Leaders Who Inspire: Tara Smith

August 30, 2018
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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.”