Jessica Lawrence shares a story about leadership. From high school to the Girl Scouts of the USA to NY Tech Meetup, Jessica connects the dots about what is needed to be a leader. I was directed to this video by Jeff Vincent. Check out his newsletter and subscribe here.
And take 10 minutes to listen to Jessica’s story.
Doing What You Think is Right
Most of the time when I was in high school, it was a good thing to be featured in the school newspaper.
But I was sitting in class one afternoon during my senior year, when I came to realize there are times when clearly it is not.
I belonged to a club called Peer Advisory. As members, we served as advisors and organized activities for middle school students.
It was a good group overall. But some of the members, who also happened to be the most popular kids in school, had started drinking and partying on weekends.
They were not in my eyes living up to the club’s mission of being role models. So after learning this, I decided the most appropriate next step for me to take was to bring this up for discussion at one of the our club meetings, where I proposed we also sign a pledge agreeing not to drink.
As you might imagine, berating your fellow teenagers for their behavior and for the fact that they weren’t being really good role models, didn’t go over so well. And they weren’t big fans for the pledge idea either.
So then I’m sitting in class a few days later, when the school newspaper is delivered. And I open it up and see my name in the news brief section.
But it’s not celebrating something wonderful I have done. It was one line. And all is said was, “Hey, Jess Lawrence you suck.”
It turned out a few members of Peer Advisory were also editors of the newspaper. And they had slipped that one line in after the principal had already signed off on the final draft.
As a final act in utter high school mortification that day, the principal then made the editor in-chief apologize to me, publicly, over the school’s address system.
But beyond this momentary embarrassment, I didn’t really care what the popular kids thought, I didn’t really care what they said about me in the paper, and I wasn’t too worried about breaking social rules.
What I cared about was doing what I thought was right.
All Rules aren’t Created Equal
If it’s not already clear, I’m someone who likes rules. I’m careful. I tend to like order.
I’m the person who wandered around at college picking up all of the beer cans wondering where all the adults were.
I’m a person who doesn’t cut in line, who stays to the right on the sidewalk, and who always carries band-aids.
But even for me, all rules aren’t created equal.
Teenage social rules could be trumped by this higher order rule of doing the right thing.
And for those of us who are overcome with these visions of what’s wrong and how it could be made right, we often find ourselves in positions of leadership.
Because at least at first, we can’t stand that gap between what is and what could be.
The space that educator Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap.
Our early efforts about leadership are all about action. We plow ahead trying to escape that uncomfortable gap as fast as possible, trying to get to that place where things have been made right.
But my bull in a china shop method of trying to close that gap in high school had backfired.
I still had a lot to learn about leadership and change.
And starting my career in a 100-year-old organization would turn out to be the perfect classroom.
I started out as a fundraising associate at a Girl Scout counsel in Southern California. And I quickly learned though Girl Scouts have an amazing mission and do great stuff for girls, the organization was struggling with bureaucracy and hierarchy. And a lot of rules that did more harm than good.
Over the years, it had developed an unhealthy culture. A culture that really diminished human potential instead of elevating it.
And I worked in this environment for five year. At first sort of accepting that this is how work was. But slowly it started feeling worse and worse.
And I started thinking that this is not how work is supposed to be. Luckily, I was appointed CEO when I was 28 years old. And then I got to be in charge.
I realized I should start making some changes. So my first attempt at change was to implement a flexible work program.
I decided employees at a certain level and above could decide to work from home one day a week.
But right when I was about to start this program, one of my employees pulled me aside. She was one of the lowest paid people in the organization.
She said, “Jessica why is it the highest paid people get to save money on gas and commuting costs on day a week, when people like me, who need that savings the most, don’t get to participate.”
“Do you trust us less?”
I was speechless. I had never thought about trust in that context. This idea that your trustworthiness increased with your pay grade had been standard practice.
And there I was about to follow in that tradition. I had tried gently pushing back against the rules. But it wasn’t enough.
We realized we needed to throw out the whole rulebook and start with something new.
Escape the Uncomfortable Gap
So we made bold, rapid changes.
We became the first non-profit in the country to implement a results-only work environment. Where employees could work from where ever they wanted, whenever they wanted, as long as their work got done.
We re-centered our organization around trust. And we worked hard to change the culture.
And things got better. Employees were more engaged. They were happier to come to work. They were more creative and took more risks. Their well-being improved and our business performance improved as well.
It wasn’t perfect, but we were on this up, up, up trajectory. Until it stalled.
Some of the people who were enthusiastic about change, were not so enthusiastic when it came time to actually start changing.
We were moving too fast and the amount of change we were asking them to make became too scary.
I learned that although I had started out with all the right intentions for implementing this change for the benefit of others, I became a bit too focused on my own desire to escape that uncomfortable gap. And get to that place where things had been made right.
And I had let that space, which I had usually left open for others, close just a little bit.
A few years ago, I left Girl Scouts, moved to New York and started my current position at New York Tech Meetup.
And I had expected the technology sector to be filled with incredibly enlightened people. Who not only were building innovating products, who were truly building innovative workplaces.
I thought they would be the ones who would be driving all the types of change I had tried to implement at Girl Scouts.
I thought they would be writing better rules of business and adopting more human practices of work.
And while some are, a significant portion of this whole new generation of leaders are not advocating for the type of change I expected. And the type of change I think we need.
They still seem to be embracing this relentless win-at-all-costs attitude. A mentality that emphasizes constant action. But as I had learned, being able to pause is essential for creating the space needed in leadership.
Space to truly see and hear others. Space for difference.
Space for agency and potential to flourish.
Space to learn as I did from the people working alongside you asking you tough questions.
If I could go back to re-visit my 17-year-old self, I would stand next to her and give her hand a squeeze.
I would tell her to slow down a little. I would tell her to listen.
Not just to the supposed experts, but to all of those around her. And to herself.
I would tell her to have courage and patience to stay in that gap. And I would tell her to not lose her boldness.
Because having something that you are willing to take action on is essential. Even if, you eventually realize that sometimes the best thing to do is pause and listen.
Thank you for reminding us of that, Jessica.