In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Dr. Catherine Rymsha, a lecturer, Tedx Speaker, and author of the book The Leadership Decision: Decide to lead today. Dr. Rymsha shares how our choices and decisions define our leadership and help develop our leadership brand.
-Dr. Catherine Rymsha on initiative and action as the foundation of leadership
-Qualities of great leadership
-Dr. Catherine Rymsha on how leaders can be strong and show vulnerability
-Importance of feedback to outstanding leadership
-How leaders can become better at listening
Also mentioned in this episode:
Book by Barry Posner and James Kouzes
Book by Dr. Catherine Rymsha
Connect with Dr. Catherine Rymsha:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Dr. Catherine Rymsha. She's a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She also leads learning and development for a software company and her TEDx talk: Want to become a better leader? Here's how. Just listen, focuses on listening skills and their importance to leadership.
Now we spend most of our time in this conversation talking about Catherine's book, The Leadership Decision: Decide to lead today.
I really enjoy hearing from all of you. Keep your comments coming. firstname.lastname@example.org There's also a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there.
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Now, here is my conversation with Dr. Catherine Rymsha.
Dr. Catherine Rymsha. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am really excited to have you on the conversation today.
Thank you for having me. I'm so excited to be here and to talk with you more about leadership.
I read your book, The Leadership Decision: Decide to lead today, and can't wait to get to that conversation. Before we do, though, Catherine. I believe that our upbringing has a significant impact on the kind of person and leader we become. Would love to know a little bit about you, your upbringing, and how you believe your upbringing impacted the kind of person and leader you've become.
It's a great point and a great question. And I grew up as an only child and my parents had me a bit on the older side, they were about 40 when they decided to have a child. So I was fortunate that I had a lot of experiences because they were financially able to provide me with a lot of experiences, like summer camp and opportunities like that, which I really think helped to shape me.
But even though they were kind of on the older side, which, obviously, there's nothing wrong with that. But I think where I really started to think about leadership and really trying to understand business was because on my father's side of the family. My grandparents owned a luncheonette that was open almost 24 hours a day. So my grandfather, my dad, his brothers, even though they had full-time jobs still would work their full-time job work at the luncheonette. And they had great experiences being a kind of cornerstone in the community because they had this restaurant that people would go to all of the time. It was reasonably priced. They had it for over 50 years. It really was a staple. But on the flip side of that, on my mother's side of the family, my mother's parents were farmers. So they had a farm stand, they had livestock. And when I was about 10, 11, that's when the summer camps went away and it was like, "All right, time to start working."
So it would be picking beans, which is going to be one of the most miserable things for anyone to ever do, picking beans in the summer. In New England or regardless of where you are in the world, that is a miserable job to do. And then that would be the weekday summer job. And on the weekends, it would be like, okay, now you're going to go down and help your other grandparents and family wash dishes, which is another miserable thing to do, of scraping eggs and ketchup off plates.
So having those experiences relatively young gave me a huge appreciation for hard work, but also really helped me start to think then about what I wanted to do, because I didn't want to run a luncheonette. Didn't want to run a farm. I'll tell you that. But it also gave me an appreciation to the hard work and the dedication that my family had, which although I took a very different path still I'm very thankful that as miserable as a kid, doing those experiences really helped me to develop into a hardworking individual, which has been pretty beneficial. So those were some of the key experiences growing up that helped me to dive into work and to want to be a hard worker and take that in a different way.
What wonderful experiences to learn what not to do and what you don't want to do. My brother, also, is a farmer, Catherine. And a couple of summers I had to spend time on his chicken farm, and I knew early on in my life, I admire farmers. It takes a lot of hard work and effort, but I also knew I didn't have any desire to become a farmer.
I don't blame you. And that you do get a huge appreciation for the work that people do to put food on our tables with that. But it is very eye opening at the same time to think this is not the path for me.
So you've had a wonderful path that has also led you to writing this book. The Leadership Decision: Decide to lead today. And even in the title, it comes across that you present leadership as a choice, Catherine.
Yeah. And that was one thing. I have my master's degree in leadership studies. I have my doctorate degree, both from Northeastern on leadership. And even now I straddled the line between teaching part-time at the University of Massachusetts and having a full-time leadership development role. And a couple of years ago, I began when I was finishing up my doctorate research, really thinking about what makes a leader a leader. And there are countless books and podcasts and webinars and resources and studies about, Oh, this makes a leader or that makes a leader.
And then I was really thinking about my own life, my own experiences, like what we just talked about and thinking about people who I saw rise up the corporate ranks or making a big difference in their communities. And I was thinking, all these people are very different in terms of personalities and skill sets. And all of these people have made very clear choices or decisions to take action, which I attribute initiative and action to being the foundation of leadership. And in making those decisions, they've been able to separate themselves from followers in order to have a presence or to make a difference.
I started thinking about that. Leadership is a choice or leadership is a decision and it really stuck with me. And that's why I wanted to write a book about it, to really explore the topic and encourage others to think about their own choices and decisions, whether they realized it or not, as it relates specifically to their leadership and where they are in their lives.
I mean, I think that's another thing that really stuck with me too, is that my mother one time went to session at, I think when I was in high school and how to be a good parent, ironically enough. And one of the things that I think they said to her in that session was you have to let your kids make their own decisions or good decisions. So from the time that I was 16 on, even now, my mother's always like, make right choices, make good decisions. And I think between, like you said, the work background with the family roots there, my mother preaching that at me since I was probably 15 or 16, kind of examining leadership from my own academic and professional lens really helped the pieces for me come together and trying to provide a resource that hopefully helps others think about what this means to them and their own lives.
So, what are the choices in your perspective that someone has to make to become a leader? What you're saying is it is a choice. We have that choice. Then what separates the people that choose to become leaders? What did they do differently than those that don't necessarily become leaders?
The people who decide to lead are the ones who take action and initiative, like I mentioned is really a keyword. I see some people in my professional world who sit back and wait for permission, quote unquote, in order to lead or start a new initiative or start a project. And I think these people are so stuck in the confines of the corporate world and needing to be told they can do something. And depending on your organizational culture, that might be the case whether you're a strong leader or not. But I think even stepping back from that kind of situation, people who take initiative and try to step up when others don't are the ones who I understand and see as leaders.
Now, whether or not they have a formal title or not in the workplace is one thing, but I see people who don't have that formal title for whatever reason who make huge impacts across their organization, because they see opportunities to improve processes or they see opportunities to coach and develop others. And they truly are exemplifying the characteristics that we attribute to solid leadership while other people and very stuffy corporate world sit back and kind of let the days go by without ever popping out of their office or participating in the zoom call and letting the world pass them by.
So we all can make different decisions about what leadership means to us as individuals and where we see those opportunities in respective to our lives, both inside and outside of work. But I do see the people who I consider to lead being the ones thinking, whether consciously or unconsciously, I'm going to step up and make a difference where I see a difference needing to be made.
And to make that difference, you also mentioned Catherine with respect to initiative and leadership that what we've gone through both most recently since the crisis and just generally now, leadership at all levels is even more important. Why do you believe that to be the case?
It's more important now than what it was because people feel a level of fear. I think that's critical that we've never felt before and need to feel like there are others around them that both feel similar and can be vulnerable, which is a leadership ability that I talk about. And I know that's one that people have mixed thoughts on, but were in a very unique situation that none of us have ever faced in our lives. And there's a level of wanting to connect more and differently compared to what we were when we were face-to-face. So we need leaders who are going to be aware of that. But leaders who also have to say, I want to be a pillar of strength and letting my employees know that I'm here to support them. And then I have positive aspirations for the future, but nobody knows what's going to happen next.
So that's where that level of vulnerability and connection comes into play for leaders to say, we're going to strive for the best, we're going to do what we can, but we have to be realistic too, that a lot of us are feeling burned out or overwhelmed or fearful of what's going to happen. And we're all human too at the end of the day.
And I see some leaders doing that, which is great to see. And then I think their people who work for them or with them have a new appreciation. But yet some leaders are still either avoiding what we're in, which seems so ironic to me because how could you avoid even talking about this or trying to resonate with others? And that makes them seem so cold and unfeeling. And yet I'm thinking, why would I want to follow this person if they're so out of touch with how people are feeling, the circumstances that folks are dealing with and really where people might need them as a level of support as we navigate this situation.
So Catherine, you highlighted one of the challenges that a lot of leaders tell me that they're frustrated with. They say " Mahan, you're telling me to be vulnerable. And you're telling me to be a pillar of strength. Which one? How the heck am I going to be a pillar of strength for my team and still show vulnerability and tell them I don't really know what's going to be happening next couple of months?"
So how do you handle that with respect to leaders, Catherine? How can you exhibit both vulnerability and still be a pillar of strength for those that needed around you?
I worked for a gentleman for years. And he was really good at that. But the thing that made him really good at that is that he was a really good storyteller. And storytelling and leadership are topics that I love to talk about. And when we would have our, this was a small company and it was a marketing company. We would have our kind of QPRs and he would get up there and he would always start with a story and he would talk about working for the different clients that we had. And he would start the story out by talking about his own fears and concerns. Although at the time when that story would have started to occur in the past, no one would have ever thought that he was scared or concerned because he always had this level of presence and confidence. So it was always really interesting to be like, wow, we were all really nervous going into this client meeting and making sure that it ran off without a hitch, but here's our leader who seemed steadfast at the time.
Now talking about all of the fears and concerns that he had, that he was going to disappoint the client or something terrible was going to be going on with this user group meeting. But yet he'll talk about it in terms of the story about setting the stage.
So we have this big task. This is where I was feeling fearful. But as a team, we did X, Y, and Z. And as a leader, I learned this and I feel like this has helped me be better at what I do, because we went through this experience and it wasn't like it was overly formulaic. But in some ways as I kind of talk about it now, it almost seems to be because he had a very interesting flow and that he would talk about where he had been concerned at the time, whether he was showing that or not. But then after the fact talking very openly about his fears and concerns, which I think helps people relate to him more, knowing that we all got through it and had a happy ending, but that he wasn't denying that he didn't have his own concerns going into something that we were all a little like, "Ooh, how's this going to go? And what that was going to mean?"
That's a great way of putting it. And I imagine that those stories also stick in your mind and helped you understand the kind of leader that he was, the values that he had for himself and the organization.
Totally. And he would get up and be pretty transparent at times about his concerns about losing his own job and what that was going to do for his career, his family, and then you would have a whole other level of appreciation for him and his values. Because he would talk about his family a lot, but then have him talk about his own concerns about what this could mean if this doesn't go well to his livelihood was something that I think we stray away from discussing openly because it's pretty uncomfortable topic but yet a reality that we all live in, whether we want to admit it or not.
But yet having him talk about his family and still wanting to be a provider for them was always such a pivotal moment because it's like, this guy really values his job. He really wants to take care of his family. He really wants to do the right thing and sometimes things and people get screwed up, but his intentions were always solid, which is what I think made him both vulnerable at times in being able to express that. But strong, in other times, because he would show emotion. But sometimes he wouldn't quite talk about it until after the fact like I've just shared. But he found a balance to do that where it made sense.
And along with that, it sounds like he was branding himself.
One of the things that you mentioned in your book is that leaders do have to learn how to brand themselves that becomes more important. How can we go about understanding our leadership brand?
I love the idea of a leadership brand and people struggle with that. What is my leadership brand versus my reputation? In some ways, they're probably one and the same. And I make my grad students do this all the time and they go crazy. But at the end of the day, they think it's valuable.
But I have them kind of write their own statement of what their leadership brand is. And that's where they hate me, because they think this is going to be so easy. “Why is Professor Rymsha having us write a paper on this?” And then a couple of weeks later, once they've gone through the course, I'm like, "All right, hot shots. This is how you defined your brand. The proof is in the pudding, if you will, or in the feedback. So now you're going to have to go out and show people that you work with or interact with your brand and then say to them, this is my brand. Do you agree? Where can you give me other feedback on my strengths or weaknesses and where there's opportunities for me?"
Because a lot of them feel very self-assured that they know what their brand is, and then they go out and test their assumptions through this exercise of getting feedback on their brand. And it is a very interesting moment because they are very off. We have the opposite good moment where some students say, "This is who I am. This is my brand. I feel very confident and very self-aware in this brand. I went out, I got feedback. I opened up that dialogue. People are saying to me, Yes. That's in fact, how we would describe you as a leader."
But I know feedback is a very hot topic. And we're seeing podcasts and articles and Harvard business review was all over it and all these other great resources, but it's still one thing that leaders, regardless of how much we talk about, can be scared to get feedback. And yet it is still so critical to ensure that our actions and behaviors and our decisions are lining up with how people are perceiving that and defining us and seeing value in us as leaders.
What a wonderful exercise you give to your students first to define their brand, their leadership brand, but then to check whether that is the way others perceive them. Because part of what you say in your book also is perception is reality. And a lot of times our perception of our brand is very different than other people's perception of our brand which therefore requires us to be open to and get feedback. So how could leaders get the kind of feedback that helps them understand their brand, their leadership brand better?
That's a great question. And a caveat to that is that I see some leaders depending on their organizations to get feedback on them, through a formal tool, like a 360. And yet that can be a great process to go through. And that can give us very specific feedback as it relates to how people who we work with experience us and give us feedback through the use of that tool. But that can be very heavy handed in terms of the HR and hierarchical and culture aspects, which will give us one view as to who we are as leaders. Which is why when I have my students do this, or even when I talk about it in the book to say to leaders, yeah, go ask for feedback at people at work or use the work tools and the HR tools, which are all great stuff. Don't get me wrong. But you also have to take it to another level where there are other people in your life, in your community, in your relationships who are going to give you a different perspective than what the work people might in order for you to then unite those different perspectives to say, this is where there's commonalities and how I behave and live that run true to who I am as a leader.
And this is where there might be some disconnects. Like at work, sometimes I get feedback that I'm cold and unemotional. And it's been one thing that I've worked on my career for years to try to seem warmer. Although people in my home life and personal life and the work that I do with volunteering and community feel like I do come off warm and not so kind of cold and corporate. And that's been one thing too, that as someone in leadership development, I need people to feel like they can relate and connect to me. So to get that feedback that maybe some people can't was terribly disconcerting. So it was a matter of saying like, okay, my persona at home and at life is one thing. My persona at work to others might be totally different.
So where do I need to take that step back and having that level of feedback to try to bring more of an authentic Catherine to work who is kind of feeling and caring that I haven't done before, whether that be for fear or comfort level or whatever, in order to really ensure that my brand, as someone in leadership development is really true to who I am as a person.
And you're showing that openness that is needed, Catherine. One of the things that the 360 has a role to play. However, I do agree with Tom Peters. He says 360 is a tool, a blunt tool that brings the cognitive biases of a lot of people around us. And they hammered the individual over the head with their cognitive biases. So in many instances, the feedback that we get through 360 tools are not necessarily the kind of feedback that the leader needs to be able to develop themselves. It's going to those people that you do have a relationship with, that you have a trusting connection with and being open to what they give you, as opposed to just a lot of these HR tools like 360. Again, it does have its role, but I think in many instances it's used as a blunt object rather than truly a tool for feedback for the improvement and understanding of the leader.
Totally. I agree with that totally. But I think one thing that I talk about, and want my readers and even my students to think about is that the tool is helpful to getting that feedback and getting feedback from people who you may not necessarily feel comfortable getting feedback from. And I think that's one thing too, that even as leaders, even if we know that there are people out there who don't like us or we feel a deep connection with, I think it's still critical to get feedback from those people too.
I had somebody that I used to do training for at work. And he would come up to me after, like, "You screwed this up, you did terrible at that. I don't really feel like I connect with you." And I was like, Oh my God, like this person's pretty blunt, that they're not a big Catherine fan. And I thought this is really cool because no one's ever been this forthcoming with me ever in my career to really accurately pinpoint what exactly about me they don't like. And I took that as a challenge and as a learning exercise and kind of brought that person into my circle, knowing that they aren't a fan, but they're going to give me the feedback that I need to course correct.
So I think the challenge is like, yeah, we want to get feedback from people who know and love us and support us and our biggest fans. But you gotta add some of those others who might think differently about us too, to the mix to ensure that we're not getting everything painted perfectly. But we're getting kind of the folks who are going to say to us, you're screwing this up. This is how people perceive you. Like you got a problem with that. Because that can really do a lot more good than what we might think it might.
I agree. Getting that broader perspective is definitely helpful in the process, but you also mentioned that that's an element in awareness.
In the book, you mentioned an APE model Awareness, Practice and Evaluation with respect to approaching a leadership. Can you talk a little bit about APE and how that plays a role with improving our own leadership?
It's a great point. When I came up with this idea, that leadership is a decision, I thought like that is very fluffy. I can't just say leadership is a decision and expect people to be actionable with that concept because they're not going to quite understand how to put that into play. Which is why I was thinking about where is it? What's a framework or decision-making tool that people who are trying to be better leaders can use?
So this is where it was the matter of this cycle of getting awareness, practicing what you've learned or what that looks like both in awareness, getting an evaluation, like I said, which is where it becomes more of a cycle. And then re-evaluating or evaluating to say this is what I've learned. This is how I've been applying it. How have you seen me make a difference? And it's not only getting evaluation from others' feedback, but I think it's the evaluation too, from an introspective standpoint. Do I feel good about the work that I'm doing and the impact that I'm having, or experimenting with these new skill sets and trying to be a better leader to those around me?
My intent with that model was that people could say or use it and think about where am I in my life or my career or skills? And then where are the ways for me to have a greater impact through practice? And then how am I going to have that? Like I said, kind of constant mindset to evaluate and both in getting feedback and kind of self-evaluation.
And as you put it repeatedly in the book, it is a process that you constantly go through, which is critical.
Now, one of the elements you also mentioned, and that is important to leadership. I know you also did a Ted talk on it. You talk a little bit about communication. You make fun of how people perceive communication initially. But you focused quite a bit on the importance of listening. Would love to know your perspectives on it. And why is something so simple, so hard for us most, especially for leaders?
Yeah, well, listening is a topic that I think about a lot and I've been thinking about it a lot more. So since we've been at home, because I think we are all zoom fatigued and it can be easy enough to kind of drown out.
But what's interesting is that when it comes to listening, we're never really taught how to listen. It's just kind of assumed that through social interaction, we're going to become better listeners. And you know, as students, if we listen better in the classroom, I had somebody make this comment to me a couple of years ago, then we're going to get better grades. So that's going to help us be a better listener.
And I used to think, I don't think that's quite right. But I'm tempted to do more of a research study about ways that people can become better listeners considering the COVID environment, because there's plenty of studies and research out there, but yet there's still this constant struggle with people saying I don't know how to be a good listener.
And I don't know if that's now simply because people don't feel present or feel like they have the face to face contact and relationships and are able to be more in the moment when they talk to people. But it's something that I think focus is a huge part of listening and knowing when to put the phone down as simplistic as that sounds.
But one tool and this isn't my tool so I'm not going to take credit for this at all, is an active listening tool that one of the consultancies that I've been working with at my full-time job that we've been using through an organization at West point in New York called Fair leadership. And they use this really cool approach to listening. And this is one thing that I'd love to do more research on this, but they call it back briefing.
So let's say, I were to say to you like, "Hey, I need you to do this task by Friday afternoon because of X, Y, and Z reason." So with the back brief, it would be like, "Okay, what did you hear me say?" And at first I thought, Oh my God, that is going to be the most condescending thing I've ever heard in my life. Like, I can't imagine going into a room of VPs and senior vice presidents and presenting and then being like, "All right, boys and girls, what did you just hear me say?" And they would probably look at me like I was crazy. I'd probably lose my job right then and there.
But the trick with the tool from fair with back briefing, cause it's a tool that they use in the military, which is going to have some effectiveness, like seeing what the military does and how they can stay highly organized and effective is that it really does check for clarity of understanding and alignment.
And I thought that's brilliant, but you can't just start using that tool cold without first prefacing it to an individual who's going to think that you're talking to them like you're talking to a child. But I think once you say, I'm going to start using this tool, I'm not doing it to ridicule you, or make assumptions about your ability to be a thought provoking adult, but I'm going to use this tool just so I'm clear that I said the right thing to you and that you heard me and what my intent was of the action.
And I think that's a brilliant tool. I would love to research that more, but I think that coupled with other listening techniques. And like I said, there's plenty of stuff out there on the topic. But I think that too is a decision. I think leaders still need to say, I'm going to make an active decision to listen better and put the phone down, the notepad down. And you hear Simon Sinek talking about that all the time too. I think it's a decision you've got to be in the moment and decide you're going to be in the moment. And if you can't be in the moment, move the meeting.
It is. And it's a critical aspect of a lot of what you mentioned in the book. Also, it is a decision. It is a decision whether it is to lead, whether it is to get feedback, whether it is to listen, it is a decision and therefore we have a choice in it.
I love the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote. " The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be."
So leadership and all the aspects you've mentioned in the book is all a decision.
Now, you also mentioned Catherine, sticky attributes of leadership. What are sticky attributes of leadership?
Oh, the sticky. So the sticky attributes are the ones that they, I was going to say, the ones that they don't teach you in school, but a lot of good leaders don't ever have a formal education in leadership. But the sticky skills are the ones that really help people kind of remember a leader.
And I talk about three different sticky skills in the book , and what that means to leadership, but then also some of the skills that sometimes get a bad reputation, although they're needed.
And sometimes as leaders, we need to make decisions that may not be the most popular, or we need to think about ways that we can think outside of the box and what that means. But when it comes to the sticky skills, it's the matter of thinking in a, where can I really make an impact and having an edge and maybe vocalizing a bit more, or making people feel a bit more uncomfortable for the sake of having deeper or richer dialogue. Because it's moments and skills and kind of decisions like that, that help us remember leaders in the long run and help us become better people ourselves.
So that said. Another one of those great insights that you share. And in the book, we just touched on the surface of it, of the content you have.
In addition to your book, Catherine, I wonder if there are any resources or books you find yourself often recommending for people wanting to improve their own leadership.
I for years have made my MBA students read The Leadership Challenge. I mean, that's been around for decades by Kouzes and Posner. And I think that's the first leadership book that I read. And I remember at the time thinking like, all right, yeah, this is okay. And then I read a lot of other leadership books and I thought, no, this book is pretty great.
Although there are tons of great leadership books out there. I don't mean to insult any other authors, but I feel like my students often talk about how they find that to be kind of most practical in their lives. And I think that one has a lot of good nuggets, but I think one thing that I've been mentioning to folks a lot these days is the topic of bias and becoming more kind of aware of how we categorize and think about people.
I've been making my students do. And I've talked about this in another podcast recently that Project Implicit Bias Questionnaire out of Harvard, which I think is always a good one. And it's one that some people know about it when I've kind of been popping the spiel on that and talking about it so much. But I still think it's one of those kind of unsaid gems that can be really eye-opening to leaders regardless of where they are in their careers, about where they might have some unconscious or even conscious biases that could be tripping them up, especially as we're trying to create more diverse and equal workplaces and cultures and being more mindful of that.
Those are great recommendations and we do all have those biases. It's just finding out what those biases are, which is actually part of the reason when we were talking about feedback.
One of the things is I tell leaders to be open to feedback. As a coach and guide, I'm mindful of the fact that sometimes the feedback female leaders get is different. And it's partly because of the bias of some of the men that report to them. Some of the feedback that people of color get, it's based on the biases. Very subtle biases that individuals reporting to them have.
So while it's absolutely important for leaders to be open to and solicit feedback, we do also need to be mindful that we all have biases and the people around us also have biases that need to be accounted for. So those are great recommendations on your part. Thank you, Catherine.
Now, where can the audience find out more about you Catherine and your book?
Sure, so the book is on Apple books, it's up on Amazon and Barnes and noble. People can check me out on my LinkedIn profile. I love getting feedback and LinkedIn connections. That's one of my favorite things. Believe it or not. And then also I have a website, theleadershipdecision.com where people can learn a bit more about me if they'd like.
Well, I really enjoyed the conversation with you. I enjoyed reading the book and I enjoyed the fact that you say leadership is a decision and you provide frameworks and tools for us to decide to become more effective leaders. Really appreciate you joining me on this conversation, Dr. Catherine Rymsha.
Thank you so much for the opportunity. It's been a pleasure chatting with you.