Learning to Lead

I was a freshman fencing in my very first college meet against Harvard when one of the seniors captains came up to me to say she thought I had “what it took.”

“We’re starting a campaign early to make you Captain for next year,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you ready.”

I was a relative unknown coming onto my college team. A recruit with national standing and some Junior World Cup experience under my belt, sure. But I wasn’t like a few of my fellow first years, who had been fencing since they were 8, had made several Junior World Championships, and were making podium placements on the senior circuit. Our team’s Wall of Fame included national champions and Olympians galore (one of my classmates would go on to win a silver medal in Beijing.) So to be singled out as the next leader of this historic pack was more than an honor.

(It was terrifying.)

For most of my life, I’ve been pushed into leadership positions. Like in the 8th grade when we had to set-up and run our own businesses, I was unanimously voted CEO. I assumed things like this happened to me because I was always the one most likely to do most of the work or I was the one cheering the loudest. I guess that translated into being the one that cared the most, which was true. I care about the things I do, a lot.

Fast forward to this past fall…

When my boss suggested I apply to participate in a 10 month leadership development course, I was both flattered and skeptical. It felt a lot like when Captain Kim came up to me that day at Harvard — someone I had truck-loads of respect for thought I was worth investing in, worth mentoring into a leader of something special.

At the same time, I was doubtful a course about leadership was for me.  I lead a lot of things, can’t I just learn more from you, Boss? I need to know more about fundraising. How do I ask people for money for stuff? When she told me that my organization would pay if I were accepted, I figured it was an opportunity not to be missed, and filled out my application.

My current reading list.
My current reading list. “The Art of Asking” should be on yours

Going into the course, I saw leadership as a set of qualities you either had or didn’t, qualities that could be nurtured, but not learned. When someone was put into a leadership role, myself included, I figured it was because he/she demonstrated a few more of those qualities, and perhaps was a higher performer than the others in a given set of individuals. In that view, Leaders embody a character-type and are Leaders because they can deliver results. I didn’t necessarily see leadership as a set of skills that could be taught or mastered.

So far, this course has taught me otherwise.

Over the years, I had created awards for leadership and been the recipient of awards for leadership. And yet, acknowledging my many shortcomings, I know I have a lot to learn. Starting with finding answers to a set of simple questions: What really is Leadership? And what is GOOD leadership?

The course started with an inward look. What made me get up in the morning? What was my mission in life? My vision? Was I living my mission and my vision — in my personal life, in my professional life? I was bombarded with questions about who I was, where I had been, where was I going. As a goal oriented person who was good at staying the course, I’m not sure I wholly appreciated this line of introspection and contemplation. I was kinda living my dream. What gives!?! What did this have to do with being a Chief Curator or an Executive Director? Why are you trying to shake my foundation.

Sometimes you need a little shaking to test the strength of your foundation.

But the fog began to lift. To lead well, you need to BE your goal. To BE your goal, you need to know what it is and why you’ve set it. People won’t sign-up to follow you if you’re not genuinely invested in where you’re going.

I learned that Leadership is fundamentally grounded in relationships — with individuals as well as with groups/teams. We all need some help in learning how to manage relationships. Managing relationships is definitely a skill, a steamer-trunk-sized set of skills.

The course, which still has 2 sessions to go, proved revealing on many levels. It forced me to turn an eye to the relationships in my life. I came to value particular friendships even more, and reassign different position to others. I considered how to better negotiate certain workplace partnerships… and continue to consider how to make these more productive, more balanced, more collaborative.

It’s all a work in progress. Leadership is a process — a journey. Thankfully, there are many turns to explore in the road still ahead.

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The Hiding Place

It was a desperate moment and I’m not proud of how I handled myself. But sometimes circumstance forces you to behave out of character. You’ve been there too. Emerging into the world, hair tussled, knees of my jeans riddled with carpet fibers, and cheeks awash with a blush, I found myself caught with no explanation other than the truth:

desk fridayYes. I was hiding under my desk. Yes, Coworker. From you.

Hiding under my desk. It’s something I frequently wanted to do, but never really considered as a viable option.

I work in a space in my office called “The Nook” — a shared cubicle-like area outside our CEO’s corner office. Behind me, sits her assistant who I adore. We are the Nook Crooks, a duo with a mutual appreciation for dark chocolate and need for invisibility cloaks. The Nook is at the front of the office, about 20 feet from the main entrance and 10 feet from the receptionist. A low wall sheilds us from being directly visible to visitors, but once you know where we live, you know how to find us. And people who frequent the arts council, aren’t afraid to walk by our receptionist to say “hello.”

If only they were sneaking into the nook to say hello!

Since I’ve been working at this station, my fellow Nook Crook and I have been plotting ways to install some kind of alarm/security system. But we acknowledged even bells and sirens doesn’t solve our plight — we’re in a corner.  If there’s someone coming we want to avoid, our only exit strategy is jumping out the window.

I heard Cudjoe’s voice before he even stepped off the elevator. Cudjoe has a small gallery specializing in African art in my building. He’s a friend and we’ve successfully worked together on more than a few projects. But since the summer, I’ve been avoiding him. He wants to rent my gallery for his daughter’s wedding reception — an event I usually veto. I considered making an exception for him, but I had completely forgotten to take to our building people. His voice got closer. He was here to see our auction coordinator and drop off his donation for our annual gala.  I knew if I stood up and headed for the bathroom, he’d see me. I looked around, searching for an escape route. And then it hit me — I could hide under my desk.

I took my phone and made a dive, nose first. I pulled my desk chair in close enough to obscure my wine-coloured pants. Then I began to rummage items together — if the off-chance someone saw me, I could at least pretend I was fixing or looking for something.

Then I heard Ed’s voice. Ed is my organization’s counterpart in performance. He’d been trying to track me down for weeks to settle on a schedule for concerts that would happen in the gallery at the same time as the most important exhibition of my career, to date. I didn’t want to tell him how I felt about that without some back-up. So I decided I’d hang out under my desk a little longer.

So that’s where all my umbrella’s went! Oh, and here’s that photo an artist gifted me…

I amassed a neat pile of objects I could pull out to cover my tracks.

About 5 minutes passed and finally, all was quiet. I made my move.

“Trying to keep a low profile?” Ed’s question made me jump. He had seen me and decided to wait for me to emerge.

Caught, and with no where left to hide, I made an appointment to meet him later.

I confessed my desperate act to one of my superiors. She laughed and pulled up a recent This American Life segment called “The Leap,” which recounted the story of her uncle Bill — an NYC school bus driver who one day skipped his route and drove his school bus to Florida. He became something of a hero. She was trying to tell me she sympathized.

“When Ed came up to meet you he made sure to pull out your chair and look under your desk,” Anna, my boss’s assistant told me.

And with that, so ends my hiding place.

Who am I and How did I Get Here?

It was my father’s proudest moment — the morning I called to say I needed to take the tool belt and hammer to work.

The hammer and nails I've learned a gallerist can never leave home without

Forget my two university graduations. Forget that NCAAs when I made All-American. Forget the afternoon I got the phone call offering me the job at the gallery. Forget the day when I tell him I’m engaged. No, my father is proudest when I’m fixing things.

When I was 5, my favorite toys were wooden blocks (read: cut-up wood scraps from my father’s basement tool shop), a small black hammer, and nails. There was not a Barbie to be found. Instead, I built things. Tables. Chairs. Houses. They were rudimentary, but they kept me occupied and were sturdy enough to survive Armageddon.

Eventually, I went on to junior high school and wood shop where I put my hammering skills to use making spice racks and stylized end tables and rocket-powered race cars. I was teacher’s pet — when the local newspaper came to highlight our school’s “technology” program, I was the chosen spokesperson. The front page of the paper was filled with a photograph of me in a Calvin Klein sweatshirt holding up a 3D room model I designed and constructed from foamboard.

Then I discovered Bergdorf Goodman. I retired my hammer in exchange for Marc Jacobs blouses and Stuart Weitzman shoes.

It's just like the Talking Heads said, "you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"

Every once in a while, I find myself having an almost outer-body experience in which I’m staring down evaluating the person before me. I don’t recognize myself, and before I can ask, who is that, a flood of years past accumulate in front of my eyes — a rapid-fire timeline of  moments that lead me to that current instance and answer the question dangling in the air. Recently, it’s been happening often. I guess that’s the byproduct of finding myself in a new life phase.

This week’s exhibition installation — one where my childhood aptitude for driving nails into plywood proved particularly useful — inspired one of those outer-body experiences, an unexpected fit of nostalgia. Sometimes, I look at myself and say, gee, look how far I’ve come! Today, as I stood on the step ladder, employing the same hammer that was my favorite play thing as a kid, I was relieved that some things haven’t changed.

I guess I was also grateful my father thought it prudent to teach a 5-year old girl basic carpentry skills.

You Know You’ve Entered a New Life Phase When…

All you want for Christmas is a biodegradable, made from post-consumer materials yoga mat.

The manager at Home Depot offers you a job because you know more about their hardwood-flooring stock than their hardwood-flooring specialist.

You no longer have to put stickers over your predecessor's old biz cards

You have interns reporting to you.

Receiving your box of new business cards is the best thing that’s happened to you all week.

You can say to a teenager “when I was your age…” in a non-ironic way.

You no longer consider flip-flops to be appropriate outdoor footwear.

You realize it’s not necessary to take 1,000 photos of you and your friends every time you go out for drinks.

At 7:00, you’re still at work, with no foreseeable exit time. You send a text message home that says: “Have. Gin. Ready.”

The suburbs suddenly seem appealing.

Your afterwork martini is the only thing that gets you from Monday to Friday

You buy yourself flowers.

There’s at least one photo out there that can prevent you from having a viable career in politics… but may help launch your career as a page-6 socialite…

People start asking you if you have children.

People start giving you things to take home for the children you don’t have.

Small children start mistaking you for their mothers.

Instead of asking you “when was your last period” and “do you have a rich boyfriend yet,” your doctor slips a handful of condoms into your purse.

Woes of the Newly-Minted Working Woman, No. 231

“How are you adjusting to life as a  full-fledged working woman?” –> This is the question I’m most frequently asked by those that know me. Not “how’s the new job,” or “what’s your boss like,” but how are you coping with this foreign concept of a 9-5.

Standing in the locker room, in nothing but a towel, I realized I'd have to go to work braless. This wasn't an option.

Overall, I’d say I’ve adjusted pretty well. And then I have days like yesterday and I realize adapting to my new lifestyle is still a work in progress.

This time last year, I was a full-time athlete. My 9-5 involved wearing no make-up, traveling abroad, and working out twice a day.

Since I started my job as a gallery coordinator, my biggest challenge has been balancing the regimented fitness routine  I’m used to with the new demands of a workweek. Despite not being a morning person, I’ve committed to a morning gym schedule — a decision that reminds me why I try not to face the world until I’ve have my two cups of caffeine.

Yesterday, standing in the change room post spin class, wrapped in a towel, I assessed the contents of my locker:

  • Linen military jacket: check.
  • White, curve-hugging, scoop-neck top: check.
  • Printed linen ankle-length skirt: check.
  • Custom made cowboy boots and Navajo belt: check and check.
  • Outfit resembling costume for an extra in the movie of Custer’s Last Stand: assembled.

But wait… where’s my bra?

Had I gone bra-less, I would easily have been mistaken for another kind of working woman.

I held the skin-tight shirt in my hand and considered my options. Being small chested, I’ve frequently ventured out into the world sans support wear. But the elasticized and someone transparent material I was about to don made the decision for me.

Going bra-less would make me look like another kind of working woman.

It was settled: I’d wait for the Victoria’s Secret between my car-park and the gallery to open and buy a new bra. I’d be late for work, but at least I’d be setting the right example — only the day before I had lectured my assistants about “gallery-appropriate quantities of boob-age.”

I inherited 2 filing cabinets at work. One came filled with loan agreements and checklists from past exhibitions. As of today, the other is stocked with clean undergarments.

A working girl must always be prepared.

To avoid future post-gym forgotten underwear calamities, there's now a filing cabinet under my desk that looks like this.

April Showers Bring May Flowers, and Awkward Workplace/Romantic Encounters

April showers reportedly bring May flowers. April, 2011’s spring rains were absolutely ones of renewal, bringing with them a new blossoming job and a budding new outlook on romance, the sum of which equated to countless new possibilities for awkward social encounters.

Apparently, there are mug theives in my office. Even personalized mugs aren't safe.

Scene: 9:45AM, Day 2 at my New Job. I walk into the staff kitchen with my spill-proof, porcelain coffee mug with an intent to fill it. There’s a petite blond woman kneeling on the counter top, straddling the sink, blocking the coffee pot while she rummages through the cupboards.

“Have you seen my mug? It has my name on it.”

“No…”

“I ordered that mug especially with my name on it so no one would take it. You’d think that if someone saw someone else’s name on a mug they would think ‘this mug belongs to Kate, so I won’t take it.’ But no! Not here. People just take your mugs. Do you have your own mug?”

“Yes…”

“Let this be a lesson to you. Keep it with you always, otherwise someone will take it. Sometimes they even break it. The coffee is fresh, by the way.”

So much for my plans to get to work early

Scene: 8:30AM on the first real springy day in April. I’ve decided I want to leave work early, so I wake up extra early to get to the gym extra early so I can get to work extra early. Post workout, I’m standing in a Diane von Frustenberg skirt and Cole Haan loafers in the parking lot of the gym. The car doors are locked and my keys are staring at me from the front seat, laughing.

Thanks to the keys locked in the car incident, I arrive at work late, only to discover the artwork hanging in the window (the piece that was the lead for a NYTimes review of the exhibit) has come unhung. To rehang it, I have to mount an 100-year old radiator, in a skirt. The burn on the inside of my knee was, luckily, hardly noticeable.

Scene: Late night Saturday, there’s a monsoon raging outside and I’m inside a cozy restaurant on a date with a guy nearly 10 years my senior who might, arguably, be classified as a “player.” Being rather forward, he kissed me. A metallic object suddenly bashes against my front tooth with an audible clunk. Concerned about the integrity of my incisor, I pause.

I saw the scarf and thought Parisian, my boss saw the scarf and thought "She's hiding a hickey." Imagine if my date's tongue ring had chipped a tooth...

“Do you have a tongue ring?”

“Yes.”

“A warning would have been nice. These teeth aren’t straight but they were expensive…”

Scene: It’s the Tuesday after the monsoon-bathroom-tongue-ring debacle, and I’m wearing a white collared blouse and have a magenta silk scarf tied around my neck in a bow. There’s cake in the staff kitchen. My co-worker and I are stuffing our face. She turns and asks:

“Are you trying to hide a love bite? WhoisheWhat’shisNameWhatdoesHedoforworkIsHegoodenoughforyou?”

“Umm… No? It’s a rainy Tuesday in April. I’m just trying to cultivate my inner Parisian.”