Q&A (unedited) On Leadership
Charles Michael Austin, Ed.D. (“Dr. Chaz”) is President at Dr. Charles Michael Austin. He is a Career Mentor, College Professor & Curriculum Designer at various colleges and universities in Southern California.
How important in the roster of leadership qualities are attitude, habit and discipline? What weight would you assign them?
I assume discipline is present – in any professional. And certainly in a leader.
Habit can – and usually does – have a downside. As in, “that’s the way we do things around here.”
Attitude is the key. Are you open to new ideas? Can you make course corrections as needed? Can you give credit to a subordinate for something you didn’t think of? Can you get your own ego out of the way? We’ve probably all had bosses who’ve said to us, “My door is always open.” Going for the bait, we’ve gone in to pitch a new idea, only to leave the office like a flat tire because of the boss/leader’s needed to dominate.
What others, in your opinion, are coveted qualities of business leaders?
A. The ability to shut up and listen.
B. Making the people that report to you feel valued for their contributions.
C. Being crystal clear about what you want – and by when you want it.
D. Perspective. Except for hospital emergency rooms, no one is going to die if a deadline is missed. But so many leaders behave as if it’s always a life and death situation. It’s not. If you can lighten up, it goes a long way towards making those who report to you feel safe. People are more likely to take risks if they feel safe.
E. Allowing people to fail. If you’ve hired good people and let them do their jobs, they will occasionally screw up. There is no need to berate them. You’re not their mom/dad and they’re not your “bad” child. They’ll learn from their mistakes and probably not repeat them.
Do you think there is finally equality between men and women in the work place?
No. Things have improved, but we need to be continually vigilant. Sometimes it feels like the Womens’ Movement never happened. Look at the ongoing popularity of “laddie magazines.” We’ve reverted to objectifying women, and that sort of attitude no doubt spills over into the workplace. As Erma Bombeck said, “We’ve got a generation now who were born with semi-equality. They don’t know how it was before, so they think, this isn’t too bad. We’re working. We have our attache cases and our three piece suits. I get very disgusted with the younger generation of women. We had a torch to pass, and they are just sitting there. They don’t realize it can be taken away. Things are going to have to get worse before they join in fighting the battle.”
When most companies are tightening their belts and employees are not shaking things up, how much does risk taking (challenging the corporate orthodoxy) play a part in your advice for executives seeking to stand out in a corporation?
My advice is: don’t. Companies say they want “outside the box” thinking, but in practice they don’t. You want to take risks, start your own company.
Brevity is becoming a communications fact of life. When is brevity not such a good idea?
When it replaces genuine communication. Human beings are inclined to avoid confrontation. A quick tweet or text or email helps us dodge the uncomfortable face-to-face meeting where bad news needs to be conveyed. I think one of the things that has helped make me successful is that confrontation is one of my hobbies. I’ve always found that being direct with people deepens relationships. Not direct as in “you’re bad and wrong, and here’s why,” which is verbal vomiting that disempowers people. I’m talking about collaborative communication whose context is “what worked/what didn’t.” That takes it away from the personal attack, shifting the focus to problem solving.
You are a specialist in career development. What are the differences between setting a career path in your twenties and in your forties or even fifties?
Presumably, by the time you’ve hit forty, you’ve gained some wisdom and developed some sense of what your talents are and where and how you can make a contribution to others. My clients and students who are in their twenties very seldom have a career path. They may have a passion (or so they think), and my advice to them is to get to work in some capacity in their field of choice to learn where and how they fit.
The meta-conversation, though, is that most people do things in their careers that they never would have imagined in their twenties; that career choices are usually unplanned accidents or matters of serendipity. If someone would have told me in my twenties that I’d hold a Doctorate in Education and (among other things) be a college professor, I would have told them that they were crazy and that that would never, never happen. You need to be open to the unexpected.
What is one behavior or trait that you have seen derail more leaders’ careers?
Ego. “I’m the boss. I know best.”
Your Ed.D. dissertation discusses the inherent value of career coursework in higher education. What is your summary finding on planning for a career when college is often a place to “find ourselves”?
That’s both the subject of my dissertation and my book (to be published later this year).
Having some career direction by the time you graduate is part of finding ourselves. Unless you’re a trust fund baby, you’ll need to make money after you graduate (if only to start paying off your student loans). There’s enormous pressure on college students (from their parents, usually) to find “the perfect job,” and so many students have no clue what that might be – or even what they want to do. So, just get to work. If it’s not what you (think you) love, then at least have it be something you’d like to do. Get started. Meet people. Learn things. Trust that you’ll find your way – and eventually discover you passion(s). That’s plural because most people in their twenties can expect to have five or six careers. So even if you do find “the perfect job,” there will most likely be others during your lifetime.
What expectation is realistic when it comes to setting today’s career path?
Corporate loyalty is dead. Everyone is a freelancer, and their own brand. People need to be trained to determine, articulate and sell that brand – for as long as they work. The sooner they start doing that, the better their chances of continuing to find work that’s satisfying – both creatively and financially.