Leadership: Failure, Communication, Passion, Trust, Balance, Working Smart, and Mentoring

by Susan Alvarado

Until I was asked to write down my thoughts on leadership, it occurred to me that I had never considered it as a concept, but more as a series of lessons learned along the path of life and work.

My greatest lessons involving leadership have come through failure, just as they have in both my personal and professional life. Often when we succeed we don’t know why necessarily. For example, to use a golf analogy, I will occasionally hit a great shot on the links but then follow it with a lousy one. I am never sure what caused me to hit the great one, but I can usually figure out why I hit the lousy one. In leadership, we have hits and misses all the time, but at least for me I have learned the greatest lessons from failure.

Early on in my career, while working for a U.S. Senator, I earned a promotion to his leadership office. Transitioning from personal staff to leadership staff resulted in many new responsibilities and I found myself having a difficult time adjusting to the work with its new high visibility and increased demands on my time. The number of phone calls I received every day tripled, as did my mail. Of course, this was before the technological advancements of email, text, etc., and I found myself slowly becoming overwhelmed. One day a good friend of the Senator’s (and now mine) asked to see me. I walked with him outside the Senate chamber and his message was straightforward and simple. He said, “Susan, you will never make it in this town if you don’t return your phone calls.” I was stunned at the time, but later realized this was the best advice I could have ever received and I appreciate it to this day.

Leadership requires prioritizing and being organized. It means returning phone calls and meeting with people. Some of the best ideas are proffered in these situations. Staying involved with others will help avoid isolation and help you win allies. I tried in the past to put too many items on my TO DO list. As a result, I failed to make it through the list, which made me feel less productive. Now I only put a maximum of four things on it to ensure quality work is completed. It also leaves room for one or two others that can pop up unexpectedly during the ordinary press of business.

Leadership requires having a passion for your work, a vision if you will. The need to know your business and constantly read up on all the latest news and developments in your field is essential. Only then will you be able to see what the future looks like and prepare for it.

Leadership requires trusting your own instinct. Once you see that your colleagues and others around you are following your advice, you will feel energized. Creativity will come naturally after that vote of confidence, but know that everything is not a sure bet. You must take necessary risks. Being risk-averse is not a leadership quality. Trust in yourself, fail if you must, but regain your confidence and press ahead. Leadership requires both confidence and self-awareness. Know your strengths and weaknesses and act accordingly to improve.

Have balance in your life. Work hard, but leave time for recreation, family and friends. Encourage others to join you in your goals by making them part of a team. Give them a stake in the outcome and a sense of satisfaction to know that their role is critical to the results. Be understanding of personal issues and attitude adjustment times—at some point everyone needs special attention. Lead with a good heart, always. Participation in sports teaches a whole set of lessons and exercise and is an outlet for the frustrations of the work place. Strong body; strong mind.

Use technology to the fullest to work smart. Do your research. Knowledge is power and it is guaranteed to always help you succeed. But step away from technology at the appropriate times. LISTEN to people and hear what they are saying. Do not look at your phone; give them your full attention. Be open and approachable. Foster team spirit and challenge in a positive way. Also foster creativity and reward innovative thinking.

The most important part of leadership to me is paying success forward by mentoring young people to give them a sense of what you do for a living and so they can find out whether it is something they would be passionate about later. Teach them to take pride in what they do, always, and not be afraid of failure.

Susan Alvarado, Alvarado & Bennett

SusanAlvaradoSusan Alvarado founded Alvarado & Bennett nearly 25 years ago, following a distinguished career in public service. She provides strategic counsel to a broad range of clients on government relations matters involving Capitol Hill and the Executive Branch, in particular the federal agencies. A hallmark of Susan’s success is the trusted relationships she develops with her clients, many of whom have been with the firm for decades.

Susan’s career in public service includes service in the Vice President’s office, the U.S. Senate and with the U.S. Postal Service, and also a number of other important activities, and she has received numerous and very well deserved awards for these contributions.

A graduate of Ohio State, she studied political science and played varsity tennis, and she remains an avid college sports fan.

Susan is very successful as she is a consummate professional, an intentional and empathetic listener, upfront in her communications, without a personal agenda, sets very high standards for herself, and is totally dedicated to providing the service and advice that her clients need and want. Add to that, a wonderful sense of humor, and someone who does not take herself too seriously, and we have Susan Alvarado, a role model in her profession and for women and men in all fields of business.