Category Archives: Leadership

A Grain of Rice

I’ve never been a fan of politics. I’ve kept my opinions to myself, steering away from political debates in the same way we’ve all been warned to eschew chats about sex and religion at the dinner table. This avoidance is wise, given my corporate PR position and leadership roles with various organizations. You can’t offend anyone if you don’t foray into the arena at all.

Lately, however, I’ve been dipping my toe into the local political scene, and have decided that there is too much at stake to continue to play it safely on the sidelines. When it comes to next week’s Mayoral election, a quote from the movie Mulan keeps popping into my head: “A single grain of rice can tip the scales,” says the Emperor of China. “One man may be the difference between victory and defeat.”

Another quote keeps popping into my head, advice from an old friend with tremendous political expertise: “Be careful when you show your cards in the political poker game: if you decide to go public with your support of a candidate, make damn sure you back a winner.”

The problem with this advice is that you cannot always be sure. Some races are close, and they require our involvement. They seem to be calling for the grain of rice. Sometimes, for the good of the cause, you have to stick your neck out there,  even though you cannot be 100% sure they will win. You risk alienating people who support a different candidate, and you risk aligning your personal brand with someone who may not be victorious on Election Day.

Here’s the catch: for communities to prosper, we cannot all sit quietly with our opinions to ourselves. There are donations to be made, signs to be posted, events to be attended, flyers to be distributed, voters to be educated. This is especially true when the competition is tight, and victory can come down to a handful of votes.

From the time I heard that Hardie Davis was running for Mayor, I knew he would have my vote. I am a huge Mayor Deke fan, and want his successor to build on that momentum- a unifier, an articulate ambassador for Augusta, someone we can trust to represent us. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would become involved, and exposed. I have officially shown my cards. And there was one issue that pushed me over the edge. SPLOST.

I am in support of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that is on the same ballot as the Mayoral race. It is a similar package to what has been given voter approval in the past, but this one is tarnished with controversy sparked by misinformation. I am completely convinced that there are Mayoral candidates who refuse to support it simply because they think the public has issues with it, and are afraid to make a stand. Hardie Davis is not afraid; he is informed and supportive. The day the Augusta Chronicle announced that he was the lone SPLOST advocate of the 5 Mayoral hopefuls, I immediately grabbed my purse and made an online donation to his campaign. I was in.

My decision to publicly support Hardie was reinforced at tonight’s Mayoral debate, presented by the Augusta Richmond County Committee for Good Government. In a standing-room only crowd at the Julian Smith BBQ pit, the audience filled with a Who’s Who in politics, Hardie not only held his own, but shined above the rest. He so impressed the crowd that voting members of the Good Government Committee decided to endorse him as their official candidate. But I get ahead of myself. Here’s the scoop on the debate:

I can go ahead and help you eliminate Charles Cummings and Lori Myles, and not just because their numbers are low in the polls. Mr. Cummings, who was difficult to understand, did manage to get the crowd laughing, although not in a good way. At one point, he announced that if elected, he would hold all city commissioners accountable, even if it meant giving them a “report card” on their performance. At his mention of the promise to “hold their feet to the fire”, I was quick to look over at commission members in the audience just in time to witness the nonplussed expressions on their faces. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that it would be difficult for Mr. Cummings to build consensus among the Commissioners with that tactic.

I don’t have much to say about Lori Myles- oops, sorry – DOCTOR Lori Myles, who made reference to her advanced education so many times that I began to wonder if it was an academic competition instead of a political one. She seemed angry and defensive and preachy. I tried to picture her making local speeches and kissing babies, and the images just wouldn’t surface. She is the only person who mentioned SPLOST all evening, but there was no love behind her words. She also made a comment about the city running on a deficit for the past 5 years, an error which Hardie Davis corrected.

Alvin Mason had many supporters in the crowd, and they became quite enthusiastic when he let it be known that if you are looking for a female in office, you might as well vote for him because his Mom is going to be an integral part of his leadership. Mr. Mason actually did quite well in tonight’s event, smiling often and demonstrating an astute mastery of the political charm needed for the Mayoral position. Unfortunately, he has some crazy idea about the Riverfront levee (one that the US Army Corps of Engineers would never allow) and is anti-SPLOST, so he’s off my list. I’m also unsure why he feels he is the only one of the 5 candidates with the “skill-set to sign contracts, something only the Mayor can do.” Overall, a decent performance, but he too is low in the polls and unlikely to be a major contender.

Which leaves me to the 2 top contenders, Hardie Davis and Helen Blocker-Adams. Blocker-Adams has had quite an eventful week in her campaign. She received the endorsement of The Augusta Chronicle, and the next day was blasted by callers on the Austin Rhodes radio show for her personal financial instability. (Bankruptcy, foreclosure, bounced checks, repo, etc- the full package.) Critics question her ability to be a steward of the city’s finances if she cannot manage her own. Blocker-Adams says that her financial troubles are so common that today’s news actually “aligns her with 99% of the population” of this community. I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to be lumped into that category.

I know Helen, who is a nice person and passionate volunteer for the community, but I’m not convinced she has the experience, leadership skills, or polish to represent us on a global stage-which, let’s face it, we are on as a result of the Masters. I have no reservations that Hardie and Evett Davis could mingle with visiting dignitaries, business execs considering Augusta for their expansion,  or other leaders interested in collaborating with our community. Furthermore, I disagree with Blocker-Adams promise that all city employees should get a raise because a) that’s not her decision b) we are in budget crisis mode and c) there are 2,600 employees. What are the odds that they are all doing a good enough job to warrant a raise?

Speaking of 2,600 employees, do you know how I was able to easily whip out that figure? Because Hardie Davis mentioned the number when discussing city finances. One of his strengths for the night was his use of facts to make his point. He presented himself as confident, well-spoken and intelligent. In addition to the HR stats, he also tossed out specifics such as the incompleted Highway 56 and Windsor Road projects, the 16.5 acres of land affiliated with Riverfront issues, the importance of private investment, the potential for Technology Square, and the 31,000 students who need to not only succeed in their local education, but also to have a reason to live and work here after graduation.

Hardie said that the role of government is to promote the well-being of its citizens. His vision makes sense to me, and I am confident that he can build on Mayor Deke’s great progress. If Hardie can be the grain of rice that tips the scales for Augusta’s success, then perhaps we can be inspired to be the grain of rice that tips the scales for his campaign and for SPLOST on May 20. It’s too important to sit back and be quiet. I might even bring it up at the dinner table.

Angela’s 8 Meeting Rules

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1. No meetings longer than an hour without the introduction of alcohol.
At a recent budget meeting, it was starting to look like we would never get finished. The inherent difficulty of a budget meeting hinges on the idea that decisions to give or take money from a certain area means more philosophical debates regarding the value of that area. Those wanting increased funding are defending it, others are challenging the worth of the program. We all have our pet projects and opinions, and everything spews out onto the table willy-nilly. Time will elapse quickly before any hope of consensus begins to surface.
Then came that moment in the proceedings when heads were hurting and clocks were given more attention than a swimsuit model parading through a room of adolescents. We wanted to leave, but we also wanted to do so with the knowledge that we would not have to return for a second round. In that moment, the host of the meeting left, and returned with a handful of cold beer bottles. I’d never seen such a transformation before: sullen faces now beamed with enthusiasm for the task, and we had a balanced budget before the first bottles were finished. From then on, I was sold on the idea that if the meeting was inherently difficult or long, there should be libations available. You may call it a crutch or a consolation prize; I call it an essential building block to success.

2. If you break rule number one, be prepared for me to leave before the meeting is over.
I hate leaving a meeting early, almost as much as I hate being late. I don’t like anything that calls too much attention to myself. That being said, I will walk out somewhere around the 2-hour mark even if I have no other pressing plans. It’s really a matter of principal at that point. If the meeting leader cannot structure our conversation and respect the time we are giving, then I am not obligated to give them free reign with my attention. On one Board, notorious for chatty, long-winded meetings, I stayed as long as I could, out of a perverse curiosity to see how long they would keep us. They were still talking at the three-hour mark when I departed in disgust. I served on that Board for 2 more years, attended almost very meeting, and never once stayed to the end.

3. Every meeting should have someone in charge, and that person should follow an agenda.
If we follow the assumption that nobody really enjoys being in a meeting, then the person who called it owes the attendees a productive and cohesive dialogue. No matter how many meetings you have led, you need to know exactly what you want to accomplish and how you plan to do it. The only thing worse than a too-long meeting is a chaotic one. We’ve all been in enough of these gatherings to be able to recognize when someone is “winging it”. Don’t do it.

4. Whether you’re in charge or in attendance, remember that a meeting is not the place for problems that only apply to one person.
I’m always amazed when a person feels compelled to waste precious meeting time with a complaint that only affects them. They selfishly direct everyone’s attention to an isolated issue with no relevance to the group at large, one that could easily be addressed in a one-on-one conversation after the crowd disperses. Before you comment or pose a question, ask yourself if it really would be of interest and relevance to the others, or do you just have a random thought that could be held for the speaker’s direct attention after the meeting is over?

5. Do not talk to the person next to you when someone else is talking!
This one amazes me the most, and is very prevalent. People don’t realize how distracting and noisy the whispered “side conversations” really are. I am not above giving people the evil eye when I hear the vexing murmurings. If someone tries to engage me in conversation directly, I ignore them completely. If what you need to say or ask someone else absolutely cannot wait, at least write it down and silently share notes at the table. Even texting would be better. As much as we all know the etiquette behind a text-free meeting, it’s still better than whispering to your neighbor. There is no quicker way for a meeting to devolve into chaos than one or two side-bar conversations gone astray.

6. Be succinct.
I’m sure by now I have demonstrated the value of time, so I challenge everyone-leaders and participants- to edit their comments down to the bare essentials. Keep the anecdotes brief and relevant, do not repeat yourself, and do not monopolize the conversation. It’s a meeting, not a lecture or performance. A meeting implies participation by members, so let’s all be adults and share the spotlight.

7. Dont forget the power of the sub-committee.
If a conversation on one topic becomes too time-consuming and animated with a wide range of opinions, it may be a signal to form a smaller group built with the most vocal participants. These impassioned members can address the topic in a separate meeting and report back.

8. Finally, a gentle reminder of the fine art of listening.
We all have something to say, and we are all waiting for our time to say it. If we hope to accomplish anything with our time together, however, we absolutely must put our own thoughts on hold and really listen. I try taking notes when people speak, so that my ear is open to the main message. In the end, we can only expect the time to be valuable if the atmosphere was one of open sharing and equal exchange. If, as meeting leader, you are having difficulty getting your group to that point, don’t forget you can always excuse yourself and return with some bottles of cold beer.

10 Things I Would Tell Myself if I Could Travel Back in Time One Year

It’s been a full year. I knew it would be when I agreed to be marketing chair for the Miller theater at the same time I was slated to be board chair for Leadership Augusta, at the same time the dealership was embarking on our “World Class” campaign. As with all ventures, I will walk away smarter for my experience- I know how to take the knocks on my head and learn from them. The year taught me a lot about leadership, and even more about myself. Here are some of the take-aways from my year as LA board chair, written in advice form to myself, as if I could travel back in time.

1. Expect the unexpected. You will get some curveballs you did not see coming. Before you load up your own plate with all of your grand ambitions, go ahead and save a pocket full of time and energy for some unplanned drama.

2. It’s not all about you. Don’t forget that this year is also designed to help your vice-chair get a feel for the job, so make sure you include him in all of the activity. You will be glad when you can pass the gavel to someone who is as ready and excited to receive it as you once were.

3. Balance is your favorite word. Besides all of the work, be sure to get some rest, take good care of your health and keep up with the fitness. You will need your body to be strong.

4. Focus on what matters. You have a lot you want to accomplish, more than is possible. Look hard at your list of goals and pick the ones that are sustainable and will make a difference after you are gone. Let the others go.

5. Be prepared to have some honest conversations when you know in your gut that the train is de-railing. Someone you trust to do a good job will not live up to their promise of excellence, (or they define excellence differently), so be prepared to step in and keep the train on course.

6. There will be times when people delight you with how well they do their job. Savor it, celebrate it, and thank them well.

7. Don’t try to be anything other than the leader you are. Be gentle with yourself.

8. There will be people who will make your job much easier, and a couple that make it it significantly harder. Spend more time thinking about the former and give less consideration to the latter.

9. Set aside a designated time each week for your planning and assessment. Scheduling that time in advance will help keep you on track.

10. Enjoy the year and have some fun. Relish the small happy moments and know that in the end, it is going to work out just fine.

Quietly Leading to Win

The May edition of Fortune magazine featured an article titled, “How Introverts Can Be Leaders”. Showcased in the story is former Campbell Soup CEO Doug Conant, who describes himself as a “born introvert”. I related to Doug’s experience when he told the story of the time he was offered the job of President of Sales for his company. His response to the CEO : “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m an introvert and I don’t play golf.”

In the end, Doug took the job, “his most challenging ever”, and got it done. He goes on to explain that although he isn’t the archetypal charismatic leader, his work ethic and directness won him the trust of his team and his leadership style got results. He would go on to even greater success, underscoring the point that one must never discount the power of a quiet leader.

I’m hoping this is true because I’m a quiet leader with a new responsibility much like Doug’s sales job: way outside of the comfort zone. On July 1, I am going to be the Chair of the Board of Directors for Leadership Augusta. Now that the start date is approaching, it feels like a recipe for an anxiety attack. Although there are no sweaty palms, I definitely have some heart palpitations and heaviness, similar to what one might feel after consuming a 6-pack of Mountain Dew and a bag of gummy worms. This year will definitely be a test of the quiet leader.

I know you think I should be a pro at managing these symptoms by now, and I truly should be. After the pressure of being a Dancing Star and a bride last year, surely this new role will be a breeze.  There is no reason to panic; it’s just a few board meetings and pep talks. So what’s the big deal? Why the extreme physical distress? I will tell you the big deal in one big word: expectations.

I can tell myself that the Board Chair position is just a few meetings and speeches, but I know in my heart that I expect much more of myself. This exceeds the stress of the Dancing Stars adventure because my goal this time is diffferent. Facing a crowded Bell Auditorium to perform the Tango, I aspired to make my instructor and supporters proud, and to avoid any serious mortification and/or injury. A couple of times the possibility of winning would pop into my head, and I would say, no, that’s the not the objective here. I was seeking survival over success. Survival was my success. I wanted to have a good experience, make new friends, learn something about dance and about myself. From these measures, the endeavor went beyond my expectations: it was an amazing experience and I am thrilled with how the final performance turned out. I tied for second place and doubled my fundraising goal. I didn’t win, but I was happy.

Some people who were there that night tell me I should have won. But they don’t know the truth. They don’t know that I played it safe. I didn’t do the tricky kicks  in the promenade around the dance floor, knowing that statistically the odds were stacked against me. The kicks would have given a tremendous ‘wow factor’ if I pulled them off, but the slightest hesitation or mis-step would cause a catastrophic tumble. I knew If I did the dance without the kicks, the audience wouldn’t know the difference. I could save face, turn in a decent performance, and live with my decision. I was not willing to take the risk, so I did not deserve the win. I can live with that.

This time, though, the stakes are higher. I don’t want to turn in a safe performance. I don’t want to just preside over some meetings and make a few speeches. My predecessors didn’t settle for that, and I don’t intend to, either. I want my year of leadership in this organization to be a year of progress. I want to leave my mark on the history of this impressive group. This isn’t just survival without mortification. This time I want to win.

In planning for my win, I have been conducting alumni interviews to determine what my best strategy might be. It has been a powerful and informative process, guiding me down a path that feels as right as that kick should have felt. I can imagine having a year of increased engagement, improved processes, fiscal responsibility and memorable experiences. The team is falling into place, the playbook is being finalized and the interviews are wrapping up.

So why the anxiety? Because it means so much. This organization has been important to me since I graduated in 1999. I have served on the Board for almost 10 years. I have been preparing for this role before I even knew I wanted it. And now it is time for the green flag. This is my one chance, my one race. I want to make it count. I’m willing to take the risks.

In one of my interviews, an alumni underscored this sentiment when she said, “Every day we must prepare for our finest hour, because we don’t know when it will be. Sometime during this year you could have your finest hour. Be ready.” I intend to be ready, but not because it could be my finest hour. I intend to be ready because that is the kind of year my team deserves and I deserve. A leader sets the bar for excellence, and it will not be said that I did not aspire to win, even if it is quietly.

A New Leadership Augusta Year

In 1998 I received a life-changing invitation. I was asked to join 31 other local professionals from various industries to participate in a leadership program affiliated with the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. My employer made a leap of faith, investing in tuition so that I could spend one full day a month learning how to contribute to the growing strength of the Augusta area. A co-worker at the time predicted that my professional life would never be the same. Thirteen years later, it appears that his declaration was an accurate prophesy.

My class of 32 leaders dedicated nine months to the program, each monthly session an immersion into a different part of the community. On Healthcare day, presidents of hospitals spoke to us on topical issues. On Community Service day, we ate alongside homeless men and women at the downtown soup kitchen. On Arts and Culture day, we experienced the world of theatres and museums. Outside of the classroom, we rode with police officers on the job and jumped off of telephone poles in team-building adventures. By the time we were done, we had learned about Augusta, formed new friendships and created unique memories.  But the adventure had really just begun.

In June of 1999 we joined a legacy of other program graduates, sharing a common bond with those who had come before. Leadership Augusta alumni can ask one another, “were you a Green or a Red?” and start a conversation that a non-alumni could never understand. They can compare notes on what happened during their police ride, what kind of graduation party they had or how they scored on the history test. A few can even reminisce about meeting the Governor. If they pay their dues, they can attend holiday parties, business luncheons and wine tastings. For the Class of ’99, an entirely new world of networking was ours for the taking, and the call to service was loud and strong.

After graduating, many alumni choose to give back to the program, volunteering as panelists, speakers, class day coordinators, youth program facilitators or event planners. I was one of them, joining the ranks of many LA Alum who answered the challenge of continued leadership. The Leadership Augusta family is well-known for giving back to the community-at-large, agreeing to serve on non-profit Boards, volunteering for local events or offering counsel to various civic groups. I am one of 1,111 program graduates as of this writing, and the alumni directory reads like a “Who’s Who” in Augusta, boasting an impressive roster of movers and shakers.

In April of 2011, I agreed to serve as Incoming Chair of the Board of Directors, knowing that the time had come for me to put everything I have learned into action. I knew that soon, the next wave of leaders would begin to take over.  Before I move up and out, though,  I want to make a difference. I want to leave a legacy of Kaizen behind me.

Kaizen, the Japanese word for continuous improvement, implies that there is always some new growth that can be made in any individual or organization. In this spirit, I decided to use the 2011-2012 fiscal year to study what enhancements may be needed, so that the upcoming term will be thoughtfully planned. I have been interviewing as many Leadership Augusta alumni as possible, asking questions about their year in the program and their alumni experience. As of March 2012, I have had conversations with 42 different graduates, ranging from the class of 1980 to the class of 2012. I bounce ideas off of them, pick their brains about changes they would like to see, and inquire how other organizations run their meetings. After each 45-minute conversation, the notes are typed and the information is added to a report that will become the foundation of next year’s strategy.

Another benefit to the interviews is that I have a chance to get to know the LA family better.  I speak with individuals who support the program heavily, and others who don’t pay dues. I talk with people I know well, people I know vaguely, and others I have never met.  The interviews touch on succession planning, as I realize that this project is planting the seeds for a process of selecting new leaders, based on their interests, strengths and attitudes.

With 4 months left to go, my goal of 75 interviews is ambitious but do-able. I have 4 or 5 scheduled at any given time, and dozens of requests floating out there. I hope that any LA alum who learn of this plan and want to be a part of the process will reach out and request an appointment. I ask that any alum who has suggestions beyond what they shared in their interview will keep sending the ideas. I know that the more input I collect, the more meaningful the implemented changes will be. While the changes implemented will likely be small – the organization is solid, after all- they will at least set the stage for continued growth, and hopefully encourage other future leaders to stimulate new improvements of their own.

One of my early interviews was with Lee Ann Caldwell, a graduate of the first Leadership Augusta class ever, in 1980. Lee Ann served as Board Chair from 1983-1985, and continues to serve as History Day Chair to this day. Lee Ann said that for some, Leadership Augusta is a resume-builder. For others, it is transformative. For a few, it is life-changing. When an organization has the ability to have that kind of impact, it is an honor to be a participant, a priveledge to serve and a responsibility to uphold the legacy.

For more information on Leadership Augusta, visit www.leadershipaugusta.com

To contact Incoming Chair Angela Maskey (aka PR girl), email info@lexusaugusta.com