Stephania Varalli: The three things I learned about leadership
Leadership is a complex ideology, with so many different forms and approaches. It’s common to worry about whether or not you are an effective leader — however, with an array of tools and resources at our fingertips, we can lay those anxieties to rest, and be the leaders we were born to be. Stephania Varalli is Co-CEO of Women of Influence, and oversees the organization’s media offerings, including the website, social media channels, newsletters, partnered content programs, and Women of Influence magazine. She recently completed the Queen’s Leadership Program at Smith School of Business and shares three very important lessons that she learned.
By Stephania Varalli
Until recently, when people would ask me what I did for a living, my standard response was always: “I work for an organization called Women of Influence.” The statement wasn’t incorrect, but it took my husband being in earshot to point out that something was wrong.
“Why don’t you ever mention that you are Co-CEO?” he asked me one day.
I didn’t have an answer. Yes, I did the work of a Co-CEO. I had a team. I made key decisions. I considered the big picture and the company’s future. I was a leader. But was I a good leader? Or maybe a terrible one? Was I transformational? Authentic? Inclusive? Any other buzzword? And that was the problem: I referred to myself as just one of the gang, because I didn’t really know who I was as a leader.
Which is why I chose to sign up for the Queen’s Leadership Program at Smith School of Business. It appealed to me because it wasn’t just designed to teach you about great leadership, or provide tools for leading effectively (though it did do both). The intensive, five-day course offers insights on you — your strengths, your weaknesses, and how you, specifically, can become a better leader.
In June of this year, I packed my bags, said goodbye to my three-year-old daughter, my 18-month-old son, and my very supportive husband, and boarded a train to Kingston. Over the course of the week, I would completely change the way I think about leadership, and gain clarity on how I was perceived as a leader. Here are the three key lessons I learned.
It’s about you
Prior to leaving for Kingston, I completed the Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS) questionnaire online. The assessment is a deep dive into who you are and how you perform, especially under stressful conditions. It provides insights about the way you work, how you view yourself, and how you interact with others. We received the results one morning, and were given time for some quiet reflection as we read through the report.
I liken the experience to looking in a mirror for the first time. There wasn’t anything surprising — I could recognize this was me, with all my strengths and faults — but seeing my personality mapped on 20 different scales brought me to a level of self-awareness I had never before reached. All my unique traits, and how these elements worked together, were suddenly clear. Most importantly, it helped me to see how my behaviour was impacting other people.
The point was hammered home all week, by our professors and in one-on-one sessions: to be a great coach and a successful leader, you have to know who you are.
But it’s not about you
Knowing who you are, however, is only the first step. We were challenged to ask ourselves if we were observing the impact we were having on others — and taking responsibility for it. For me, the most difficult part of this exercise was coming to the realization that other people were seeing things that I didn’t think they’d see. I have a tendency to start solving a problem before someone’s finished explaining it to me, which means my listening brain exits stage left halfway through a conversation. And I had to admit to myself, my team sees this. Not to mention, solving other people’s problems by providing them with the answer isn’t what I should be doing. As a leader, my role is to develop learned optimism, not learned helplessness.
“People are remarkably sensitive to the way in which they are treated — and will respond accordingly,” said Dr. Julian Barling, one of our session leaders, and a renowned expert on leadership.
“Great leadership can seem a little out of reach — a pedestal for the likes of Nelson Mandela — and realizing success could come from developing a few traits and focusing on key moments made it feel much more attainable.”
Fortunately, I also received direct insights on how my team felt they were being treated. Another part of my pre-work for the program was the 360 Degree Feedback process, which involved gathering input from my peers and direct reports through confidential questionnaires. In one of my coaching sessions, we compared my own perception of my leadership skills with how others saw my effectiveness in my role.
The good news? I was doing pretty well. As the kind of person who isn’t content with doing pretty well (yes, that was in my TAIS report, too), I wanted to fix everything. But that would go against the biggest lesson I’d learned all week.
It’s about the little things
The first Julian Barling quote I wrote down (of many) came on our first day: “It’s a course on leadership, not sainthood,” he said.
The point? You don’t need to be perfect to be a great leader. In fact, after the class had listed off all of the hallmarks of effective leadership, Dr. Barling advised us to pick a few that we were good at, and focus our energy there.
He went on to explain that demonstrating these traits doesn’t have to be about grand gestures. The best of leadership, he said, is about moments. The small and routine interactions that you have with your team. And so he asked us, repeatedly, “What are the smallest things that you can do?”
I was thankful to have this perspective early on in the program. Great leadership can seem a little out of reach — a pedestal for the likes of Nelson Mandela, whose quotes we heard often — and realizing success could come from developing a few traits and focusing on key moments made it feel much more attainable.
The sentiment was echoed throughout the week. Dr. Peter Jensen — another impressive session leader, and founder of Performance Coaching (now called Third Factor) — continued to remind us that coaching is all about the little things. We heard the same words from our guest speaker on crisis leadership, Darby Allen — fire chief for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, who led the largest evacuation in Canadian history when he safely guided 88,000 residents out of Fort McMurray during the 2016 Alberta wildfires. An undertaking of that scale, he said, requires the efforts of many people to come together like a jigsaw puzzle, and “all the little things that they do will make the difference.”
Theory is much more powerful when you are able to put it into practice, and our daily small group sessions offered that opportunity. Our team quickly bonded as we rotated through roles: sharing a personal problem, helping that individual to explore the issue, and observing the process. Each role provided a unique perspective and learning; not only did I work on my active listening and coaching skills, I was able to hone in on what I needed to do as a leader to address stumbling blocks at work.
Thanks to these group meetings — plus the class sessions, one-on-one coaching, and more self-reflection than I ever thought possible — I came out of the course with specific goals to focus on (but, as advised, not too many).
I also received my Queen’s Executive Program Certificate, having now completed enough Executive Education courses (I did it through a personalized combo of two week-long programs at Queen’s, and some two-day, new-mom-friendly courses at their Toronto facility). I’d been working toward this goal since 2016, when I took my first course as a very pregnant new business owner.
But if you ask me about my biggest accomplishment that came out of the program? This fall marks my fifth year as Co-CEO of Women of Influence, and it’s a title I now confidently share with others.