Behind every great leader is a great mentor — someone who inspires, demonstrates greatness, is eager to listen and learn, leads through service, and builds others up along the way.
For me, this person is Knox Singleton, CEO of Inova. He has been a CEO longer than I’ve been alive. Unlike many people in that situation who get comfortable and take less risk with age and experience, I marvel at the way he consistently reinvents himself and creates value for the organization and people he leads.
Prior to co-founding my own nonprofit, I worked directly with and for Knox. He took bets on me as a young leader, pulling me up, sponsoring me, coaching me and critiquing me. Not only has Knox been an incredible mentor to me (and now my co-founder), Knox’s success has been an inspiration throughout my own professional journey.
During my organization’s first annual summit in 2012, it’s no surprise that I wanted Knox to facilitate a conversation about leadership with our inaugural fellowship class. I knew Knox’s wisdom would provide emerging social entrepreneurs with tangible steps to incorporate in their personal leadership journeys. He spoke about his 10 keys to leadership success and personal growth. I found his insights so valuable that I want to share them with you, should they be useful in your career.
- Do what your superior wants done (vs. what you think is important). Much learning in a professional space takes the form of imitation. To learn, find the best person possible to work for. Working closely with an experienced individual who is good at his or her job will help you gain the confidence and perspective to be successful.
- Stand for something greater than yourself. Standing behind a cause is imperative to your leadership success because it builds respect. Being upfront about advocacy makes others see you as a genuine, ethical and admirable person. Be a champion for your family, your faith, the environment, racial equity, social justice or whatever you feel passionate about.
- Practice direct talk. Speaking directly builds trust. For example, address conflict directly and promptly, deliver constructive criticism without invitation and ask for honest criticism from others.
- Only speak well of others. While it is a good idea to offer constructive criticism, speaking about another person’s weaknesses or failures secondarily destroys the trust of the person to whom you are speaking and the person about whom you are speaking. Not to mention, to triangle criticism through third parties undermines your communication skills.
- Be candid about your weaknesses with your superior and co-workers. If you are working in a team setting or directly with your superior, communicate your weaknesses. While this strategy may make you feel vulnerable, being open will encourage your colleagues to compensate for the gaps in your skills so that the performance of the team does not suffer.
- Admit your mistakes. Simply put, full admission of your mistakes communicates that you want to learn.
- Say you are sorry. Apologizing communicates personal strength and self-confidence and simultaneously turns away anger. When someone feels that they have been wronged, they want you to feel their pain.
- Tell people when you don’t understand. You cannot meet the needs of others if you don’t understand what they want. You might say something like, “Help me understand,” as it helps people feel valued, respected, heard and close to you.
- Tell people how you feel. Telling people how you feel builds trust in you at the same time as telling people what you want and need. If you speak to your feelings, you build a personal bond that is much stronger than sharing your knowledge. Simply put, the message “I’m clever” is less valuable to cultivating a personal relationship than the message “I’m excited.”
- Practice servant leadership. As a leader, your fundamental job is to remove the barriers your staff faces doing their jobs. Include colleagues in identifying their priorities and empower them to craft solutions. At the end of the day, people don’t want to make the decision — they just want to be heard, so listen. Additionally, show appreciation. Say “thank you” as much as possible; people want their efforts to be acknowledged. It builds a sense of commitment and loyalty. It took me a while to understand that colleagues reward subordinates with promotions, pay, recognition and choice assignments because they like, respect and trust you — and you make them look good. Knox explains that these personal characteristics are almost entirely why some people get ahead and why others stay at the bottom.
Many of Knox’s keys to leadership success and personal growth require taking interpersonal risk. I am learning that it is this personal authenticity and willingness to be vulnerable connecting with others that ultimately leads to personal growth and leadership success.
BusinessCollective, launched in partnership with Citi, is a virtual mentorship program powered by North America’s most ambitious young thought leaders, entrepreneurs, executives and small business owners.