Lead and Learn
Executives who open themselves up to criticism may lead best.
By Bryan Ochalla
Brian Engle has come a long way as a leader in the last 15 years.
At first, he admits, he probably wasn’t a good leader at all. In 1992, fresh out of college with an accounting degree, Engle was hired by The Shelter Group, based in Baltimore. His accounting skills got him in the door on the real estate development and property management side of the business, but Engle soon realized he was meant for The Shelter Group’s senior housing and services component.
“I liked working with people and I was really proud of the senior housing product the company was producing at the time,” explains Engle, referring to the Brightview Senior Living communities that came to fruition nearly a decade ago.
Engle immersed himself in that rapidly evolving enterprise and eventually took the reins of The Shelter Group’s senior housing division.
“You could say I grew up within the organization,” he says. “As the company grew, so did I and my role within it.” But despite the professional epiphany that led him to serving seniors, Engle wasn’t as prepared for his first experience as a manager.
“I was a young guy, just out of college and probably felt like I had a lot to prove,” Engle recalls. “So when I was given my first leadership opportunities, I probably was more arrogant and defensive than I’d like to admit. I’m sure I felt like I had to prove something to the people around me—that I was worthy of being given a managerial position at such a young age.”
But those days are long gone, says Engle, who is now Brightview Senior Living’s vice president of operations.
“My management style has changed dramatically since those early experiences,” he explains. “I don’t feel like I have to prove anything anymore.” Engle says he’s learned over the years to “respect the folks who work with and for me. I respect the experience and expertise and everything else they bring to the table.
“I used to think I had to be the expert,” he adds. “I now understand that’s not my job. If I surround myself with talented folks, I can be much more effective at doing what I’m supposed to do, which is help execute the mission and vision of our organization.”
So how did Engle get away from misguided to masterful? He became a leadership student of the very people he leads. In other words, he has learned how to become an effective leader—and continues to hone his leadership skills—by allowing for consistent and honest feedback from his employees.
On the surface, this may sound like an easy process, but executives and experts alike agree: There’s nothing easy about opening yourself up to criticism.
Lessons in Vulnerability
Engle has done all of the above and then some.
A strong believer in “peer reviews, 360s, 20/20s—whatever you want to call them,” the industry veteran says he has long “set aside time to talk to the folks who work with me and for me to find out how I’m doing.”
However, that’s not always an easy thing to do, Engle admits.
“It’s hard to ask those questions and then listen to what people have to say,” he says, especially if you’re like most leaders and, when asked to rate yourself on a scale between 1 and 10, you give yourself the highest possible score.
“Most of us have a rather inflated view of our abilities as leaders,” Engle says. “But you have to be ready for your peers and your employees to not rate you that highly. You have to be tough enough to put yourself out there, hear what people have to say about you, and then follow up with them—to let them know you heard what they said—and plan on doing something with the information you got.”
Tiffany Tomasso is also a fan of leadership reviews. Tomasso joined McLean, Virginia-based Sunrise Senior Living 15 years ago and has served as COO since 2003. Sunrise works with Gallup to conduct annual employee and customer satisfaction surveys. As part of the employee survey, staff members are asked to evaluate their supervisors, who are then tasked with producing an impact plan.
“The end result is that we all learn how to become more effective leaders,” Tomasso says. To escape the process unscathed, she adds, leaders “have to be open to not only soliciting the questions, but listening to the answers. That takes a leader with a certain level of confidence. You have to be confident enough in who you are and your leadership skills to solicit that kind of feedback and then make appropriate changes.”
Engle, who says he has learned a lot about himself through such reviews as well as conversations with coaches, colleagues, and even consultants, agrees: “You have to be humble enough to put yourself through these kinds of exercises—to ask the tough questions and then listen to what people have to say—because they can teach you a lot about yourself.”
From Theory to Practice
During his most recent peer review, Engle says he “looked through the comments and feedback and then stepped back. I met one on one with some of the folks who took the time to fill out the reviews and dug a little deeper into some of the issues they raised.”
After those meetings, Engle produced what he calls a mini action plan. “I wrote down some of the highlights, lessons, and surprises as well as some of the things I thought I could do to evolve and grow into a more effective leader.”
It’s a process Engle thinks other assisted living executives would do well to duplicate. “As leaders, we’re always critiquing our subordinates,” he says, “but we don’t often let those subordinates critique us.”
This is particularly important in the assisted living industry, he adds, “which is all about people. Our job as leaders is to support all of the people working in our communities and in our home offices, and we can’t possibly know if we’re doing that effectively unless we take the time to ask them and then truly listen to what they have to say.”
(Assisted Living Executive, May. 2008)
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