Copyright 2015, Aaron Scott Robertson. All rights reserved.
My Personal Theory of Leadership
Aaron S. Robertson, MSM
In this paper, the author reflects on his own leadership, attempting to formally define and lay out systematically for the first time his personal theory of leadership and what motivates him to aspire to various leadership roles. He does this utilizing a combination of academic research, anecdotal evidence, and his own observations and insights gained over the years through a variety of leadership positions held by him. Comments by colleagues on the author’s leadership in his full-time position are provided here as part of a 360-degree feedback exercise recently conducted. The author also incorporates into the paper an interview with his supervisor at his full-time work organization, Ms. Jamie Ellingen, on her own leadership style, and proposes an adaptive change to be implemented in his work organization, one aligned closely with his espoused values and beliefs concerning leadership.
Keywords: leadership, leadership theory, LMX leadership, situational leadership, trait leadership, distributed leadership, time, Georg Simmel, sociology, philosophy, Stericycle, 360-degree feedback
The call to leadership is a noble one. Though leadership, in any capacity, entails a variety of sacrifices and exposure to risk and criticism, it is, nonetheless, a meaningful and rewarding journey. Collectively, leadership drives the innovation of products and services in the marketplace; it is responsible for moving a broader economy and society forward; it causes entire organizations and systems to constantly strive for better. And although there are a number of leadership theories in existence, and although the subject can be observed objectively and scientifically to some extent, leadership was, and remains, a highly- unique, personalized, subjective journey for the individual leader.
This paper looks at the author’s own leadership, detailing how he views the subject and what motivates him to strive for more and better. The author then introduces feedback recently collected from colleagues on the author’s leadership in his full-time position. An interview he recently conducted with his supervisor at his full-time work organization is shared with the reader. Finally, he goes on to propose an adaptive change he feels is necessary to implement at his work organization.
Leadership positions held
Before addressing this author’s personal theory of leadership, it is essential, for the sake of establishing context, to briefly discuss some of the overall leadership roles he has held through the years. Reflecting back, this author did not think about the subject of leadership much until college. Admittedly, he was largely unmotivated during his high school years, frequently receiving substandard grades and feeling too tired by the end of the school day to participate much in any co-curricular activities. It was during his time in college that he began to make up for these previous years of inactivity and going through the world somewhat aimlessly. During this author’s bachelor studies at Milwaukee’s Cardinal Stritch University from 2001-07, he,
Since graduating college in 2007, among other accomplishments, this author has gone on to own or co-own two companies in the realm of online marketing; interview a variety of well-known figures in the arenas of music, television, business, film, and art as a freelance journalist and blogger; run for public office; play bass for, manage, and contribute as a songwriter for, a Milwaukee-area band; and serve as a board member or officer in an extensive variety of business organizations and community service clubs. For his full-time work, this author serves as a customer experience team lead at the Brookfield, Wisconsin office of Stericycle, Inc., ranked as one of the world’s most innovative companies (Forbes, 2015). Stericycle is a national company with an international presence. The firm is publicly traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange and is divided into multiple divisions and business units. This author works in the company’s communication solutions division, comprised of a large number of telephone answering services and call centers throughout the country. In his role, this author is charged with:…earned a major in political science, minors in sociology and philosophy, a certificate in integrated leadership, and a non-credit certificate for a course in entrepreneurship. Among other accomplishments, he served as president of the student government, Model United Nations club, and philosophy club, which he co-founded…[He] is author of the book, Beyond Majors and G.P.A.: A Real Philosophy for College and the World Ahead, which he wrote while still an undergraduate student. (IMDb, 2015)
…along with three other team leads, with orchestrating and overseeing coaching and general staff development initiatives for an office of approximately 40 call center agents and support staff. Additional responsibilities with the role include general human resources and customer service duties such as staff scheduling, disciplinary action, conflict resolution, documenting attendance incidents, running reports, and, in working with the office’s customer service staff, some elements of client relationship management. (Robertson, 2015b, para. 7)This author came to Stericycle by way of acquisition during the summer of 2014. Prior to the purchase, the company that he had worked for since July 2012 was Spectrum Communications, a telephone answering service and call center owned by a husband and wife team for over 30 years. In his role as a freelance journalist and blogger, this author had the opportunity to interview Stericycle’s chief culture officer, New York Times –bestselling author, Paul Spiegelman, in February 2015 (Robertson, 2015a).
Leadership style and theory
This author currently does not outright subscribe to any particular school of thought when it comes to the subject of leadership, although he, “…generally understands leadership, through both his own personal experiences along with observing others, to be the catalyst that drives change and that empowers – enables – others to realize their potential, either directly or indirectly” (Robertson, 2015b, para. 3). He is also convinced that, “…anyone who has the capacity to learn has the potential to be a leader to at least some degree” (Robertson, 2015b, para. 14). Rather than subscribing to a particular theory or school of thought, it is his understanding at this moment in his life, based on events and experiences thus far, that different styles of leadership and approaches are often called for and needed at different times throughout life and career. In this sense, then, it may be said that this author appears to subscribe to the situational leadership school. After all, as Nevarez, Wood, and Penrose (2013) points out, “A monostyle approach to leadership is not sufficient in addressing the dynamic, multi-dimensional, and complex nature of social organizations and the actors within them” (p. unknown). This author agrees with this statement. Simultaneously, however, he believes that there is still a lot of credence to trait leadership, and he is currently developing his own theory and accompanying study to contribute to the discussion in that line of thinking. In his full-time work, he believes he often witnesses and utilizes elements of both leader-member exchange (LMX) and distributed leadership theories. Certainly, relationship building has long been a characteristic of his overall approach to leadership. But despite this seemingly nonsensical variety of many types of leadership theories and approaches simultaneously at work here by this author, they are all united by certain core values and beliefs pinned under an overarching life philosophy: the value and limitation of time.
Time can be a wonderful thing. With its passage, a person can build a successful and satisfying career. It can heal many of the physical and emotional wounds and illnesses we carry throughout our lives. Time allows interest to compound in a person’s investment account. It lays the foundation for meaningful and lasting relationships of any kind. It can give way to stunning hair and nails, or an impressive beard. And the passing of time can close the gap between a person’s formal education and practical work experience, creating more of a cohesive union between the two, along with more impressive credentials for an employer. But as we as society always look forward to the new year so that we can have that psychological fresh start when it comes to achieving resolutions, and as we continue to cheer, “There’s always next year,” when rallying around our favorite sports teams, we do not realize at that moment that each passing year brings us, as individuals, that much closer to our demise. This author does realize this fact at that moment. He is always aware of the finite amount of time we have to make meaningful contributions to society and to the individual lives that we connect with along the way. And so his leadership style and approach are as much tied to life philosophy as they are to his role as a tactician in business and management.
Because of this author’s intense awareness of the limited amount of time each of us possesses, he intentionally seeks out a richly-diverse variety of life and leadership experiences, and he does not distinguish between work and personal time, viewing “work” as merely projects and pursuits he takes great interest in. Equally multifarious are his academic and cultural interests. A philosophy and sociology minor during his undergraduate studies, he believes he takes after the philosopher, and one of modern sociology’s founders, Georg Simmel (1858-1918), in this regard. Like Simmel, this author cannot see himself spending his career working toward compiling one unified, systematic body of work, preferring instead to be a generalist rather than a specialist. This author appreciates a variety of music, art, philosophy, business, political and economic thought, cinema, historical subjects, travel, and social science, and this author’s learning and own writings reflect many of these subjects. As Miles, Hall, and Borden (2004) discusses, in introducing the reader to Simmel’s 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, “Simmel’s expertise spanned a vast field from history and philosophy to the social sciences. This catholicism was apparent by the time he received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Berlin in 1881” (p. 12). They go on to observe that, “Simmel was a hugely prolific writer who addressed a variety of audiences on numerous topics. Over 200 of his articles appeared in academic journals, newspapers and magazines and many more were published after his death. In addition to this, he produced twenty-one books…” (Miles, Hall, and Borden, 2004, p. 12).
A scene in a particular film has really stood out in the mind of this author when it comes to the subject of time. The actor Michael Douglas, reprising his long-awaited role as Gordon Gekko in 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, describes this author’s personal emphasis on the importance of time very well. The character of Gekko, having debuted 23 years earlier in 1987’s Wall Street, is an investment banker known for his sharp mind and equally cunning ways. During the time between both films, according to the storyline, Gekko spends eight years in federal prison for a variety of white-collar securities crimes. In the sequel, he meets his future son-in-law, Jacob, also in the investment banking world and portrayed by actor Shia LaBeouf, for the very first time after a talk Gekko delivered at a local New York City –area college. Gekko and his daughter are estranged. While sharing a metro train ride together after Gekko’s speech at the local college, Gekko shares with Jacob that there is one thing he learned in prison – that life’s prime asset is time, not money (Pressman and Kopeloff, 2010).
This author chooses to spend much of his time absorbing new information and ideas, and he enjoys spending a great deal of time sharing those insights he has gained with others, either through his writings or through multimedia presentations and various forms of coaching. He enjoys doing this to the point where it can almost be referred to as some sort of calling. In describing his philosophy on learning and the relationship between leadership, learning, and service, this author notes,
The driving force behind the journey, the one facet providing significant support to the other two, is learning. Learning is behind it all. When one is continuously learning, one is compelled to share the insights gained with others, thereby fulfilling leadership and service. The leadership and service components, then, are naturally attained because the insights being gained by the individual, which in turn are then dispersed out to others, are helping those others in some sort of meaningful way, either personally or professionally. For, what is the point in one’s desire to be in a continuous state of learning, embarked on an ongoing journey of discovery and adventure, without sharing that knowledge and wisdom with others, thereby lifting them up in some sort of impactful way? How is it even possible to avoid doing so? This author cannot think of a logical explanation. Even when the learner may not consciously be aware at any given moment in time of what his or her discoveries may mean in terms of service and leadership to others – he or she may solely be focused on his or her own career advancement or some sort of other personal gain at that moment – what is being learned, nonetheless, is still helping others along the way as he or she strives to climb higher on the latter of personal success. This arguably holds especially true today, in such an intertwined global community, workplace, and economy. That being said, learning for personal gain is compatible with learning for the benefit of others, and vice-versa, and leadership and service are not possible without the presence of learning. Therefore, anyone who has the capacity to learn has the potential to be a leader to at least some degree. (Robertson, 2015b, para. 13, 14)This philosophy of learning and sharing with others comes alive in full alignment through observations made by this author’s colleagues at Stericycle. A fellow shift supervisor and team lead, Ashley Weber, recently wrote about this author in a 360-degree feedback exercise requested by him, that,
Aaron is genuinely invested in the personal and professional growth of our team at Stericycle Communication Solutions. He encourages others to be the best versions of themselves, and you can tell by the way he reacts to team members’ successes that he takes great pride in their accomplishments. His performance, enthusiasm and positivity serve as a catalyst to this excellence. (personal communication, November 12, 2015)Feedback provided by another colleague, Kyle LeMaster, states that this author, “...frequently leads by example. He doesn’t hesitate to jump in and assist and show his coworkers a[n] exemplary performance…Aaron uses positive reinforcement and diligently tracks his employees’ improvement” (personal communication, November 12, 2015). Kelli Harrigan, this author’s manager, appears to largely agree with the assessments of Ms. Weber and Mr. LeMaster, but notes, “Generally I believe Aaron walks the talk, but at times may appear to be more laid back in his approach than really required to convey the values and performance required” (personal communication, November 13, 2015). She also observes, “Aaron influences those he works with on a daily basis to achieve our organizational goals, but may at times struggle to effectively adjust his approach to the personalities and issues at play” (K. Harrigan, personal communication, November 13, 2015). Certainly, this presents a great opportunity for further improvement and growth on the part of this author.
Interview with a leader
On November 19, 2015, this author had the opportunity to interview one of his direct superiors, Jamie Ellingen. Ms. Ellingen carries the title of supervisor in this author’s office. For purposes of this paper, and oftentimes for purposes of general discussion with non-Stericycle staff, this author typically equates her role with that of an assistant manager in order to distinguish her from the customer experience team leads in the office, who, for all practical purposes, act as shift supervisors. Ms. Ellingen reports to the office’s manager, Kelli Harrigan. For the interview, five questions were posed to Ms. Ellingen:
• A little about your professional background; brief biography
• How do you see change?
• How do you adapt to change?
• How would you characterize your leadership style?
• What is a typical day like for you?
Responding to these questions, Ms. Ellingen started by telling this author a bit about her background. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Like many college graduates during the economic downturn in recent years, she, “…started looking for any line of work during a time when it was difficult for new grads to find work in their majors” (J. Ellingen, personal communication, November 19, 2015). She started working for Spectrum Communications during the summer of 2012, quickly becoming a trainer and then team leader before being named supervisor under what is now a Stericycle-owned call center. Ms. Ellingen credits what she refers to as the “Stollenwerk work ethic” – her maiden name – for guiding her through life and career, pointing out to this author how her father and grandfather became successful after starting at the bottom of their respective employers through hard work. Her older brother gave her the drive to pursue college, and it was there, while a student, that she worked as a captioning assistant with CapTel, Inc., and with her father’s cleaning company for a time (J. Ellingen, personal communication, November 19, 2015).
Where change is concerned, Ms. Ellingen sees it as, “…always inevitable…I’ve always been open to, and embrace, change. I never get totally shocked by change, because I always anticipate it. But I like to be prepared for it, get all the data and answers I need. I view change more as an opportunity” (J. Ellingen, personal communication, November 19, 2015). Ms. Ellingen stated to this author that she watches Ms. Harrigan, the office’s manager, and models her style. She looks up to Roy and Mari Osmon, the owners of Spectrum Communications. Like the three of them, “It’s important to be patient, and to show sympathy where needed. I like to be in touch regularly with those I supervise. I like to ask others a lot of questions, and get them to arrive at their own conclusions, where appropriate” (J. Ellingen, personal communication, November 19, 2015). Ms. Ellingen told this author during this same interview, when asked about her typical day, that she plans the entire week out in advance. There are many regularly-occurring tasks, combined with frequent disciplinary action, questions and issues revolving around the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), interaction with Human Resources, payroll, and staff planning.
A proposed adaptive change
This author proposes a two-pronged adaptive change in the office branch of his full-time work organization, Stericycle. The first part of the change involves what is referred to by Stericycle staff as mentors – they are agents in the company’s various call centers that handle calls like other agents, but what distinguishes them from the rest is that they also assist those in supervision and management with training – what is called education – for other agents. An opportunity for improvement, as seen by this author, rests in the fact that these mentors often work independently from one another when it comes to delivering education to agents, at least in his particular office/call center. He believes that uniting these mentors under some sort of ongoing program of professional development will be beneficial to the organization, so that they can, in turn, become even more effective at training and leading. What is envisioned as part of this plan:
• Weekly or biweekly meetings to get mentors communicating with one another more, sharing ideas, findings, and best practices
• Have occasional “guest speakers” appear at these meetings, comprised of various authorities in the office to address a particular topic of concern
• Share and discuss articles, perhaps even books, and go through and discuss relevant courses together in Stericycle’s learning management system, called Einstein
• Utilize mentors more, not only for traditional account and call group education, but also in areas like soft skills, quality assurance, and dealing with difficult callers
By implementing such a change, this author argues that his office will be able to more effectively harness the power of the mentoring program and all of the potential that it holds. It brings the mentors, who are currently working independently a great portion of the time, together, to learn, explore, discuss, and share with one another important issues, ideas, and best practices. The result will be overall performance improvement and growth for the office across the board, as monitored by various agent and office-wide metrics that are regularly tracked and analyzed.
The second part of the proposed adaptive change concerns the teams of agents in the office. As previously stated, this author serves, along with three others in his office, as a customer experience team lead. Essentially, these team leads serve in the capacity of a shift supervisor for the entire office when they are at work, charged with various, ongoing responsibilities and tasks like scheduling, conflict resolution, coaching, attendance, and, to some degree, limited human resources and client relationship management. Aside from acting as shift supervisors, however, these team leads also have their own teams – hence the title – of agents that they are responsible for. The duties that accompany being a team lead include coaching the agents that she or he is responsible for, conducting one-on-one meetings with them to check in and discuss key performance indicators, and provide feedback on calls randomly selected for the purpose of quality assurance.
As with the office’s mentors, members of a team currently act largely independently from their teammates. While each team member regularly meets and communicates with his or her team leader, the team member is not interacting with his or her teammates. Like the first part of the proposed adaptive change, this author would like to see teams behaving more like teams. It is in the best interests of the organization to get team members interacting more with one another through team meetings, the sharing of learning, best practices, fun collaborative projects, and even friendly competitions between teams. Such a change, this author is convinced, will result in higher levels of morale and overall performance across the board.
Much of the proposed adaptive change rests in distributed leadership theory. As Bolden (2011) notes,
Distributed leadership has become a popular ‘post-heroic’ (Badaracco 2001) representation of leadership which has encouraged a shift in focus from the attributes and behaviours of individual ‘leaders’ (as promoted within traditional trait, situational, style and transformational theories of leadership – see Northouse 2007 for a review) to a more systemic perspective, whereby ‘leadership is conceived of as a collective social process emerging through the interactions of multiple actors (Uhl-Bien 2006). (p. 251)In other words, distributed leadership theory views leadership more as a social process, in which leaders of both the formal and informal varieties (i.e., titles) come together to actively participate and engage in this process. Leaders can come from any and all relevant functions, groups, levels, and disciplines within an organization, both vertical and horizontal (Lefoe, Hadgraft, Jones, Ryland and Harvey, n.d., p.7, 10). It is argued that better decisions are reached and greater results achieved as more angles are explored, expertise shared, and perspectives vetted. The rich insights and discoveries gleaned from these interactions among the participants serve as the catalyst for moving a respective organization forward.
This author’s research into distributed leadership finds that it tends to be prevalent in the United Kingdom and Australia, and even then, in school systems and other learning communities. Much of the available literature on the theory thus far takes on a distinct education flavor. Indeed, Timperley (2005), in discussing the state of schools, states,
Hopes that the transformation of schools lies with exceptional leaders have proved both unrealistic and unsustainable. The idea of leadership as distributed across multiple people and situations has proven to be a more useful framework for understanding the realities of schools and how they might be improved. (p. 395)Distributed leadership is said not to appear much in business environments yet. When and if it does appear, it may, perhaps, be unknowingly called by something else or simply not acknowledged for what it is. This author suspects that one or both of these situations is the case, for, in his eyes, replacing the word schools in Timperley’s statement with businesses or organizations just as easily makes sense. However, distributed leadership in a business setting is perhaps best carried out in areas that are not time sensitive or necessarily tied to the day-to-day management of the organization, where fast decisions must be made. It is arguably best fitted in areas like a firm’s research and development department, intrapreneurial efforts, and initiatives in the realm of employee engagement and organizational culture. This author’s proposed adaptive change perhaps best falls within the latter.
In discussing this proposed adaptive change over the course of several weeks in one-on-one meetings with both Ms. Ellingen and Ms. Harrigan during the months of November and December 2015, both agree that it may hold significant potential. However, there are a number of factors that will have to be taken into consideration. For instance, a sense of buy-in will have to be present among the mentors and team members to get them motivated and excited to want to participate in this change. Costs will undoubtedly be a concern, and this is where a successful return on investment, or ROI, will need to be proven. In rough estimates, it was calculated by Ms. Harrigan, Ms. Ellingen, and this author during these conversations that it can potentially cost upwards of $200 per meeting in labor time alone. Finally, a program evaluation of some sort must be implemented in order to determine criteria, set goals, and ultimately measure success, or lack thereof. Regardless, both Ms. Harrigan and Ms. Ellingen believe the proposed change is certainly worthy of continued exploration, and they, along with this author, remain optimistic over the potential that this change holds, if implemented carefully and deliberately.
In closing, this paper discussed the author’s own leadership experiences and overall style, outlining how he views the topic and what motivates him in his various pursuits and aspirations. The author identified feedback gathered from colleagues on his leadership in his full-time position at Stericycle, Inc. An interview he recently conducted with his supervisor, Jamie Ellingen, was shared with the reader. Finally, he went on to propose and discuss an adaptive change he feels is necessary to implement in his work organization, one that harnesses the power of distributed leadership theory.
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