You can read all the books, listen to all the podcasts, and clamor for every resource available on “how to achieve maximum leadership potential.” But you can’t be a phenomenal leader without lived experience. That’s why professional development is so important for all leaders.
This year, I have had the distinct pleasure of participating in Leadership Iowa; which is a unique program, focusing on topics that impact our local communities. As Foundation Director at Businessolver, making a difference in my local community is something that’s always been top of mind, and a priority for me. The goal of the program is to better understand other perspectives outside of our “proverbial cubicles” or typical workspaces. The result is an experience you can’t buy from a bookstore. After just three months into the program, here are some of my key takeaways for leaders on any level.
In this program, 40 leaders immerse themselves in a different community once a month, for several days. This is a big time commitment—including travel time, meeting time, and most importantly, preparation time. Working together in small groups, we researched and prepared to lead an activity for the entire class on the topic of the month. We devote one leadership session to discussing the challenges and opportunities that are classified under that topic.
The monthly topics cover a wide range of industries, but in order to speak intelligently on these, I had to take time outside of my work, my family obligations, and my volunteer time, to make sure that I could participate with as much enthusiasm as if I were an expert on the topic. Naturally, leading the interactive activity was so much more engaging because my groupmates and I chose to invest the appropriate time into its success. Leaders must do the same—decide to commit time to making your professional development successful.
Empathy means seeing a situation from someone else’s perspective. Stepping outside of yourself to try and understand a different point of view.
For example, Fairfield, Iowa would probably make a great small-town setting for a Hallmark movie. We spent our time in Fairfield learning about the manufacturing industry. Namely, Dexter Laundry, which has been operational for 130 years, 112 of them in Fairfield. Dexter is 100% employee-owned. With such deep roots in the community, understanding the significance of Dexter Laundry and hearing their story provided us with a new perspective and humanized a business that may have initially seemed cold and mundane. Strengthening and practicing empathy as a skill may sound unnatural, but the employees you’re leading will appreciate your compassion and ability to demonstrate empathy.
In each of the places we visit, we listen to community leaders—from CEOs to government officials, family farmers, small business owners, and non-profit leaders. We connect with a diverse group of leaders. In Fairfield, we even met with a professor from the Maharshi School, a Pre-K through High School that focuses on children’s mental health as a critical part of education.
Each leader’s story focuses on their personal life lessons in business and beyond so that we as leaders can absorb that information for ourselves. One such life lesson came from Nate Weaton, CEO and Founder of Weaton Companies. The message he wanted us to take away from his story was “be where your feet are.” Essentially, being present. Focusing on the most important thing that needs your attention in that moment. For example, if you’re with your family, focus on being with your family. Nate is the coach of the Fairfield Varsity Football Team and he spoke about how he instills his leadership philosophies into his players. And even if they are having a poor season, they can still feel successful because they have learned what it means to be an effective team.
The point of hearing from these leaders is not to just talk about the issues that affect the community, it’s to take those lessons and apply them to be a better leader, a better mom, and a better human for all of society.
I get it, oftentimes, it’s hard to take time out of our busy professional and personal lives and do a deep dive into professional development opportunities, like the intensive Leadership Iowa program. However, the return on the investment of learning about “being where your feet are” and gaining insight from others is something that is truly special and worth the sacrifices you might have to make. As we transition into a new year, I encourage leaders at any stage in their careers to think about ways you can invest in yourself in 2024. You might be surprised to find not only the impact it’ll have on you, but on your work, family, and community as well.
For more information about how Businessolver impacts the communities in which we are involved nationwide, check out our Foundation page.