By Patricia Hume, COO
My mentor Helen Slocum left a mark on my soul that has guided my leadership approach for the last 35 years.
Who is Helen Slocum? You can’t Google her, she isn’t famous, but for me she had a lasting effect on my life and career.
I was 25 years old and promoted to my first management position at IBM in Endicott, New York. IBM Endicott was a huge manufacturing facility that produced printers, bank machines, circuit boards and substrates. In its day, it employed well over 30,000 people. My new department had 16 supply/demand planners – think of them as a team of people who planned the factory load to meet the demands of our customers. The team was made up of a number of factory workers who were promoted “off the line” to work in the office. For the most part, people would call them “blue collar.” None of them had college degrees, but I can tell you that they worked hard and taught me more about myself than perhaps what I had learned in college. And my department had a lead technician; her name was Helen Slocum.
Picture me: young, ambitious, probably a bit arrogant, trying like hell to succeed. Scared but fearless, I was determined that nothing was going to stop me. Not a great recipe for success among those I was supposed to lead, coach and care about.
A day to remember:
I walked into the office and Helen knocked on my door, ‘Hi Pat, can I talk to you for a minute?” She softly stepped into my office, reminding me of a cat: deliberate, unassuming, but oh so present.
(Before I continue I need to tell you about Helen – she was a cancer survivor, who had also had bypass surgery. She was slight in size and had the warmest smile. Helen was probably in her 50’s when I met her. So clearly she was old enough to be my mother. We remained close friends until she passed.)
She sat down and said, “We all think that there is a really nice person hidden somewhere behind that rough and cold exterior.” I was stunned, shocked, and I started to cry. Remember, I was 25 and probably more scared than fearless. I asked what was wrong and what I had done.
She smiled, one of her gentle, “everything is going to be ok” smiles, then said, “What do you know about those wonderful people in this department? Have you ever stopped to get to know them, understand them, and spend time with them? You know nothing about their situations, their families, their joys, their sorrows.”
She went on to say that she believed that a great leader took the time to know her people. And that I would probably be a much better manager and leader if I could be more emotionally engaged and less “all about the business.”
There is more to the meeting and the story than that. But what is most important is what I took away. It would be quite natural for me to show a genuine interest in the team. One of my basic needs is to care for people. I just did not know that I was allowed to do so at IBM. As the years progressed and my career continued to advance, I always thought about Helen and her simple advice. I believe that Helen provided the basis for my leadership style today.
Much has been written about leadership styles and how they differ. When I was thinking about writing this post, I looked on Amazon to see how many books I could find on leadership. There were more than 200,000 available across seven languages. New leadership-themed paperbacks have been coming out at a rate of more than four per day. Apparently, there is no limit to the way leadership can be described.
Thanks to Helen Slocum, I am an emotional leader.
What is an emotional leader? We influence people to achieve a common goal using an emotional approach in everything that we do. Our moods, our words, our energy, our passion, our commitment are expressed openly and genuinely. We always have time for others. We inspire optimism and a “can do” approach. The old “glass is always half full” is our motto. We teach, we inspire but most importantly we care – we care about people as people – as individuals. We believe if the people are cared for the rest will take care of itself. We feel the heartbeat of our organization. We embody all of what Helen Slocum was.
The key to great leadership is to be you. Pretending to be something that you are not is easily uncovered. Helen figured me out. She saw how hard it was for me to be someone I wasn’t.
I did some quick reading to see the leadership traits of different “famous” leaders. It is interesting to find that they all share a lot in common. And as we are in the midst of the DNC and RNC, I decided to look at Trump, the Clintons, Churchill, Lincoln (whom I admire) and the Pope. They do share common traits despite their very different styles.
- Deal makers
- Communicators who inspire action
- Bridge builders
- Continuous learners
- Good at execution
- Good listeners
- Focused on their goals
- Direct managers – they go in the field
My take away is that leadership is highly personal. It is about how you as an individual want to behave and be perceived. At the end of the day, the success of a great leader is the legacy they leave behind. Helen Slocum left a great legacy – all that knew her loved and respected her. She was a kind woman with a huge heart and great wisdom that she shared openly. She was fearless and overcame obstacles with grace. She exemplified each and every trait listed above, and I am lucky to have known her. My eternal hope is that she knows how much impact she had on my life and by extension the lives of the thousands of people that I have had the honor to lead over the last 35 years.