Regaining Trust as a Leader When You Screw Up

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A senior manager client of mine asked how he can take responsibility for a past decision he now deeply regrets.

The backstory goes like this: He made a decision without any input from his staff. When the staff asked for an explanation, my client became very defensive and immediately shut the staff down by telling them the issue was not up for discussion.

When the staff pressed the issue, my client became even more defensive and very authoritative, totally dismissing their inquiries. The staff later told me the energy in the conference room that day changed. The air became thick and their participation from that moment on was nil.

Weeks later, the staff was still disengaged in important discussions. The damage had been done, and my client’s decision continued to have a negative impact on the entire department. Staff morale was at an all-time low and trust was gone.

Are you guilty of this same crime? Have you let your ego dictate your behavior? Do you now regret some of your past decisions and wish to take ownership of their ripple effects? Do you want to change your bad behavior and regain the trust of your employees and team?

Vulnerability in Leadership – If it Was Easy, Everyone Could Do it

Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability and courage, and these are some of the things she has to say:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Vulnerability in leadership is a difficult concept for many leaders to embrace and implement into their leadership style. But repairing the damage caused by their bad behavior requires having the courage to be vulnerable.

Here are some ways you can begin to take ownership of your past bad behavior, so your team can heal and begin moving forward:

  • Reflect on the events and behavior that led to the present climate. What prevented your vulnerability? Write down the lessons learned.
  • Admit that the decision you made was wrong and apologize to your team for not getting them involved in the decision-making process and for shutting them down.
  • Ask for feedback regarding the meeting, the impact it has had, and invite suggestions on what is needed to move the team forward.

“We learn from failure, not from success!”
― Bram StokerDracula

 Being a leader means we risk being a monster sometimes. That’s okay as long as we own our inner vampire and commit to becoming better versions of ourselves. But leadership has nothing to do with perfection and everything to do with learning to become better through the mistakes you make. When you screw up as a leader, own it, fix it, and move on.

Debra Griffith is an Associate Vice President at San Jose State University| Trainer Facilitator | Strategist | Key Note Speaker | Coach

How Strong is Your Foundation?

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The effectiveness of any department or program is dependent on how strong the foundation is. In my 20 years in higher education, and as coach and consultant, I’ve seen this concept overlooked time and time again.

Many leaders jump right into bringing consultants in for a day of strategic planning, team building, keynotes etc. But if these consultants don’t address foundational issues, the entire day is nothing more than a silver bullet. And silver bullets won’t help the department move forward, meet goals, improve staff cohesion, or effectively meet student needs. Eventually, the consultant leaves, taking their high energy and hope with them, and you find yourself at square one again.

Look, I understand. I’ve been there and have spent a lot of funds looking for that silver bullet, only to realize it’s the foundation I need to pay attention to and ensure it’s solid. And when there is a crack in the wall or the foundation begins to slope, I have to invest in fixing the crack, not just patch it up because patching almost never works.

Think about your department like a house.

I remember when I was getting ready to sell my mother’s house that she’d lived in for over 30 years. When everything was taken out of the house and off the walls, all the cracks began to show.

When I had the house appraised, the report stated the foundation had shifted, which caused severe cracks to form in the walls and the floors to slope.  I had to invest some money and time to fix the foundation, just to be able to sell the house. New concrete needed to be poured and entire walls needed to be replaced.

The cracks on the walls were an indicator of a larger issue, and that was that the foundation had shifted. If I had just done a quick patch-n-paint job, the cracks wouldn’t have been visible, but I would still have known they were there and ultimately, so would every potential buyer.

How many times have you just patched up the walls of your department without checking to see if the foundation is strong and solid?

When a department/program foundation is not strong, you’re not able to accomplish your yearly goals, overall mission, or best meet the students’ needs. Without a solid foundation, you simply cannot work together effectively.

Strategies to Rebuild Your Foundation:

Have you noticed any cracks in your foundation? Have you ignored the cracks? How is it affecting the team dynamics and workflow? And how students perceive your department/program and the quality of the services you provide?

  • Take a close look at your foundation and assess how your team works? Are there clicks? Do they work together collaboratively and effectively?
  • Develop a strategic plan to assess and enhance your foundation. Get everyone involved. Trust me, you’ll have more success when there is a greater buy-in from staff members.

If you need help creating a solid foundation for your department, please get in touch with me. I love helping higher education leaders, teams, and programs/departments gain the confidence to best meet the needs of their students.

Debra Griffith is an Associate Vice President at San Jose State University| Trainer Facilitator | Strategist | Key Note Speaker | Coach

Why You Should Avoid Avoidance at All Costs

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As leaders, it’s often hard to know how to handle bad situations with employees. I have noticed that many team leaders talk about employees. They talk about what they are not doing or what they should be doing. They talk about how they are negatively impacting the team… how they gossip… how their skill level is not up to par.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that when we talk about an employee instead of to that employee, the problem doesn’t get resolved. It instead festers until it becomes a full-blown infection that can’t be easily remedied.

But the damage did not come from that employee. The real damage came from a leader not addressing the issues. Avoidance is growth’s biggest threat.

So, how should leaders handle these types of situations?

Understand Your Role

 If being a leader were easy, the world would be full of leaders. Dealing with sticky situations doesn’t feel good. But that is a part of leadership. Understand your role and that your action can move the entire team forward, while your inaction can cause significant trauma to the department, individual employee, and the entire team.

Stop Then Start

 Stop avoiding the employee and have the conversation you have been dreading. Then start documenting the behavior and send up emails to directives.

Don’t Wait for the Annual Evaluation Process

Feedback should be given throughout the year, not just at annual reviews. When you see something, say something. Nipping things in the bud is how you can encourage employee growth.

Have Courage and Conviction

It takes courage to let a team member go. But have the conviction to make the right decision. More often than not, letting someone go is not only good for the team but the individual as well. Sometimes setting them free is what they need to find a position that suits their skill set better.

Assess the Damage

If you haven’t addressed the issue in a timely manner, what has been the impact on the other staff members? They may question your leadership abilities because you waited so long to take action. Have they lost all motivation to come to work and do their own job because the climate has become toxic? Before you can make a clean-up plan, know exactly what damage has occurred.

Include Staff in the Cleanup

Make a plan to heal, because just moving on without acknowledging the impact can cause more harm and doesn’t allow the employees to voice their feelings, concerns, and input on how to move forward. Bring in someone skilled to assist you with the healing. You have to be a part of the conversation. You can’t be a spectator to the healing.

I have faced all of this. I used to be an avoider, but the issue doesn’t solve itself. So now I accept the responsibility to address the issues because I want to lead a healthy team and not be the cause of chaos that can sometimes occur if issues go unaddressed.

I encourage you to avoid avoidance at all costs. While avoidance may seem like an easy way out of a sticky situation at the time, it only makes things worse.

What are some steps you have taken in your department to deal with employees? Let me know in the comment section.

Debra Griffith is an Associate Vice President at San Jose State University| Trainer Facilitator | Strategist | Key Note Speaker | Coach

When Life’s Math Doesn’t Add Up

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Why do we often stay in jobs and positions that don’t fill our soul? What is it about moving forward that scares us so much?

When we’re born, we’re never promised a specific lifespan. We’re told to carpe diem; to make the most of our lives. And yet, we somehow still lack the boldness to reach our full potential.

I have found that doing some simple math has helped propel me to reach, or at least attempt to reach, my full potential:

8 hrs. per day for 5 days is 40hrs. per week… 52 weeks in a year x 40 hrs. per week = 2000 hrs.

Think about this… there are 8760 hours in one calendar year and 2000 hrs. give or take of those are spent at work. What do you need to change to fill your soul for those 2000 hrs.?

What is keeping you from being bold?

Are you comfortable with the status quo because of financial security?

Are you scared what others will think if you make a change?

Are you confused about how to get started?

Are you concerned you even have the ability to make the necessary changes to move forward in your life?

Do you lack the support or assistance needed to make a change?

If you’ve answered yes to one or more of these questions here’s a thought:

Life is short! And it’s important, really, really important, to enjoy as much of it as you can.

After my mother passed away I  realized just how short life is, and I have been going full force ever since. My mother gave me this life, and the best way I believe I can remember and honor her is to make the most of the life she gave me, including those 2000 at work!

Steps for Moving Forward

As a coach, I hear more and more from clients that they want to make a change because they are feeling unfilled. They don’t like their boss, they aren’t challenged, and/or their current position doesn’t allow for growth.

Most of my clients want to do be doing more with their career but they just don’t know how to get started. So that’s where I can be of assistance. I know, I know, having a personal coach seems like a cheat. Why can’t you figure this out on your own?

Think of me like a fitness coach: You know you want your life to get as well and healthy as possible, but you are overwhelmed and confused when it comes to what to feed your life and soul and how to make it stronger.

I have helped countless staff members and clients find their next path. And that path always starts out with one step, followed by another, and then another. Here are some steps to get you started on your journey.

Step 1. – Map Out an Initial Plan

Your career journey should be like a road trip: Have a route in mind but allow yourself to deviate from that initial route if it will get you where you want to go quicker and provide more scenery.

Do you have a two-year plan?  When I was a Resident Director, I had a 2-year plan. I mapped it out and told anyone who would listen all about it. My position allowed me to work 10 hrs. in other offices to gain needed experience.

I chose to work in the office of Judicial Affairs because I knew that I wanted to be a judicial officer within the next two years. So, I lived and breathed Judicial Affairs in those years and attended several training institutes to enhance my skillset.

The other part of my 2-year plan was to finish my masters. At times I didn’t know if I was coming or going because I had my full-time RD job, full-time grad work, and 10 hrs. in the Judicial Affairs Office, which eventually turned into 20 hrs. then 30hrs. There were many sacrifices I had to make but at the end of the 2 years, I had accomplished more than I dreamed. I was appointed as the Chief Judicial Officer and I finished my masters.

Some things to think about when outlining your 2-year plan:

Step 1.  – Make a list

  • Make a list of what you like about your current position. What fills your soul? What lends well to your skillset? What are you doing now that would be transferable to your next position?

For example, when I was I an RD, I loved meeting with students one-on-one and would have to do this when students violated housing policy. What I loved about those meetings was the opportunity to have developmental conversations. When I started thinking about my next career move, I realized that pursuing a position in student conduct would allow me to have those developmental conversations.

Step 2.  – Set Yourself Up for Opportunities

You know the old saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil…” well, in career-terms, the squeaky wheel gets the promotion.

Are there opportunities within your organization? Are you waiting for someone to tap you for that opportunity? How are you positioning yourself for that opportunity? Have you spoken to your supervisor about your interest and what you need to do to move into that position? Many years ago, my Vice President and supervisor at the time told me he wouldn’t know if I was interested in other positions unless I told him. So speak up and get that oil!

Step 3. –  Network, Network, Network

Who is your network within your organization and outside of it? I know, I know, you don’t want to believe that it’s about who you know. Well, it is – your credentials, work experience and who you know matters.

Those people are you are connectors.  Make a list of those connectors, where they work, what organizations they are a part of, and how they can support you in your bold move efforts.

After you’ve made your list, reach out to them and start talking and putting your plan in place. This will change how you engage your 2000 work hours.

These are the first three steps you need to take to make a change. But remember, the change can only be initiated by you taking action. When you feel overwhelmed, just remind yourself every day that you are worth the effort.

Debra Griffith is an has an Associate Vice President at San Jose State University| Trainer Facilitator | Strategist | Key Note Speaker | Coach



Embracing the Spotlight

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I used to think I was completely comfortable being behind the scenes. I tend to shy away from the spotlight and allow everyone else to shine professionally.

But then I started to notice how much heavy lifting I was doing but no one knew and I would give the spotlight away to elevate others. This has been an inner struggle because for me it’s not about being seen in an unhealthy ego kind of way, but merely being recognized for my passion and efforts.

I think I have tended to shy away from the spotlight because as an African American woman, I have internalized oppression I have felt over the past 20 years in my professional life.  This has, unfortunately, dictated how I show up in the world. I have put others in the spotlight to the determent of my own career and have often felt used and forgotten.

But isn’t that my own fault that I gave my power away? Or is it the system?

I think many people shy away from the spotlight, no matter their race, gender or background. And the longer we sit on the professional sidelines, the more comfortable we’ll get. We all need to put ourselves out there and become leaders in our communities and on our campuses.

I have decided to get out of my comfort zone and move beyond my learned behavior in 2018 and start embracing the spotlight. Here’s how I plan to do it:

  1. Silence My Inner Critic

The number one thing that stops most of us from putting ourselves out there and reaching our professional goals is that inner critic. You know that voice in your head that seems to spend every second of every day telling you how wrong you are. Don’t be fooled by this voice, it can often mask itself as “the voice of reason” when in actuality it is just an expression of your fear. This year I finally tell mine to shut the hell up!

  1. Accept Myself – Be True to Myself

I think authenticity is a powerful space to live in. From this place, we can reach our personal goals while helping others along with theirs. In order to be true to ourselves, we’ve got to accept ourselves first.

I learned a while back that in order to lead others, I have to know what makes them tick. When I realized this, I understood I needed to know what makes me tick. I have spent the past 20 years discovering myself, my passions, strengths, weaknesses, fears, warts and everything else, and I encourage you to do the same.

But here’s the kicker, once you know who you really are, BE that person. This year I am going to try and let my real light shine. My light is different than your light and yours is different from someone else’s. But when we all let our lights shine (warts and all) we light the way for students and community members to do the same. That’s powerful.

  1. Accept My Accomplishments

Living life in the spotlight will not be easy. Exposing ourselves to those in power takes courage. After all, when we let our light shine there is always the chance that someone will tell us we’re not good enough, not worthy enough for that promotion or to head that department.

And that’s okay, let them. The important thing is that every day we stay committed to this process; that we remain true to ourselves. If we do this, then we also need to CELEBRATE ourselves and our courage on a daily basis.

This year will be a big one for me as I try and stop being a shy violet and start living out loud. I invite you to join me.

Be the Change You Want to See

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“Be the change you want to see.” That’s considered a famous quote by Gandhi. And while he did speak of the power of transformation, over the years his words have been abbreviated into a pithy bumper sticker.

Gandhi’s actual quote about change was this:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Why do I think his original quote is more powerful than the abbreviated version? While they both speak to the symbiosis of personal and social transformation, his original quote has that great last line: “We need not wait to see what others do.”

Here, to me, he is speaking about having the courage and conviction to stand up and be heard when others are afraid to, start a movement even while others seem comfortable standing still.

Have you ever been in a meeting and someone says something racist, sexist, or something so blatant against an oppressed a marginalized group? And then there is dead silence.

Do you sit there, wondering who is going to be the person to say something, to call out the transgression? Why is there silence? Why isn’t anyone saying anything?

Should you let this moment pass and then address the person later one on one? What is the impact of changing the culture if we pull the person aside and confront them privately? And do we let those who were afraid to speak off the hook because everyone heard it, but no one said anything?

I understand the discomfort. Why do you have to be that person? How will you be viewed? It seems like a career risk to speak up for what is right sometimes, I get it!

But the question we need to ask ourselves is, who are we harming by not speaking up? The students? A colleague who needed your voice because they didn’t feel strong enough to stand up for themselves?

Silence is often misconstrued as consent as if the mute party were cosigning to what was said. And isn’t silence and fear how cultures remain stagnant?

I have found myself in these situations. I remember early in my career my heart would start to beat a million miles a moment and my voice would shake as I spoke, but I knew I had to say something. I couldn’t just sit back. Actually, I didn’t want to sit back because I didn’t agree with what was being said and I wanted to have a conversation with everyone in the room so we could reach a positive conclusion and outcome together.

What I found was once I broke that unbearable silence, there were often one or two others that would feel the same way. Culture isn’t something that is easily changed, but I continue to chip away by calling out transgressions and backing up my colleagues when they need my voice.

Don’t let a moment of silence deter you from speaking up for colleagues and students. Silence often results in policies being implemented that sometimes harm our students.

We need not wait to see what others are going to do but have the courage to do what others can’t. If we all commit to speaking up and out, we can collaborate on changing a culture of oppression and marginalization.






Let’s Celebrate Each Other

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We can do better. We need to do better in supporting one another.

When I was appointed to as the Associate Vice President of Transition and Retention Services (a newly created position), I began to hear the whispers. “Why her, she gets everything?” “She sucked up to get that position.” “I’ve been here longer and I deserve it more than she does.” “What makes her qualified for the role?”

The interesting part is the people who were stabbing my character were the very same women and women of color telling me how happy they were for me, how well-deserved I was, and how wonderful it was to see a black woman advance. I have to be honest, I was shocked by the response. I never expected to get the negative reaction I got.

Then I started to think about the times I had done the same to other women who had been given positions I envied. The truth is, I’m guilty myself. I haven’t always been consistent with celebrating other women of color’s successes. Perhaps it’s because there are so few women of color advancing.

We must do better with celebrating one another and getting more of us beyond the concrete ceiling. Although I will be forever saddened and disappointed by the whispers I hear from time-to-time, they serve as a reminder to better support and celebrate other women of color’s successes as they advance and to do everything I can to create opportunities for them along their journey.