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Leadership lessons Featured

8:00pm EDT April 23, 2006
Janet Jackson knows a thing or two about leadership. After all, this former judge on the Franklin Country Municipal Court has held leadership positions with organizations including YWCA of Columbus, Action for Children and Grant/Riverside Methodist Hospitals.

And that’s a good thing, because as the president and CEO of United Way of Central Ohio, she’s charged with leading the organization to inspire the community and change lives.

“We all have a community service responsibility,” says Jackson. “(United Way) strives to impart this value not only to our customers but our entire stakeholders. Marian Wright Edelman, author of “The Measure of Our Success,” summed it up perfectly when she said, ‘Service is the rent you pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.’”

That’s a grand message for just one organization to spread, but with Jackson at United Way’s helm, it seems not only possible, but probable.

Smart Business spoke with Jackson about the trials and lessons of leadership.

What makes a great leader?
First, you must be a visionary. Strong leaders know the organization’s goals and articulate them often and well so that employees are excited about what they do.

Second, you must be humble enough to accept feedback, admit you do not know it all and surround yourself with people a lot smarter than you.

Finally, great leaders are risk-takers. You cannot accomplish much by sticking with a safe and comfortable status quo.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?
As the oldest of six children, I naturally have a take-charge personality. It is an ongoing challenge for me to be quiet and listen. ... Part of effective listening is learning to put aside preconceived ideas.

Another lesson I learned the hard way involves making a bad hiring decision. I was very upset with myself when I missed the mark and brought a person on-board who was not a good fit.

One of our board members put this in perspective by explaining that the hiring process continues for the first year an employee is in the organization. You make the best hiring decision you can initially, based on the information available to you, but the decision to hire continues during the first year. You must be able to recognize and react when you see signs the new hire is not working out.

It’s about cutting your losses and being willing to admit he or she is not the right fit.

How do you handle mistakes?
A mistake we have made in the past is to communicate with (donors) heavily during fundraising season. We now realize that we need to be in front of them year-round to educate them about our work.

We are resolving this gap in a number of ways, such as asking companies to include a United Way feature in their monthly company newsletters. We need to constantly promote the good work United Way is doing so that we have a year-round relationship with our customers.

How do you build a successful organization?
The basic foundation is a strong team. To build and maintain a strong team, management must listen. I now see that employee surveys are an excellent vehicle to keep a finger on the pulse of the organization.

The right way to do surveys logistically is to conduct them every two years and to use an outside agency. Employees must know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can be candid and that the results will be anonymous. Finally, senior management must review the results, consider them in a nondefensive manner and be prepared to take action.

I also put emphasis on having the right people in the right roles. When staff is miscast, or perhaps restless and ready for a change, management must be astute enough to pick up on the signals quickly and react accordingly.

How to reach: United Way of Central Ohio, (614) 227-2700 or www.uwcentralohio.org