“Everything rises and falls on leadership.”
– John Maxwell
Leadership is a critically important topic for us to explore because leaders set the vision for their organization and teams. Leaders play a key role in ensuring that goals are achieved, team members are growing, and the organization is thriving.
I recently had a conversation with Dr. Mira Brancu to explore the topic of leadership. Mira is the CEO and founder of Brancu & Associates, a leadership team and organization consulting firm that serves as a strategic partner to executives and teams wanting to lead well today and better navigate tomorrow. Mira brings over 20 years of experience in academia and healthcare, including an award-winning career at the US Department of Veteran Affairs. Mira is a licensed psychologist with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and a master’s degree in counseling.
I welcome Mira, and we immediately begin talking about grace, which is often a topic with my clients. I believe that women sometimes struggle with giving themselves grace and ask Mira if that is something she has also seen in her line of work.
“I completely agree,” confirms Mira. “Whether it’s because of the messages we’ve gotten, the pressure we put on ourselves, or expectations. Our expectations often are higher than others. And I love that idea of thinking about how to be compassionate with ourselves, as we are compassionate with others.”
I ask Mira to share more about her company and the journey she took to get there.
“This company is a journey,” says Mira. “And leadership is a journey. I feel like developing a company is a journey. The best of us who are interested in developing and growing and helping others do the same are constantly doing that with our businesses. Brancu & Associates is a boutique social entrepreneurship. It’s award-winning for that social entrepreneurship. And it specializes in strategic and inclusive leadership and team development practices. We focus on healthcare, academic, tech, and innovation industries, while also giving back to social causes, specifically gender and racial diversity. The thing that we’re focusing on right now is expanding. And I love that we’re talking about expanding how we think about leadership development and moving away from a static competency-based, individually-focused model into a dynamic developmental, team-based model. I have a special interest in how that plays out for women in the workplace, which is what I write about in my Psychology Today blog series on women’s leadership. And that is luckily getting more and more interest from organizations who want to do better with that. So that’s kind of what we’re focusing on right now.”
I ask Mira to talk more about the shift from a competency individual-based model and what’s important to know about it.
“There’s more and more research around this, that leader development is outdated,” says Mira. “That’s the model of the single leader who needs to know some very static, specific skills. And once you know those skills, hurrah! You’ll be a success forever, right? And that is a really outdated model. We live in a constantly changing world that is more complex and requires an understanding of multiple social systems and their impact on people, whether you’re at work or outside of work. That requires a more complicated set of skills and a higher level of ability to understand systems and teams and how to leverage the teams around you. And organizations are made of teams of people, right? So, if you think of yourself as one individual, developing yourself, you’re missing an awful lot. These days, it’s much more important to understand concepts like collective or shared or distributive leadership or leadership teams or teaming. These are all concepts bubbling to the top as the requirements for working in a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world, or VUCA. VUCA is a term coined by the military, but now is often used within the business world.”
It sounds like this work is ongoing for leaders as the world continues to evolve and change. Mira agrees and shares that as leaders embrace and step into that, they become more adaptable and resilient. “They will constantly be embracing the reality of needing to adapt, needing to change, needing to pivot, and taking in multiple perspectives to be able to do all of that,” Mira explains. “And it makes you a much stronger, more effective person also.”
As I listen to Mira, I hear that seeking to understand and suspending judgment will need to occur for this to happen and for leaders to be able to adapt and pivot and change.
“It does take some level of humility,” confirms Mira. “But also, some level of embracing, like, it’s okay to make mistakes and fail. Don’t even call it a failure. It’s just continuous improvement. The work we do in the Department of Veterans Affairs is focused on that continuous improvement process and embracing that we’re always in a constant sort of evolutionary phase.”
Mira has already started to uncover some aspects of a good leader, and I ask her for additional thoughts about what makes a good leader.
“Just last night, I was in a meeting with our local Organizational Development Association, and our leader Bob Stapleton was asking us to think back to a leader that made a difference for you,” says Mira. “And that person that was a really amazing leader, how would you describe them? So, we all shared our experiences. What I shared seemed to resonate and connect with what other people shared, and that was, number one, being able to recognize that you can’t do everything alone. You can’t be everything to everybody. And going back to what we’re talking about in today’s complex world, you need to know how to develop and nurture a collaborative, inclusive leadership team that complements each other and knows how to help an organization. The second is someone who isn’t just interested in efficiency and productivity but, again, can develop other people. So, they are sort of relationally-oriented. It’s like somebody interested in going beyond just being a supervisor, but also a coach and a mentor. And then, of course, somebody who can create a clear vision, communicate it, and create the systems that allow people the flexibility to implement that vision and understand the people side of change to be able to implement complex change.”
Mira asks what I might add to the list, and as she was talking about leaders, my high school dance team coach came to mind. The thing I appreciated most was that she had incredibly high expectations. That’s where I first started to learn that gift of high expectations. And as a result, we won a national championship my junior year in high school. So, I think that’s where I started to make that association of expectations and results.
Then I fast-forward to my first managing partner when I was working in financial services before launching my coaching business. And the thing that I remember the most about him was the relationship aspect. He was gifted at building relationships and helping people feel important. I was an intern on his team. And I felt just as important as some of the other high-level leaders in the organization. And I thought, wow, that was really a gift. It reminds me of the quote by Maya Angelou “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“Yes, and what an incredible gift to be able to see everyone on the team and who’s bringing what to the table,” says Mira.
It was a really unique experience working for a leader who built those relationships. And I think that connects to the point about being relationally oriented and a strengths-based leader. I ask Mira what recommendations she has for leaders to build better and deeper trusting relationships.
“What I noticed a lot with the teams that I work with on team development is how little time they have ever spent getting to know each other or reflecting on how they work,” says Mira. “Or sharing their values and what they’re bringing to work with them. As if work was somehow severed, you know, separately from life. We talk about work-life balance; obviously, we’ve learned now that work is part of our life, and there is no separation. And so, to not spend any time with your work colleagues, sharing anything about what’s important to you, makes it hard for you to build a trusting relationship where they know where you are coming from. And you’re not making assumptions about their intentions. For example, once you allow yourself the time to understand each other, your perspectives, your workstyle, who you are coming to work, and what’s important to you, it’s so much easier not to make assumptions about each other and to connect at a much deeper level. I can’t tell you how many times I go through a team development process where people have been working with each other for 10-15 years and it was like the first time they learned, oh, you have a daughter. Or wait, you grew up where I grew up. And I know that sounds really simple, but this is easy. This is how you make simple connections that grow into deeper connections. And it is the foundation of how you start engaging around ideas instead of conflict, and where you stop assuming it’s something about them that is the problem.”
I often hear a lot of struggles and challenges when it comes to building relationships if a man is leading a woman. I’ll hear, I don’t know how to build a relationship, or I don’t think it’s appropriate to go out to lunch or go to happy hour. And what I hear Mira say is that it’s less about the location. And it’s more about the dialogue and getting to know one another and sharing values and how you work. I ask her what other insights she has for men who might be leading women, or women who are leading men, and how that can play out.
“I have a couple of blog posts on this in my Psychology Today blog series,” Mira shares. “One is on mentoring relationships and was written in the height of the #metoo movement, when men were nervous just to be alone in a room with a woman. Because what if I get blamed for whatever. And so, I talked a lot about knowing how to gauge appropriate professional boundaries and create professional mentoring relationships that are mutually beneficial. I would say, in addition, that the thing that pops up most is number one, start offering programs and support that help women with promotion and ready opportunities. Sometimes what happens is that women are over-mentored in how to continue improving and managing relationships at work. And that sort of gets into this weird cycle of feedback they don’t need. So, listen and ask about their career aspirations and interests and think about how to link them up with opportunities. I think what you’re getting at here, which is also really important, is training all leaders to be better mentors and coaches to emerging leaders. So regardless of gender, we really need a lot more of that; how can you be a better mentor and coach and not just a supervisor? And then, of course, there’s always conducting things like workplace assessments for gender diversity, equity practices, and creating an environment where there is equal access to opportunities, whether it’s men, women, or non-binary. That’s what’s most important is the internal practices that support all talented people to have the same opportunities.”
Mira mentioned we should start to think about becoming better coaches or better mentors, so I ask her what steps a leader can take to become a better coach or mentor.
“Let’s separate this out a little because I know some people get confused between supervisor, coach, mentor, leader, and sponsor, which is an important one,” says Mira. “I sort of touched on the sponsorship. So, a supervisor is somebody administratively on record to evaluate your performance at work. You don’t have to go beyond that to be a supervisor. Great supervisors are interested in also being a mentor and coaching up their leaders, but not all. So sometimes, I even say to leaders, okay, you might want to explain to your supervisees when you put on the mentorship hat. Something like, I’m going to put on my coach hat now. Okay, now I’m putting back my supervision hat so I can give you hard feedback. This helps people from getting confused between those roles and what you’re trying to do to help them. So, let’s say I’m taking off the supervision hat. I’ve given you some tough feedback about your performance. But now, I really want you to grow. Now I’m entering the coaching and mentorship relationship, where I want to see you succeed. And I want to figure out what might be a barrier or how I might help you get unstuck in some area we’re now entering. Now what if you say, I have a career aspiration to be a leader, and I don’t know where to start. And I really want to get more experiences. If I want to put on a sponsorship hat now, it means that whether you’re around or not, I’m using my social capital to promote and advocate for you to get those opportunities. For example, in some other meeting, I heard about an opportunity that you just told me you’re interested in, and then I said, oh, you know who’d be great at that? Mary. I would love to see her in that position. Can we see if we can give her an opportunity like that? A lot of success is learning the different roles, then learning how to shift between them, and then being clear about it.”
That is such a helpful discussion because I’ve never thought clearly about the three different roles – supervisor, coach/mentor, and sponsor. I appreciate how Mira explained the various responsibilities and that one person can be all of them at different times for different people. Mira explains that even though one person can be all those things, we all need multiple mentors and sponsors. One person can’t always be everything, and it puts a lot of pressure on them to fill too many needs. She also shares that not everything has to be formal and that she has mentors who inspire and help her learn but don’t know they’re her mentor.
I think that’s such an important point. It doesn’t have to be formal. Some of my mentors are other podcast hosts or authors. They might be people that I’ve never met and do not even know I exist, but they are huge mentors in my life.
I ask Mira to share some of the mistakes she has seen leaders make.
“So, one is when you think you can do it all on your own, or that is the best thing to do,” says Mira. “That is a real blind spot. The moment I see a leader go it alone and make independent decisions without including folks, I worry that they do not realize exactly what they’re missing. Not creating a culture of learning, growth, and continuous improvement these days, I think, is a big mistake. And finally, not progressing in your leadership development, from learning how to be an individual leader, to being a leader of leaders and teams, which is the systems level thinking that I mentioned before.”
Mira mentioned that one thing leaders need to consider today is creating a culture of learning and growing. I ask her what other things leaders should be thinking about. She shares that she has recently been thinking about this question a lot because so much turmoil is happening. The last few years have been stressful for leaders and employees.
“I have had leaders and colleagues asking me wide ranges of questions, like how do we manage our teams in Russia and Ukraine during this war with fear and outrage?” shares Mira. “And how do I talk to my kids about school shootings? And how do I pretend everything is fine with ongoing, racially motivated killings? All kinds of stressors are adding to the layers of things leaders need to think about, and some leaders are thinking about it. But I feel like not all. And the ones who are, are almost feeling stuck, overburdened, exhausted, maybe burned out. We have a lot of healthcare leaders that are stretched so thin. They’re supporting their staff. They’re thinking about finding the right time and method to communicate yet another new thing. They’re processing their own feelings. They’re helping their families with whatever reactions are happening. They’re managing their stress levels. So, what do they need? I think one thing is, up until recently, we haven’t focused enough on leadership identity and knowing ourselves well enough to reflect on what we’re experiencing. What do I need now? How much do I need to stop right now? And take a step back? Do I need additional help? Am I moving too fast? Is it about pressure coming from the outside? Pressure coming from the inside? So, all of that is leadership identity stuff that we haven’t talked much about. It’s developing a mindset of more collective teaming or team-level leadership, so you’re not alone. So that you’re all working together and complementing each other. You’re leaning on each other and leveraging each other’s strengths. Are we promoting that at work? Do we even recognize that some people have done an amazing job with multitasking and managing lots of stressful things in their lives and work, and have developed the level of resilience that makes them an amazing potential future leader? I haven’t formalized everything, but it’s been on my mind, and I’m processing through ideas.”
Well, it’s a huge topic. And I’m sure there are many things to think through. Mira mentioned leadership identity, and how important it is for leaders today to know themselves to navigate all these uncertain times and times of heightened emotions. So, I ask her how a leader can figure out their identity. She recommends assessments of different kinds to get feedback. But also, to get feedback on how other people see us as well.
“You can go back to asking that question, who you admire as a leader and why,” continues Mira. “Reflect on what you want to take from that and think about who you don’t admire and why. You can start formulating how you want to show up in the world. For example, I go into all spaces having identified that I want to intentionally show up with empathy, compassion, and kindness. And it’s a very intentional decision. The other things to think about are mentors and creating a trusted body of mentors or board of directors to give you honest feedback to help you grow. And then, finally, consider some outside objective sources, like a coach who was trained to help you do this effectively, and reflect on what you’re learning as you go along. Learn how to incorporate it in a way that helps you keep growing, keep going.”
I ask Mira to share more on how women specifically can grow and develop as leaders or how to seek leadership roles, particularly in male-dominated industries.
“Let me just preface this by saying that what I don’t want to recommend is sort of the typical, outdated, women need fixing model,” begins Mira. “They do not need fixing. We have the same leadership skills as men, and that research has been shown over and over and over again. It drives me crazy when there’s all this advice to women about how to exude more confidence and how to demonstrate your executive presence when the message behind that is you don’t fit in, and here’s how you can be more like everyone around you, which by the way, are all men. So, let’s put that aside for a second here and think about what realistically, practically, and pragmatically makes sense. So, the one thing we’ve talked about a lot is mentors, right? Find the allies and mentors in your organizations. They do not have to be in your department. These people are people who are not trying to compete with you. You can help them; they can help you. And in these cases, I don’t think that gender matters as much as those qualities. And then once you’re with them, ask them for what you need. So, for example, ask them to help you address biases like, hey, if you notice people interrupting me or taking my ideas or ignoring what I see in meetings, can you say something like, hold on? I’d like to see what Mary’s saying. You can do that for each other as mutually beneficial, supportive allies. We mentioned this before but tell your mentors what you want in your career, and even take it a step further and ask them to connect you with opportunities when they hear about them. Be a little bit more strategic and intentional about asking for what you’re looking for. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, then engage in those conversations; I really want to grow into a leadership career, what does it take in this organization? And then finally, seek roles that help you diversify your portfolio. I mentioned this before, a lot of women are over-mentored into staffing positions because they’re great at the relational stuff. And so, they continue to be encouraged to go into the relational stuff. Make sure you’re not overlooking yourself. And you’re also asking not to be overlooked by learning every aspect of the business. So, can I find out more about sales? Can I find out more about marketing? Can I find out more about the financials? Can I get involved in budgeting? Can I get involved in the strategy? Always evaluate and diversify your portfolio for the best return on your investment in that company.”
I ask Mira about the women that make it into a leadership role and then leave. And why she thinks that happens when they worked so hard to get into the role to begin with.
“It is very frustrating and totally understandable,” says Mira. “One of my most recent blog posts in Psychology Today was about why women leave leadership and what to do about it. And research shows that they are feeling overworked, undervalued, and underappreciated. And they’re getting exhausted and frustrated by it all. They are being stretched too thin between all of their roles and encouraged to take on informal leadership roles, like, hey, can you serve on this committee? That’s nice that they’re being valued that way, but it becomes exhausting. In the article, I share ways that companies can consider what they can do to really position women to continue getting support and promotional opportunities, but also consider how to evaluate their equitable practices and make necessary adjustments.”
I ask Mira how companies and organizations can track their progress around women in leadership and track how they retain women leaders.
“I love this question because you said track,” responds Mira. “Most aren’t tracking. Okay. So that is part of the key, right? You have to measure everything that’s important to you continuously. If you’re not measuring it, it’s not important to you. That’s the level of accountability that you need to place on yourself as a leader, and very few people do it. From a psychologist’s perspective, it is the difference between learning and implementation and turning something into an actual habit. It’s as simple as that. It’s just habits. Think about your personal habits like exercising, eating healthy, and sleeping. It takes a lot of monitoring and tracking and measuring. And when you do, you eventually get into a habit, and it becomes normal, and then you don’t have to track it anymore. So that is exactly the same with desires to retain women. I’ll give you an example from my own company because I want to practice what I preach, right? So, I measure how many women, especially women of color, I hire, mentor, and highlight in my work, and then I share those results with the public, my stakeholders, and with my clients. So that I can shame myself if I don’t achieve my goals publicly. Or I can celebrate my successes and actually see that I’m making a difference. So, you build it into performance feedback, you build it into your bonuses, all tied to those measures, and then you celebrate when you achieve certain milestones. All of that helps you with accountability. I have a free guide that helps companies evaluate their gender diversity and inclusion practices. And I’m happy to share that.”
As I wrap up our conversation, I ask Mira where people can go to learn more about her and her Strategic Leadership Pathway Program for women in tech, academic, and healthcare industries. She recommends going to her website, or connecting on LinkedIn.
With that goal achievers, keep celebrating your weekly wins, noting your lessons learned, and identifying your priorities for next week so you can continuously pursue progress in the direction of your goals.