Leading from a “Feminine” Perspective: developing a strong, diverse, balanced and committed leadership team By Katharina Papenbrock

Rural Opportunity Representative
Remote Worker, Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade
I was groomed to lead from an early age. My sister and I were dedicated to our studies, sports, music and volunteer efforts, the same way my parents dedicated themselves to their careers, community and us. I embodied what I thought a leader was supposed to be: straight A’s, team captain, “Most Likely to Succeed,” etc. In my late 20s, my professional resume shone but didn’t resonate, I only saw paths determined by a “no” or an “unwanted consequence.” If you asked me for a five year vision, my answers were always curated to the audience. Then, I blew it up.

I moved to Ouray to start a restaurant, during the recession. It was spurred by an authentic love of food and autonomy but also by a husband who wanted an excuse to move to his dream town. My business partners closed our partnership with a handshake, “because that’s how we do it here.” Within two years, my marriage was over, the partnership blew up and I wasn’t confident enough to pursue my legal rights. Help was there but I hadn’t learned how to ask for it.
My leadership style was extreme self-reliance, which is pretty common among business owners, immigrants, women, adventure athletes and rural Americans. I went into my new job with the local Chamber with all of those boxes checked, ready to fix everything and then learned that taking on a leadership position in rural Colorado is a study in rapid education and humility. Luckily, you also realize that you are surrounded by incredible examples of leadership, knowledge and support. I started to see that effective leadership doesn’t mean you stand alone, never admit to a mistake, are emotionally unwavering and never burn out; it comes from being your authentic self and is always a team effort.

I was lucky to be selected for the Colorado Tourism Office’s Colorado Tourism Leadership Journey and I can’t champion enough finding a structured way to combine personal reflection and learning with direct contact to other leaders and mentors. Even finding a loose network of mentors or colleagues to share challenges with will help you reflect and adjust along the way. Always include someone that intimidates or challenges you, and look beyond job and community lines.

Track the “ah-ha” moments along the way. One that still resonates was a “taking risks”-themed session that connected the toughness honed from life-threatening adventures to the grit you need to work through professional problems.
Qualities I internalized as “weak” were actually strengths, like vulnerability, empathy and an obsession with data.
Empathy morphed the disappointment of my professional and personal failures into a wish to help others navigate their own challenges.
Vulnerability allowed me to open up and connect on a human rather than performance level. My robot brain collected resources and data and imagined new projects and potentials. My personal values aligned with the values my team had defined for our organization: authentic experiences, responsibility, prioritization of local assets and talent, data-driven decision-making, organization and consistency, leveraging expert resources and saying “thank you.”

Learning that it takes more than you to lead came along a little too late in the game. Our big transition ultimately fell flat but the time spent getting the right people in the right spots to move together toward that goal was worth the effort. 
In rural Colorado, we know that everyone looks to the STP’s – the same 10 people – until they burn out, to the loss of the community. My challenge was to look beyond them for sustainable teams and they fell into the “categories” below. Most of the time, their role had nothing to do with their day job but with their passions, experiences and thought processes.

The Cheerleader is the person that you always want to put front and center when you want to get people inspired about what you’re doing. They’re natural storytellers and have a knack for relating to people on an authentic level. I was lucky enough to have one as my colleague for nine years and she connected and pushed me into more new ways of interacting and sharing stories than I can ever say “thank you” for. You’re lucky if your cheerleader is also your Online or Social Media Whiz. That way your internal and external online voice are always consistent. 

The Researcher is your trusted source for data and case studies to support and provide input on your goals, objectives and deliverables. At the end of the day, ROI still matters and they’ll let you know if you made it. They’ll have to work with the Cheerleader to make the data accessible and relatable to your stakeholders, though.

The Big Picture Planner helps with community connections to past, current and future projects to ensure a lasting outcome. In many rural communities, key planning positions don’t even exist so look for people that are always thinking about the next step and higher purpose of individual activities.

The Politician yes, we all need one! This can be an elected official who is a champion for the project or an enthusiastic community member who is committed to attending public meetings to give input, listen and disperse information.

Local Champions are locals who have a relationship with your stakeholders. They know how to speak their language, what’s at stake when there’s uncertainty and can personalize your goal. They may already be overtapped, so it’s best to use them as a sounding board, information distributor or planner rather than a worker bee.

The Financial Wizard checks all of the idealists with hard financial facts of what you can actually accomplish and afford. They should also be creative in connecting to resources and leveraging every dollar.

The Realist is often the same as the Financial Wizard, and will respectfully check everyone’s enthusiasm with what’s actually possible in their community or network.

If you have no one at hand, always start with your Industry Partners. It’s worth the time to find the ones that really jive with your experience. Over time, you’ll build a network of trust and mutual support based on the shared experience of your industry.

I originally left the Cat Herder off of the list but it has turned out to be vital to every project. This person ensures that all members of the leadership team share resources, communicate and move cohesively through the project in their respective swim lanes. The cat herder is also always looking for new team members to fill gaps that emerge.
I always fell into the “cat herder” role but I’ve realized that it authentically fits with my personality and values. If you find yourself in this role, take time to nurture other roles that interest you, too; for me, that’s squirreling away to research and collect data so that I can gauge progress. The responsibility of acknowledging every member of the leadership team as a leader in their own right and recognizing them for that also falls to you.

Wherever you are as a leader, take time away from all of those “cats” to take care of yourself. This is doubly-true in our new normal where life changes almost daily. At the end of the day, personal leadership and building or participating in a strong leadership team only works if you are sound and healthy. That’s certainly an ongoing journey for me, but I’m getting there, one hike, book, visit, free hour and bite of the proverbial elephant at a time.
At the August 17th The Power of We webinar join panelists: Stephanie Amend, Katharina Papenbrock and Heather Barron to discuss Defining A Balanced Focused Way. Held at noon register free here. 

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