the team and I left the call with a long list of ideas to prepare for our first leadership team sync and town hall with the broader team being brought together. She wasted no time getting started and making an impact.
Under Zavida's leadership, we did some of the most interesting work I've been part of in my time at AT&T. She pushed us to think outside of the box and beyond our own self-imposed limitations. We created a concept we called Virtual Life in late 2019/early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic was mostly acknowledged. Many of the ideas we developed as part of Virtual Life we saw brought to life during and because of the pandemic as people were increasingly home bound and reliant on technology for connectivity and socialization. Still today we see those ideas being implemented, slowly but surely, as businesses enable customers to connect the way they want to. Zavida has an eye for the future and the ability to plant seeds at just the right time for her teams to water them and grow them into the majestic tree that is a fully formed product.
Zavida also encouraged and coordinated field trips for her teams. I've heard her say many times, "you can't create experiences if you don't have experiences." It's so true. I was lucky to be included in a few of these field trips, once when I was in Seattle, and another time while in Atlanta. The number of ideas these trips generated and the collaboration they fostered led to some of our team's best work.
Personally, Zavida pushed me to be a better leader, providing thoughtful and constructive feedback in a very transparent dialogue - she is as eager to get feedback in how she could do better or improve her approach as she is in doling out advice or guidance, which means we could solve problems and address issues very quickly. I always knew I could trust her to address any issue head on, escalate the team's concerns, and share and promote our team's work far and wide.
I'll close on that last point. Zavida's support for the team, providing cover when needed, championing their work and cheer-leading the ideas and sharing them far and wide is something I don't think she gets enough credit for. Innovation work is an especially hard sell when financial times are tough and short term payoff is the focus. While mindful of that, Zavida always found a way to introduce our most forward-thinking work to the right audiences at the right time to get at least snippets of it introduced into the daily experience.
If you're looking for inspiration
The leaders I mention in this post are a great place to start. Every single one of them had a part in influencing the leadership qualities I would say are my best. While I may have started with the example of toxic leadership, I'd prefer to acknowledge and celebrate the great leaders in my life. Let's celebrate inspirational and thoughtful leaders, and aspire to be one of those. That positive influence can last a lifetime. If you're also an effective leader maker, that influence can last many lifetimes.