Finding the Courage to Have the Conversations that Count

Drena Howard
Drena Howard
April 8, 2019
EHSS Leadership
I’ve always liked that the word 'courage' comes from the Latin root 'cor', the word for heart, because I believe a courageous leader is one that cares enough about people to have the conversations that count. 

Over the past several years, as I've transitioned from leading projects alone to now leading people, I’ve been called upon to strengthen my commitment to courageous communication to better serve those I lead.

I was reflecting on it this just last week as I discussed the outstanding performance of a team member who has proven to me how important it is to not lose faith in our people. This employee is someone, who a year ago, I sat down with for one of the most difficult conversations of my leadership career.

My purpose was clear: to communicate that this person was capable of change, that I expected a new level of dedication to our work and that I was there to offer my support, no matter the outcome. Going into the conversation I was frustrated because this was someone with outstanding skills who could add a lot of value to our team. Unfortunately, this person's performance was not up to par, and my previous efforts to motivate change simply had not worked. I knew it was time for a different approach.

I decided the only way forward was radical candor. Sometimes it can be really hard to confront others because we’re afraid that they won’t like us afterwards. To be a courageous leader, though, you have to balance compassion for people with the strength to be okay with uncomfortable silence. In this case, I was kind but direct, and then put myself on mute to allow the message to resonate.

The result of that conversation has been nothing short of mind-boggling. From that one straightforward conversation, this person has risen to the occasion. I am impressed by the turnaround in performance and I'm encouraged to see this person blossom as a result.

I’m also grateful for the leadership lesson: When you’re leading people, you sometimes  have to push them even if they don’t like to be pushed. It’s a tough skill to learn, yet a core aspect of executive presence, which is why it’s something we’ll be focusing on at the Women’s Leadership Roundtable this June.

I know that as I grow in an executive track, these are conversations I’m going to have more often, and I need to continue developing my communication skills if I’m going to be effective at helping my team achieve its best. Sometimes people have a bad day; sometimes they have a bad season. As leaders it's our job to stay attuned to our teams and use our influence to help people find their way back to greatness.

NAEM's 2019 Women’s Leadership Roundtable takes place in Savannah, Ga., from June 25-27.

About the Author

Drena Howard
Drena Howard
The Estée Lauder Co.'s Inc.
Drena Howard is the Director of Global Retail Environmental Health & Safety at The Estée Lauder Companies, where she leads EHS training, education, communication and sustainability initiatives for the ever- growing global retail channel. Drena is currently a member of the Board of Regents for the National Association of Environmental, Health, Safety and Environmental Managers. She is a Board Certified Safety Professional and holds a Master of Environmental Management (’05) and Master of Public Health (‘06) from Yale University. In 2014, she was awarded the ‘Rising Star of Safety’ by the National Safety Council.

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