Egea offers lessons in leadership for women

By ROI-NJ Staff
New Jersey | Dec 19, 2017 at 1:02 pm
From our print edition

Talking Points is an occasional feature in ROI-NJ that recaps key speakers at business gatherings across the state. Regina Egea, president of the nonpartisan think tank Garden State Initiative, recently was the keynote speaker at the annual dinner for WINGS for Growth, a nonprofit that aims to empower women in the workplace through mentorship. Egea has nearly three decades of work as an executive at AT&T and more recently served as chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie. Here is a portion of her address.

Each mentor relationship is unique — based on your individual experience. But there are also commonalities in what one looks for in a mentor or mentee. Primary in that evaluation, I propose to you, is the factor of “character.”

This seems a particularly relevant moment in time to talk about character and leadership, and, specifically, character in the workplace.

Leadership is such a complex and wide-ranging subject that tonight I didn’t want to just provide “tips” or “lessons learned,” but rather challenge myself, as well as you, to reflect on what we expect of ourselves whenever we are lucky enough to lead our colleagues.

So first, let’s set context: In the past 56 days, accusations have been made about numerous individuals in very powerful positions asserting that their characters are not at all what many of us thought they were. Or maybe it’s just not what we want them to be.

These accusations … many of which — most shockingly — are not refuted … occurred in workplaces across a wide spectrum of industries. In entertainment: producers, actors, publicists; in the broader media: reporters, editors, publishers and high-profile national news anchors; in high and low-tech workplaces such as the food industry, venture capital firms; and — yes — in government offices at the federal, state and local levels. I dare say there’s scarcely an industry untouched.

While there is a predominance of men being accused and women accusers, today, going forward — with examination of these horrific and apparently long-lived workplace cultures — we can learn fundamental principles about power … and leadership … and character. So, in that order, what are the interrelationships among power, leadership and character?

Sir John Dalberg-Acton, known as Lord Acton, is credited with the observation, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But while, today, men hold most of the powerful positions, women, as far as I know, are not genetically exempt from being corrupted by power. In the last 56 days, there have been far fewer claims brought against women, but perhaps that results from the scarcity of women sitting on corporate boards and occupying C-suites. There are just fewer women in power positions.

So, I ask, why do we — as women — assume that, once we have power, we won’t fall into the traps — likely not the exact same traps, but traps nonetheless — for those who wield power over others?

***

In 2010, I began driving to Trenton to work in the governor’s office. To make good use of that time, I listened to books on tape. Every day, I passed by the site of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River, which was the turning point in our Revolutionary War, so I began with a biography of our first president and worked forward. Our nation’s leaders provide many lessons on character and leadership, but a particularly relevant quote on this point about power is attributed to Abraham Lincoln:

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

What you want to believe about yourself and how you will act will certainly be tested when you achieve your goal of leading an organization. Your decisions as a leader will affect other people’s livelihoods and, frequently, their entire lives.

It was a heady thing when, at age 33, I was able to say that “I lead an organization of more than 3,000 AT&T employees who serve all of our business customers,” or “I manage AT&T’s business marketing support, including star-studded events like the Pebble Beach Golf Pro-Am” or “I serve as the chief of staff to the governor of the state of New Jersey, generally acknowledged as the most powerful governorship in America.”

Each of those positions presented momentous turning points. At AT&T, my task was to downsize a 3,000-person operation by 30 percent, a task that impacted nearly everyone in that organization: disrupting their work, with whom they worked, where they lived or, in over a thousand cases, their employment. I had to rely on what I thought was the right thing to do for both my team members and my company.

My team and I were confronted with a myriad of hard choices. We went about talking with, supporting and reinvesting in our people. It took 18 months, but we moved our organization from 90 work locations to 20, re-engineered their work from functional smokestacks to integrated, customer-defined work teams, eliminated over 1,000 jobs and relocated hundreds more of our associates.

In the end, we accomplished the financial goal of reducing expenses by 30 percent and we improved service to our customers by 50 percent. The following year, we earned every industry award for service.

I am quite confident that not everyone felt I made the best decisions or that I was the most compassionate leader. But, at the end of the day, I had to live with myself and what I relied upon to make all those decisions. More succinctly, said by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right — for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

My character as a leader is defined by how I judge myself as honest, fair, and consistent.

***

Getting back to the disappointing news of the day about what we thought we knew about all those leaders in so many industries.

How does a leader then develop confidence in one’s judgment, but avoid the arrogance of power? This question is particularly important where the culture around you tends to avoid challenging a leader for fear of retribution. A culture still pervasive in many workplaces.

I agree with Vince Lombardi’s observation that: “Leaders are not born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.”

I’ll make three points regarding “training” for leadership and character: First, look for role model behaviors, not individuals. Second, leverage everyday tools to support your development. And lastly, seek out and embrace experiences that challenge your character.

First, role model behaviors that you want to emulate in the workplace. Please be honest about individuals’ strengths and weaknesses. We are all human, and don’t set yourself up for disappointment by being blinded by someone’s “brilliance” or “incredible insightfulness.” Be real about what you can learn and what you do not want to emulate. That’s why I say look for leadership behaviors first.

I worked for Gov. (Chris) Christie for more than six years. In his first term, he had rock-star status. All I had to do was say I worked in the administration and most people would anxiously ask what was it like, and how could they help. But I was also in New Hampshire in 2016, when a whole host of events thwarted his national ambitions and completely upended his future.

Of most relevance tonight, though, is that the year he ran for national office, I was his chief of staff. That brought with it many people transparently staying attached only because they were hedging their bets. Or those, sensing vulnerability, who used every chance they had to take a shot at me, or him, or anyone else in the administration.

I’d like to believe I treated each of these people with respect, regardless of how they treated me.  Many of you are too young to recognize the cartoon character Dilbert, who provided great comic relief in workplaces starting in the ’90s. Dilbert says, “Accept that some days you’re the pigeon, and some days you’re the statue.”

Nobody gets to lead forever. It’s more important what you do with, and how you behave during your time in leadership positions than how long you hold them.

***

I will tell you that the governor’s and his teams’ character was never more on display than when we were dealing with the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012. For 10 days, he managed a central crisis center that was a wonder of leadership, power and, indeed, character of everyone involved.

Following Superstorm Sandy, you need to recall that there were:

  • Over 300,000 residences damaged or completely destroyed;
  • Nearly 3 million homes and businesses without power;
  • Six hundred full or partial road closures at a time when mass transit was heavily damaged and largely inoperable;
  • And all New Jersey schools were closed for two days and hundreds more remained closed after that for a whole range of reasons.
  • The governor gave his senior team four objectives: 1) Make our roads passable; 2) Restore power to as many homes and businesses as quickly as possible; 3) Supply fuel to as many gas stations as possible to enable necessary travel; and 4) Get the schools open to return our residents to normalcy as rapidly as possible.

I was assigned the last item: to open the nearly 40 percent of the schools that remained closed. In order to accomplish that, however, I had to deal with all the other teams … we needed passable roads for school buses and teachers to get to their school. The schools needed power for teachers to conduct classes. Buses needed diesel fuel and schools needed heating oil — so fuel was an essential part of my work.

Having received a unified set of goals, we worked together, all day and most nights, in a crisis atmosphere. That integration of goals gave us the incentive to leverage everything for the “greater good.” And, frankly, the focus on New Jersey’s residents and businesses who were so devastated by the storm gave us the personal satisfaction that comes from serving others.

***

It would be a perfect world if we really knew how we would act when faced with an unanticipated crisis. Something as large as that storm but even in the confrontation of behaviors in the workplace that we judge as inappropriate … unacceptable … or downright abhorrent. Many tools are available to deal with our challenges.

As you just described in your introductions tonight, hearing about other’s experiences as a mentor or mentee is an essential investment of your time: For the mentor, to reflect on her or his leadership and character, while admitting both the good and the bad of one’s leadership. As a mentee, to put yourself in the mentor’s shoes and evaluate how you would want to handle certain challenges.

It’s not exactly a dry run for how you will react when challenged, but it starts you building a framework.

I’ll close with what might sound obvious but will take some soul searching on your part.

In addition to emulating role model behaviors, and using everyday tools to learn, I hope you will look for and embrace experiences that challenge your character. Those are generally not the most glamorous opportunities, not ones that lots of people are fighting to get. Do it because you will be forced to confront who you are, not just what you do. Do it because, it’s about finding out who you are while doing something for others.

I leave you with a quote from George Washington. The biography that I listened to in my car, “His Excellency, George Washington” by Joseph Ellis, provides insights about the general as a leader during the Revolutionary War, the president of our young country and, most importantly, what George Washington strove to be as a person. He said:

“I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”

Book learning

Regina Egea, president of the nonpartisan think tank Garden State Initiative, a former executive at AT&T and chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, recently told an audience of professional women that books can help build leadership and character skills.

Egea, the keynote speaker at the annual dinner for WINGS for Growth, a nonprofit that aims to empower women in the workplace through mentorship, mentioned “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Steven Covey.

Egea said the lessons of the book remain clear each time she reads it:

First, always begin with the end in mind:

“Teams cannot achieve what they don’t understand,” she said. “Effective leaders can detail out their vision and do not get sidetracked by the day to day. Whether that’s on a project or your career goals. Describe what you are committed to achieving and enlist other’s help.”

Second, seek first to understand and then to be understood:

“Does this need much explanation?” she asked. “We learn much more with our two ears than our one mouth.”

Third, look for the win-win:

“There doesn’t have to be winners and losers, real or perceived,” she said. “I particularly think women are much more capable at driving high-performance teams to achieve goals while keeping teams intact. Maybe it’s so many generations of sports versus caring for families; but, to quote Dee Dee Myers, who served as President (Bill) Clinton’s press secretary:

“‘I am endlessly fascinated that playing football is considered a training ground for leadership, but raising children isn’t.’

“We still have a lot to learn about character in leadership and particularly how we as women will deal with power in the workplace. And perhaps more importantly, what are we should teach our children about character by how we behave both at work, and home. The days of being able to separate the two are long gone. Social media and 24-hour news cycles have broken any barrier that might have insulated one from the other.”

And, finally, sharpen the saw:

“This is all about committing to take time off from work, whether it’s for dinner in the evening, sports on the weekend or going on vacation,” she said. “Everyone needs mental and emotional rest, so take it. You’ll come back refreshed, i.e., ‘sharper,’ and frequently solve problems in ways you might not have considered without the respite from work.”