Leaders That Inspire

Tara Smith has been a leader at SFU for the past seven years.  She is currently the Manager, Academic & Administrative Services in the Psychology & Cognitive Science Program.  We sat down with Tara to talk about her leadership journey, and this is what she shared.

What does being a leader mean to you?

“I think being a leader means knowing yourself and finding a way to lead that’s authentic to you.  I’ve had people say, being a leader is doing a job in a particular way.  I don’t subscribe to that because if it doesn’t feel authentic to you, it’s not going to feel authentic to the people you’re leading.

Being a leader is a big responsibility.  You need to earn the trust of a team, and you need to put the greater good of the team first.  This is about doing whatever you need to do to make things run. For example, I’ve crawled under desks, and did work that’s not glamorous because it had to be done.”

What do you love about being a leader?

“I love the challenge of constantly trying to make things better.  I love it when you’re able to lead a team through a big project that seemed insurmountable when you started, and finish knowing you accomplished something challenging.

I’ve had my staff say that I’ve inspired them to work harder and want to do their job better.  This is a huge compliment.”

How does your background inform your role as a leader?

“My very first job was as a cashier, and within five days, I was promoted to supervisor.  This was a constant pattern that happened with every job that I moved to early on. I was always put in positions where I was training or supervising others.  So I feel like leadership came to me naturally.

I also developed a strong work ethic from a young age.  I grew up in a small town in Nova Scotia and had to be very involved in helping my family.  I work really hard, and I dig in. I don’t give up, and I’m very stubborn.  I’m not somebody who throws my hands in the air as soon as something gets difficult."

What’s been your most meaningful leadership learning experience that has shaped you as a leader?

“I think you learn more from the failures and challenging times than the successes.  I had a very difficult situation early on at SFU that taught me to take the high road and how important it is to have the trust of your team.”

What defining moments have occurred in your life/career and how have they shaped you as a leader?

“When I first started at SFU, I remember questioning whether I had bitten off more than I could chew, and I was doubting myself.  I had very limited training and barely knew my own job. Within the first six months, two people went on leave and I had to cover for them.  The workload was extreme, I was very stressed and it felt like everything was falling apart.  However, I got defiant and told myself that I can take whatever this job throws at me.  That I’m going to get through it and figure it out.  This was a real turning point.  It gave me a confidence that no matter what gets thrown at me, I’m going to find a way to get through it.”

How do you make a strong team environment?

“It’s a lot about getting to know your team members, and understanding what’s important to everyone and what’s motivating to them.  Some people like public recognition, others might get embarrassed by it.

I ensure people feel like they matter and they’re included.  I bake individualized cakes for their birthdays.  I try to figure out their favourite flavor and make a unique one just for them.  It’s not like the cake itself is a big deal, but people appreciate it.

I try to support peoples’ individual interests and passions.  For instance, I had a staff member who was very interested in sustainability, so we pursued the green office certification.  I also encourage the whole team to take professional development courses and expand their skillsets by working with them to help advance their careers.”

What advice would you give to newer leaders?

“Never give up.  You’re not going to always know how to handle every situation.  A large part of being a leader is being faced with new challenges that are unexpected.  There’s no right answer, you just have to figure it out as you go and learn from every situation.

Most importantly, take the word can’t out of your vocabulary. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when you stop your mind from telling you it’s not possible.”

Do you have any favourite Leadership Resources?

“I get inspiration especially by reading about extraordinary women leaders. Most recently I read Find your Extraordinary by Jessica Herrin, CEO & Founder of Stella & Dot.”

What do you hope comes of SFU’s efforts to develop leaders?

“I hope we can find ways to help recognize great potential and facilitate those employees moving up through the ranks.”

What are you grateful for as a leader?

“To have had the opportunities I’ve had. I hope they continue, so they can continue to develop me as a leader.  I’ve been fortunate to have worked for a number of leaders that I think are great.  I’ve been able to learn from them about how to be and develop as a leader.

I’ve also worked for people where there was some element of their leadership that didn’t work, and that was equally a learning opportunity.”

 

Mikhail Dzuba has been a leader at SFU for the past 24 years.  He is currently Director of the Bookstore, Spirit Shop and Document Solutions.  We sat down with Mikhail to talk about his leadership journey, and this is what he shared.

What’s been your most meaningful leadership learning experience that has shaped you as a leader?

“I would say it has to be from engaging with customers. My career of being in service roles has exposed me to a diverse range of people and perspectives, requiring me to be present and authentic. Through these experiences I have found a meaningful purpose. I think there is something fundamentally rewarding for us when we willingly put ourselves in a position to help others.”

How does your background inform your role as a leader?

“I grew up on a farm in the Okanagan. It prepared me for hard work, a willingness to pitch in attitude, and it also provided me a deep appreciation for the natural world.

I chose an educational development pathway to advance my creativity. This prepared me to think outside the box in order to solve problems and how to fully embrace change.

I also was fortunate enough to have exceptional mentorship when I started my role at SFU from someone who was a brilliant coach. Having the support I needed in these formative years really prepared me well for the leadership role I currently have.

I also focused on deep learning within my industry.  I’ve been very active as a volunteer in Associations in my field, and this has provided me with many opportunities for learning, through taking courses, teaching courses and holding board positions.”

What defining moments have occurred in your life/career and how have they shaped you as a leader?

“Rebellion against a decision I made once, I suppose it was my greatest leadership failure. We all encounter harsh criticism at some point. I think it’s how we respond to it and move on that will define us. I definitely learned from that situation how to lead people more effectively and the challenge taught me to be more compassionate towards others.”

What does being a leader mean to you?

“It’s so many things, it’s hard to narrow it down.  But for me, it’s about being selfless -to be there for the support of others.  It’s also about trying to create something in collaboration.  Being able to clearly define a vision, and inspire others towards this so you can achieve it collectively.  It’s also about nurturing and cultivating a team.”

What do you love about being a leader?

“People.  I love the ability to relate human-to-human.  There’s a responsibility in being a leader that forces you to be the kind of person who is true and has good integrity.

I also love that self-betterment is a driving force for leadership.  You’re always looking for ways to improve.  Leadership demands continual self-reflection.  Because this challenge is ever present, you’re always growing with it - it’s what I love the most.  It’s always pushing you to be better.”

What advice would you give to newer leaders?

“Follow the three Rs:
1. Respect for self
2. Respect for others
3. Responsibility for all your actions.”

What do you hope comes of SFU’s efforts to develop leaders?

“Empowerment – enabling our leaders to excel in their roles.
Respect – less criticism and more caring.
Inspiration – more motivating people with a shared vision.”

Do you have any favourite Leadership Resources?

"I find much wisdom in the Dalai Lama, and enjoy his simple truths, especially his 18 Rules of Living.”

"I find Brene Brown’s teachings to be very profound, and I reflect on them in search of being a better leader.  I think her BRAVING concept is quite relevant for a workplace.  It can bring forward a framework for creating trust - vulnerability-based trust.  She also has insightful TED talks and books."

What are you grateful for as a leader?

"Gratitude is what keeps me optimistic and happy.  What I’m most grateful for in the leadership role is the autonomy.  There’s a real sense of stewardship, ownership, and entrepreneurial respect.  It’s the autonomy and responsibility of making a decision, but also having the support of a team of people who are willing to follow you – to dig in, implement, get the work done to achieve something, and see the results.  It’s endlessly rewarding."

 

 

Is there an inspiring SFU leader that you think should be featured?  Please let us know by emailing hrlearn@sfu.ca.

Our Learning & Development Team is working to create new leadership development opportunities as part of the new Learning & Development Framework.  The goal is to inspire, develop and support outstanding leadership at SFU.  Details to come.

Current learning opportunities for managers are available here