February Academy Spotlight: Smruti Patel
Tell us about yourself and your firm:
I work with organizations and leaders who are looking to achieve exceptional business and professional goals. My field is executive education and within it, my first love is leadership coaching. Because of the professional intimacy that is developed through leadership coaching, I have come to gain rare insights into not just the vulnerabilities of high performing individuals and teams but equally, their incredible strengths that chart the way to great success. To put it plainly, I've come to understand what makes them tick.
By background I am a lawyer, so there is undoubtedly something about that training that has clients trust and open up more easily. With consulting and business roots, clients also know that I understand the broader business and professional context in which individuals or teams are operating.
Lastly, I have always been a dreamer! As a dreamer, I dream of the great achievements mankind can make if each of us operates at our highest potential and greatest level of awareness. That makes me passionate about bringing out the best in others.
What is the focus of this Module?
The focus of this module was around managing difficult conversations and influencing. As individuals rise into the leadership ranks, both communication and the ability to influence become critical differentiators.
Communication has to become more nuanced and this requires a greater level of self-awareness. Conflict is a natural part of all organizations and relationships. I am of the view that when it is managed well, conflict is healthy, productive and moves a relationship, team or organization forward.
We must learn how to have difficult conversations. I'd go as far as saying it is a life skill and one that requires constant attention because we never quite stop learning since each difficult conversation has a curve ball or quirk of its own. Exhausting? Of course! But our focus should be on the learning and the self-awareness we develop from such conversations so that we too, evolve and move forward.
As for influencing, it is quite simply the master skill. Without consciously developing this skill, leaders stagnate and at worst become obsolete.
These are topics with a constant relevance in our professional and personal lives.
What would you say is the greatest challenge of this Module:
Because the module topics are timeless yet affect everyone, in some ways, there was less of a challenge in ensuring that all Fellows were engaged. It is a little bit like playing golf because each person is simply working to better themselves with the clubs/tools at hand but has the opportunity to play/practice with peers.
What amazed me the most was the level of engagement throughout the day. There was not a moment of lull in the energy which is a testament to the importance and constant relevance of these topics.
What resonated most for the Fellows?
What was most rewarding to observe was the self-awareness that Fellows were developing in the moment. To manage a difficult conversation and influence, greater self-awareness is the absolute key. There is a notion that this takes a very long time. Not necessarily. We have likely all been moved by a story or an image and found ourselves at the crossroads of an internal self-discovery. In the same way, when we are open to learning (as the Fellows were) we discover something about ourselves. It is a beautiful journey and as a traveler, my favorite one.
I noticed the curiosity of Fellows as they diagnosed their own communication styles and to what extent that hampered and helped them. Following from that, Fellows were connecting the dots to how this impacts the way they think about influencing, too.
Informally, several Fellows shared that they felt like I understood them by virtue of having practiced as a lawyer. I know their world and frankly, the quirks that we lawyers share. Bringing this to light in a humorous way allowed for an open learning environment. I hope this meant that in discussing the topics, the trust already been built by Fellows was enhanced.
What were the big take-aways and types of actionable goals do you hope that Fellows will set as a result of what they learned?
The module was specifically designed to be practical so Fellows would be able to start using the tools they practiced with, immediately. In particular, I hope that the top actionable goal will be to look at their networks and consider how they will influence because it is a long-game strategy that requires regular inputs for it to come to fruition. Of course, I want them to attempt the difficult conversations too and remember that each opportunity should be viewed as a learning one.
How would you describe the role played by Board of Advisors Members Cindy Lewin and Brian Brooks? What did they contribute to the Module and what did you learn from their participation?
Cindy and Brian were refreshingly honest and open. Their input confirmed that these module topics have a constant relevance. Most importantly, listening to their leadership journey gave pause to reflect and I hope that the Fellows saw aspects of their own incredible journey mirrored in the Advisors' stories. I was left inspired by the Advisors but also the Fellows because it is no small feat for them to be a part of this select group of highly skilled lawyers who are dedicated to their leadership journey. Bravo!
From your experience with other programs, what sets the Leadership Academy apart?
The peer experience is critical. What sets the Academy apart is that it is devoted to ensuring that there is a level of parity within the cohort. This is critical for lawyers. Simply by virtue of how we are trained professionally, there are lessons that come more naturally to us and less so compared to other professions. Having a group that is similar means that the speed of learning is maintained. We might slow down together but we also pick up pace together. I have found that lawyers thrive when materials are covered at a fairly intensive pace, and that otherwise, boredom and disengagement can set in quickly.
Brian Brooks, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Fannie Mae
Is there one particular lesson about having a successful career and your leadership style that you want to share? Yes, it’s about the importance of relationships. Starting when I first came to DC, I put a great deal of energy into cultivating relationships -- and still do.
Networking has to be part of your normal work plan, and I don’t let a relationship go cold. That applies not just to relationships with people who can take you places, but also to relationships with people you can take places.
Cindy Lewin, former Executive Vice President and General Counsel, AARP
What are some of the lessons you have learned about leadership and your own leadership style over the course of your career? When I was at Volunteers of America, we hired a Vice President of Affordable Housing, but the candidate could not come aboard for 8 months and I stepped into the role temporarily. Although I did not have a background in affordable housing – at all – people deferred to the title. I found that I did not have to be the subject-matter expert. I simply had to ask good questions and get the information I needed to make good decisions. I made sure I got that information from my team. I learned to trust the work they were doing and let them operate with a great deal of autonomy, which is the path to job satisfaction and a close-knit team.
I have been general counsel of three large national nonprofits, and in each case the role has been different because the expectations of the CEO and board have been different for the legal function. I learned to adapt my leadership style and role to the particular situation. However, it is critical to take ownership of the role and determine your own approach, not just keep doing things because that’s the way they have always been done.