How Watching Others Lead Helped My Career

Recently, I attended the kick-off meeting for a new Catholic young adult social group in my county. It’s the type of event that I often host in my career, constructed with a few basic building blocks: two hours on a weeknight, light refreshments and name tags, an open invitation via social media, and the intention to build community and offer some sort of uplifting message.

Now, I have a confession to make: I really didn’t want to take part in this gathering.     

Precisely because it’s the type of event I usually host, leaving work to attend felt like going to more work. I’m an introvert, and after a day of social interaction, my greatest desire is to go home and cuddle with my non-conversational dog.

But a sense of obligation got the better of me, and I’m glad that it did, because it turns out that attending an event feels very different from hosting it. I felt free from worrying about the details that are usually at the center of my mind during a program: Is the temperature of the room just right? Did I remember to buy gluten-free cookies? Is the speaker’s sense of humor awkward? I was content to enjoy my cookie in the pleasantly cool room without a second thought.  

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Beyond having a good time, the best part of attending this event is that I got to observe, from a participant’s perspective, what worked well in creating an enjoyable, engaging and productive program. Having the tables turned and watching others lead gave me new insights that I’ll be taking with me to benefit my career going forward. I walked away with five clear reminders.

Introductions!  Introductions! Introductions!

I appreciated that the hosts began the evening by introducing themselves to the whole group.  They shared a bit about their educational and professional backgrounds, how they spend their free time, and why they decided to start this particular young adult group. I also appreciated that the hosts made time for us to introduce ourselves and answer a conversation starter (questions like, “If you could meet one fictional character, who would it be and why?”).  Sometimes I resist spending too much time on these types of introductions, assuming that people don’t want to hear me talk about myself or that they find conversation starters childish, but as a participant, I welcomed them. In my job, I’m constantly seeing new faces and meeting new people. Taking time to exchange names, share some personal information, and ask a question or two goes a long way in making a positive connection and laying the foundation for a deeper relationship.

Information is everything.

When I host events, I know what’s happening and when it’s happening. Not having this information at the event that I attended drove me crazy. A printed agenda on each table, a verbal overview at the beginning of the event, or a schedule for the evening projected on a screen would have set my mind at ease. This experience made me realize the importance of conveying information that I’m in control of to all the people whom the information impacts. This includes everything from sending periodic updates about my progress on a project to to sharing the feedback I received about a social event with my team.

Variety is the spice of life.

The event that I attended began with a casual meet-and-greet. As people arrived, they milled around the room, saying hi to old friends and introducing themselves to new faces while enjoying refreshments. The hosts then invited everyone to small group, then large group conversation. Next, we broke off into pairs for a short activity, and then gathered back together as a large group to close the evening. I learned that physically moving from one space in the room to another, diversifying the people with whom we interacted, and changing the type and pace of activity kept the event stimulating and interesting. This reminder stretches beyond the realm of events to include meetings. Alternate between updates and discussions; if the meeting includes a long PowerPoint presentation or report review, take a five-minute stretch break at the halfway point.) And use different means of communicating your message. Don’t count on the weekly newsletter to capture everyone’s attention. Use social media, email reminders, and printed fliers as well.

Be comfortable with silence.

When silence falls upon a discussion that I’m leading, I assume all sorts of terrible things: People aren’t paying attention, I’m asking the wrong questions, or people are bored. I realized that silence feels much less awkward as a participant than as a leader, and that periods of silence are often the prerequisite to thoughtful comments. I and other attendees needed time to consider a question before answering, and when the host was patient enough to sit with the silence, the whole group was rewarded with insightful observations.

Don’t be afraid to take charge.

Ever since my first-grade teacher told my parents that I have a tendency toward bossiness, I’ve been self-conscious about giving orders. Fearful of coming across as pushy, I often defer from making decisions and give people as many chances to make their own choices as possible. Interestingly, I observed at the event that I attended that the hosts’ willingness to take charge — in a gracious and flexible manner, of course! — contributed to the fluidity and success of the evening. A willingness to make decisions and offer suggestions, while remaining open to feedback, is an important aspect of leadership.

Watching others lead gave me insights that will benefit my career going forward, and these lessons are translatable to my personal life as well. I might start putting this advice into action when it comes to planning a friend’s birthday party or dreaming up a family vacation. My main takeaway is that being an active observer can help me become a better doer.

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