Leadership Development and Training in the Time of COVID-19

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When times get tough, people look to the top for guidance. These companies help evolve the skills that businesses need to succeed.

By Brandee Gruener

What does speaking well on camera have to do with leadership? It’s simple. “Presence,” said Ryan Carey, founder of video communication training company BetterOn. Virtually or inside his funky studio on Main Street, he helps people “unleash their authentic self” with coaching and basic acting exercises. At first, BetterOn’s clients are reluctant, even terrified of stepping in front of a camera. They look away anxiously, make faces or stiffen into formal, robotic business speak. BetterOn is there to get them past that.

“People don’t remember what you say. They remember how you make them feel,” said Carey, who was one of YouTube’s first employees and later a YouTuber himself. He gently guides people to project their inner feelings to the outside world. “I think leadership comes from within,” he said.

Leadership, of course, has many definitions. Is it commanding a room during a keynote speech? Inspiring others to buy into your vision? Mastering the management skills needed to build a strategy for success? Understanding and serving the greater community? You can find organizations around Durham that will help you bring out all of these facets of leadership from within.

Commanding the Room, Literally or Virtually

BetterOn offers customer leadership programs and coaching to people who need to speak on camera
BetterOn’s Ryan Carey

After the coronavirus outbreak, many workers were forced to spend the better part of their day on camera. BetterOn was uniquely positioned to help and began offering its coaching and leadership programs online through Zoom.

“All of our leaders/clients are having to navigate managing remotely,” Carey said. “Their teams are scared. No one has answers. We are not only training them on how to use video more effectively, but also pushing them to lead with courage in a time when fear is high.”

Before circumstances changed, Carey gave me a taste of what he does in his downtown studio. I found myself in front of the camera, counting to 10 like I was sad, like I was excited, like I was bragging, like I was sharing a secret. The exercise helps to explore your emotional range on camera. (Carey also noted that when people watch a video of themselves “bragging,” they discover that really just means showing confidence – a desirable trait in any leader.) He provided tips along the way (lower your chin is the most universal one). He played back videos on mute so I could see my body language. He even had me stand on a trampoline for one take, a trick that seemed to drain away the nervousness, or at least appeared that way on screen.

woman speaks in front of a video camera
“There’s something about the shared vulnerability of everyone being themselves,” BetterOn’s Ryan Carey said. Here, Macaela Campbell practices speaking on camera. Photo courtesy of Ryan Carey.

What is the purpose of these exercises? According to research, people remember how you speak more than what you have to say. Carey is there as a sort of therapist to cringe through the footage with you, but he doesn’t offer a long list of criticisms. He’s more interested to hear what you see in the performance. Most clients are surprised to find out that they actually look pretty good. Eventually, they are desensitized to standing up in front of others, get out of their own way and just express themselves.

Carey started exploring the BetterOn concept in San Francisco and New York, where he has a second studio. He moved to Durham for love and found the city provided him the space to grow his business. Today, BetterOn offers coaching to people who need to prepare for a speech or video marketing; custom leadership programs to companies like Red Hat; and group sessions to those looking for a team-building experience.

“I had to give this talk, and I didn’t even flinch,” is the kind of feedback Carey hears from executives. But he’s just as pleased to hear that someone is making stronger connections with family at home, and that the work they do translates to how they communicate into other facets of their lives.

Defining and Sharing your Vision

Dr. Bahby Banks says leadership means passion
Dr. Bahby Banks is an adjunct faculty member in UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Public Health Leadership Program. Photo by Brian Strickland

To Dr. Bahby Banks, leadership means compassion, vision, foresight, the confidence to surround yourself with brilliant people, and the ability to know when to lead and when to follow. But most of all, she said, leaders “really need to understand that nothing will replace the power of human connection.”

Banks is the founder and CEO of research company Pillar Consulting and the founder of the ENVISION Empowerment Experience, a workshop designed initially for women to contemplate their goals, define a vision and commit to action in their lives. After a half day of deep reflection, the women would walk away with a “vision board” of words and pictures that captured the next and best version of themselves.

Today her organization has expanded into coaching corporate executives, millennials, individuals looking to jump-start a career, STEM students, student leaders at around 20 historically black colleges and universities, and more. Though she doesn’t expect to be able to present live at the usual venues, such as the ESSENCE Festival, this year, Banks and her team continue to offer their services online. Banks has a background in public health and was in the process of teaching an online public health leadership class at the time of the coronavirus outbreak, which was both a “timely and unfortunate” occurrence that provided the opportunity to discuss leadership in a time of crisis. As an adjunct faculty member in UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Public Health Leadership Program, she tells the next generation of scientists that soft skills like communication, time management and conflict management are critical in the workplace.

As a coach, Banks emphasizes the importance of engaging the people around you, communicating effectively and networking with people from all walks of life. “Everything we do in life, we’re pitching people our values,” Banks said.

Mastering Management Skills

A budding entrepreneur with dreams of opening a florist shop could be very skilled at arranging flowers but lack the vital management skills to lead a successful new venture.

Brian Smith, senior economic development coordinator for the City of Durham’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, works to break down the barriers to success for small business owners, women business owners and minority business owners.

“All of them are very good at the technical aspects,” Smith said. “What they needed was some of the fundamental business acumen.”

The city repeatedly heard that feedback from entrepreneurs when putting together a strategic plan. In response, Smith’s office created Momentum 360, which covers topics like management fundamentals, monitoring and managing cash flow, creating an effective marketing plan and building a team. They decided to offer the program to cohorts of 15 to 20 people with something in common so they could learn from one another.

The first group of women business owners met for eight weeks in the fall. Durham Technical Community College’s Small Business Center, North Carolina Central University’s Small Business and Technology Development Center, and the Durham Rotary Club co-sponsored the program. There are plans for an artisan entrepreneurship cohort this fall, a youth cohort in the summer and a real estate entrepreneurship cohort sometime later this year (COVID-19 delayed that program). The topics covered are specific and relevant to each group.

Since coronavirus has put many events in flux, interested business owners can stay up to date on the Momentum 360 program online at durhambusiness360.com. The website also provides a onestop shop for opportunities and support provided by all of the city’s partners. Programs include counseling, mentoring and funding that can help entrepreneurs build and lead the business they dreamed of.

Understanding and Serving the Greater Community

Jesica Averhart of Leadership Triangle
“It’s hard and inconvenient,” Jesica Averhart said about leadership. “That’s the truth. But it is rewarding.” Photo by Beth Mann

The truth is, leading an organization is a 24-hour effort that rarely allows days off, said Jesica Averhart, executive director of Leadership Triangle. It might be difficult to imagine life beyond running the show. But many leaders grow to play significant roles in the wider community.

Leadership Triangle encourages managers, executives, directors, etc. to see the connective tissue in that larger space, well beyond their local town, city or county.
Seeing the Triangle as a region might seem obvious now, Averhart said, but that was less apparent when the nonprofit was established in 1992.

Every community in Leadership Triangle’s service area of Wake, Durham, Orange and Chatham counties has unique qualities to contribute, while they face many of the same challenges. Leadership Triangle engages leaders with issues like regional growth, transit, water quality, economic and social equity, affordable housing and education.

Their offerings include leadership development classes in small cohorts, a master’s leadership course for C-level executives new to the region, social networking, public forums and an annual leadership summit focused on regional issues. In the leadership development classes, participants travel the area to build relationships, tour businesses, discuss challenges with government leaders and explore personal projects to improve the quality of life in the Triangle.

Averhart personally believes in the model of servant leadership, where leaders enrich the lives of those around them and help them become their best, while also creating a more just and equitable world. Averhart said when people care and understand their role and impact in the community, there is a ripple effect for others.

“For me, what’s most important is they feel there’s been some fundamental shift in how they view the community they participate in,” Averhart said. “You’ll never be the same. You’ll never see your community the same.”

Lessons from a CEO

Michael Jones became CEO of Spoonflower in January, just when the coronavirus was hitting their suppliers in China. He watched the public health crisis spread to Europe, affecting their offices and factory in Berlin, and finally to their headquarters and factory in Durham. Now they’re making fabric masks for health care providers and spacing their factory workers six feet apart. It’s been an interesting time to lead the world’s first web-based, on-demand custom fabric creator. Jones took a break to talk about lessons he’s learned as a leader:

What’s different about leading during the coronavirus outbreak?

“No. 1, it just becomes very important that you communicate not only to the leadership but also to the company very frequently,” Jones said. Communicating on a daily basis gives his leadership, employees and customers comfort knowing the company is watching what is happening and making modifications as needed.

“In tough times like we’re going through right now, you have to know the appropriate time to let your leaders do what they need to do and also when to grab the steering wheel and help them drive,” Jones added. “You need to know when to lean in. In a moment like that, you can’t just go hands off and say, ‘I’m not going to be present.’ It’s just not going to work.”

What are the qualities of a good leader?

“I’m a big believer in setting a direction and a vision and then letting the leadership team and their teams make as many decisions as possible,” Jones said. “They’re really happy, they end up doing a great job, you can guide them, and you don’t have to be involved in the nitty-gritty.”

“You can’t get into the trap of hiring people that are just like you or think like you or are going to give you the answers you want.”

What is something you’ve had to learn as a leader? What mistakes have you seen leaders make?

“You have to be able to listen a lot, which is something I’ve adapted to over time,” Jones said. “I don’t jump into the details and try to be a micromanager. I’ve seen people do that, and I’ve never seen it work really successfully.” Jones added that celebrating successes is important in any company. “I’ve always been surprised by leaders who, for whatever reason, don’t know the right way to get serious when it needs to get serious, but also celebrate things when they’re going really well.”

What has been your guiding principle as a leader?

Customers come first, employees come second, and shareholders come third. Without customers, Jones said there won’t be much need for either employees or shareholders. “We think about them in that order for every decision that we make, and it makes decision-making a lot easier for the team,” Jones said.

What would you recommend to people who want to move into a leadership role?

Try to work for companies and people you respect and develop long-term relationships with mentors you can learn from, Jones said. “I think a lot of people confuse leadership with a title,” he said. But individuals often lead through their actions and ability to motivate others. “By showing others the way, you’re slowly becoming a leader on your own, and then eventually you’ll get the opportunity to actually lead teams.”

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