Lessons from Leadership Institute

Recent Leadership Institute graduate Laura Campbell reflects on what she has learned throughout her ten month experience with YNPN Chicago's Leadership Institute. 

“So, I’m a leader now, right?”

This is the question I posed to my Leadership Institute cohort during our September session as we were all prepping for our upcoming capstone presentations. I had clear expectations when the journey all began in January: come to class for ten months, have coffee with my mentor, gracefully put on my cape, share my capstone, and graduate a leader. At a high level, I would say this expected arc aligns with how I experienced being a part of YNPN Chicago’s Leadership Institute. However, the nuance of what each of these pieces meant to me is where I feel I gained so much professionally and personally. Let’s take them one by one.

Come to class for ten months: You can tell by the session topics that this program was designed intentionally and thoughtfully. To name a few, we explored hiring; budgeting; diversity, equity, and inclusion; emotional intelligence; and leadership styles. Each session included the opportunity to learn from an expert in the field as well as time to reflect with my fellow cohort members. It took some time for me to feel comfortable opening up, but as the months progressed, I began to develop genuine friendships. Having the space to process professional triumphs and challenges in a room of invested, supportive, passionate people proved to be immensely gratifying. Even outside of sessions, I grew in ways that I did not expect, such as by joining a few cohort members at a pottery night at ArtReach. I remember asking the instructor during the tutorial about what we were making, and she replied, “We are going to see what the clay wants us to make.” As I stepped on that wily, spinning wheel, my “liking clear directions and having concrete goals in mind” persona was stretched as much as the clay that created a beautifully misshapen bowl. I learned that I can build in new ways by stretching outside of my comfort zone. 

Have coffee with my mentor: This was my first experience with an executive mentor, and I was unsure of what to expect. I was fortunate to be paired with a kind listener, who asked open-ended questions that you could tell came from years of learning and leading in the nonprofit world. She took the time to get to know me as an individual, which resulted in thoughtful conversations not only about where I want my career to go but also why I might choose one path over another. With all the “where” questions typically taking the front seat in career planning conversations, I had not yet had the space to reflect with a seasoned professional on “why” I had each of my professional goals. She was engaged and empowering, and each month I felt more heard and understood. I learned that asking “why” I have set certain goals will encourage intentionality around determining my professional priorities.

Gracefully put on my cape: This was more of a cap – a reflective, thinking cap. As I progressed on my journey, I could feel myself growing – though it was sometimes intangible and difficult for me to articulate. I had several tangible achievements during the time of Leadership Institute for which I felt very proud: leading efforts in opening a new office for my organization, LIFT, in Bronzeville; getting promoted to Senior Program Manager of our one-on-one parent coaching program; and increasing my responsibilities by hiring a new employee and having my first experience of supervising a full-time staff member. However, part of what I was most excited about with the Leadership Institute was carving out space for reflection on my intangible growth. I learned that devoting time to reflection, while challenging, is also invaluable.

Share my capstone: For our capstone presentation, we were all tasked with sharing our leadership journey in the format of a PechaKucha (20 slides, 20 seconds per slide). We were asked super small, low-stakes questions such as: What empowers me? What does it mean to be an effective leader? What did I learn about myself? How am I going to change the world? As you can imagine, these questions do not typically lend themselves to brief responses. But we learned that part of being a leader, at times, is knowing how to convey your message powerfully and succinctly (perhaps more of what I should have done for this blog post – but we’re almost there!). The experience of developing my capstone presentation was exceptionally gratifying. I was finally able to fully process what I had talked, journaled, pondered, laughed, and cried about throughout the ten months. And my conclusion: I lead like Laura.

Graduate a leader: I will spare you the entirety of my capstone presentation, but there are a few pieces that I would like to highlight. I focused on how I began the Leadership Institute by having a hard time seeing myself in the celebrated leaders on TV and did not have clear language to define my leadership style or values. By diving into and reflecting upon this journey, I was finally able to connect with the intangible growth I was sincerely seeking. I shared, “I feel like I have finally escaped from feeling boxed into a narrow definition of what a leader is and am more confident with identifying as one. I lead like Laura. And with my values as my compass, I intend to continue growing with an emphasis on investing in strengths. I believe that people feel better, they do better, and we get more output when we invest in doing more of what makes us feel impactful.”

So, it seems my initial understanding of the Leadership Institute was not too far off: come to class for ten months, have coffee with my mentor, gracefully put on my cape, share my capstone, and graduate a leader. But, I hope this insight into my experience has illuminated that there was so much more to each piece than I could have ever anticipated.

I will leave you with what I shared with everyone during our final session in October: “So, how am I going to change the world? Most likely somewhat quietly with efficiency, integrity, and purpose. I am going to do my best to continue elevating the strengths of my teammates, colleagues, friends, and myself. I will lead by listening, with love, and to learn while building and honoring strong, supportive relationships.”

I lead like Laura.

Laura Campbell is a Senior Program Manager of Coaching at LIFT-Chicago, a national nonprofit that works one-on-one with parents to empower them to achieve their career, financial, and education goals to break the cycle of poverty.