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Lead With Character: A Q&A With Retired Lt. Gen. Nadja West

Retired Lieutenant General Nadja West (middle) spoke at NECA 2020 LIVE on Oct. 8.

Lieutenant General Nadja West’s career has been one of overcoming adversity. She is the first African American three-star general in Army history, and the highest-ranking woman to ever graduate from West Point. She has more than 20 years of executive leadership experience, crisis management and disaster response. West spoke about leadership tactics and effective ways to lead people through uncertain times.

"Uncertain times? No doubt, and no more than ever we need good leaders," West said in her keynote address at NECA 2020 LIVE on Oct. 8.

West spoke with our staff about effective ways to lead during crises and shared tips for breaking barriers and overcoming personal and professional challenges. NECA 2020 LIVE registrants can watch her talk on demand until Nov. 15.

  1. In times of crisis, people naturally look to leaders for help and guidance. What qualities and tactics do leaders need to possess to effectively motivate and help others in times of uncertainty?

I believe the qualities that leaders need to possess to effectively motivate and help others, are ones that are especially important in times of uncertainty. The overarching category of “character” captures most of them. Besides being competent in their areas of expertise, leaders must also be individuals that can be trusted by their team. They have to have integrity, properly placed loyalty, commitment to their duty to lead, the discipline to conduct themselves honorably at all times and the habit of treating everyone with dignity and respect, no matter their status in the organization.

Leaders must also be selfless in how they lead by making sure their focus is on accomplishing the mission or task at hand, improving the organization and making sure their people get the guidance, support and resources they need to be successful, and not on personal gain or self-promotion. Leaders must also possess personal courage to do the right thing, for the right reason and in the right way, even if it is hard or unpopular, or puts them at professional risk if they may be at odds with their superiors. Those of you reading this who have served in or around our Army, may recognize those as character traits codified in the Army values. I find them a great code to serve and live by. As human beings, these may seem impossible to live every second of every day, but they are definitely values to keep at the forefront to help you remain on track, and remind you of the solemn responsibility it is to lead others, especially in a time of uncertainty.

There are several attributes that I believe are important as well. Empathy is number one. Taking time to truly understand the people on your team, what drives them, what their aspirations are, what unique talents they bring, etc. is vital to building a cohesive team, especially during uncertain times. The other important attributes are agility and adaptability¾being able to flex to what the situation requires with minimal drama.

Tactics to use to effectively motivate and help others in times of uncertainty include establishing a routine time to “huddle” and provide updates on the current situation, and what the next steps are. Communication is key during these times as the rumor mill can take over if there is no information from authoritative sources. Having regular virtual meetings, even when there is no new information to put out, keeps the team connected and provides the opportunity to perform a “checkup” on how everyone is doing on a periodic basis. 

  1. How can leaders motivate themselves and those they lead to remove “I can’t” from their vocabularies?

Leaders can motivate themselves and those they lead by constantly reminding the team of what they are for. Go back to the mission and vision that describes why you exist and focus on the tasks required to support that. This is particularly useful in uncertain times. The team can lose focus as they shift to address one crisis after another. The situation may seem overwhelming and “I can’t” or “we can’t” might start seeping into the discussion. Change the dynamic from “We can’t, because...” to “We can, if...” and that can shift the team’s energy to cocreate new ways to achieve their mission if the usual avenues or ways of doing business become blocked, or the if the environment requires a new strategy to remain relevant.

  1. How can people best overcome personal and professional challenges?

Overcoming personal and professional challenges can be difficult and can take many forms. I would like to note here, that if your challenge pertains to something that is unsafe or inappropriate, be sure to get to safety, and/or enlist the help of a trusted peer or someone in authority to resolve the situation. In general, I would start by being kind to yourself. It is easy to engage in negative self-talk and put incredible pressure on yourself to perform in a situation or task. If there are external challenges, start with examining your perception. Is this a type of challenge that could be viewed as an opportunity? Does it open an avenue for you to learn something that will lead to your growth and improvement, or offer a new path that you might not have considered if the challenge hadn’t occurred? It can be difficult to remain objective when you are in the midst of it, so you can try enlisting the help of a mentor who is empowered to tell you the truth and provide frank assessments and recommendations to help you grow and improve to overcome the challenge. Facing challenges is stressful but using that stress to learn will help build resilience and prepare you to be successful in facing even greater challenges.

  1. Your story is one of breaking barriers and overcoming adversity. What are some strategies people can use to break boundaries in their own lives?

Quite honestly, many of the barriers I broke, I did not even realize I was doing it at the time. I was just focused on working hard, studying hard and doing the best job I could in every assignment I was given. I don’t think people give themselves enough credit for breaking the boundaries that they do every day. Sometimes they don’t recognize small accomplishments as breaking personal boundaries. A strategy I would suggest is to consider every time you learn something new, do something you have not been able to do before, take seconds off of your run time or score higher on a statistic you are monitoring, that you consider that breaking a boundary. Again, it may seem insignificant, but you are demonstrating to yourself that you can achieve a level you have not been in before. It gives you confidence and a victory, no matter how small. Each small victory gives you more confidence and the knowledge that you can keep going on to bigger things. There are external things you cannot control, so focus on what you can¾your discipline, desire and will. This can get you prepared for opportunities to break through. Another strategy is to identify those who are successful in an area that you are interested in, and ask them to be a mentor or give you advice on what you need to do, how to prepare and who other contacts might be to assist you on your journey.

  1. In the electrical contracting industry, many ECs are looking to tap the skills of underrepresented groups, including women and minorities. What advice do you have for members of these groups looking to join an industry that is not traditionally diverse?

I would recommend anyone in an underrepresented group interested in joining an industry that is not traditionally diverse is go for it! First, if it is your passion, do not let others dissuade you. Also, don’t talk yourself out of it by negative self-talk. (They will never pick me, I wouldn’t fit in, etc.). Next, do your homework. Learn as much about the industry as you can-what skills or qualifications are required, any courses or degrees needed, any physical fitness requirements, etc. Seek out mentors or those already in the industry to get their take on it, how they started, any pitfalls, things they wish they had done or what they would do differently. When seeking people out, choose all types. It is important to talk to people who look like you, but also engage a diverse group to get their perspectives as well. Also, if there are any conferences, trade shows or job fairs in the industry, attend if possible, to broaden your network of people to connect with, to ask questions, and get assistance with getting into the industry. Be motivated, inquisitive and persistent and your enthusiasm will be contagious and may open some doors!

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