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Leading with Positivity with Kamaka Martin

Mary Rechtoris

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To build a strong pipeline of leaders, organizations should invest in training and professional development opportunities, according to this month’s Stellar Women guest Kamaka Martin. Not only is it essential to provide these resources, leaders should also have an awareness of who they are as a leader and person so they can understand their strengths, and their areas for growth.

In this episode, Mila and I caught up with Kamaka on practical tools for navigating difficult conversations and why it is important to lead with positivity.

Kamaka Martin

Kamaka Martin

Vice President of Managed Services


Mary Rechtoris: Hey, Stellar Women, fans. I'm your host, Mary Rechtoris.

Mila Taylor: And I'm your co-host, Mila Taylor. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech.

MR: Mila and I are super jazzed to be sitting down today with Kamaka Martin.

MT: Hey Kamaka! Welcome.

Kamaka Martin: So happy to be here.

MR: Happy to have you. You've been in the corporate world for about 16 years or so. Looking at leadership and what you're doing with your company, Better Insights, what are some of the biggest pitfalls you've seen companies and organizations make when it comes to selecting leaders and managers throughout their firms?

KM: There is the concept of taking an independent contributor and advancing them to a managerial role without giving a lot of thought about the structure that's needed to help them be successful in those roles. The elements of success for an independent contributor really do expand beyond what they're used to when they step into a leadership role. So, it’s about really providing some structured training. I think that is something that is lacking. The feedback that I hear from others mirrors my own experience. There may be different elements of what I do during the day to day, but how do I then communicate and measure those tasks to someone who I'm now managing? For example, each direct report brings a different set of skills and a different personality to the table. I want to make sure that I'm able to navigate those conversations in a way that's going to be beneficial to that team member, to the organization, all while presenting yourself as a leader that has a balanced approach.

MR: Digging into training, what can organizations do to build that strong pipeline of leaders?

KM: Developing an environment that focuses on retaining the talent that's in the organization through mentorship as well as additional advanced learning opportunities. This could be through professional development—whether it’s hiring a consultant to lead training sessions or offering opportunities to go out and meet other professionals in the marketplace who are like them and bringing those individuals into the organization for lunch and learns. It’s about really being intentional about providing opportunities for your employees to see what leaders look like and how different leaders approach things. I think that's really going to be key. Having a structure where the leadership team really thinks about and is being intentional about actually executing on professional development rather than letting it be an afterthought is important. I also think it's crucial because not everyone is going to automatically put their hand up and say, “I'm the next leader.” I think sometimes people need to be exposed to different kinds of leadership and given the skills to believe in themselves before they are ready to say, “Yes, I can do this.”

MT: I really like that approach of just giving them the tools as well as exposing them to different styles and methods. And I think that's probably really beneficial.

MR: Something you mentioned earlier, about not necessarily giving your individual contributors the tools they need to succeed to be a leader. In your opinion, do you think there's certain people who are better suited for leadership? Do you think everybody can be a strong leader?

KM: Having an understanding of yourself is going to be key so that you understand where your boundaries are and how you function best. Anyone can grow and be nurtured into a leader. But I think that really does require a deft understanding of your strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of knowing what your limitations are, as well as knowing the areas that you shine in. Because there are times where we might be mimicking certain behaviors because we think they are widely accepted within our organization versus taking on the persona that is true to who you are. I think that we find that a lot with women. A lot of organizations are male-led and there is this sense that women have to take on that very masculine persona, even though that may not be your default. Just really understanding who you are is going to be key. But I do think that there is an element of leadership in many people. And even though you may not see yourself as a leader, that doesn't mean that others don't see us that way.

MT: Mary and I have had the opportunity to speak to you before this, and for you, positivity is huge. You give workshops on the importance of leading with positivity. Why is it important for leaders to exude this quality? And if someone isn't necessarily like, a glass half full type of person, what are tips you have for them?

KM: I really am a strong advocate for positivity because I think about how my actions or someone else's actions are going to impact others. Even if you have a different perspective, whether it's glass half empty, really focusing on trying to see the good and what others are doing as a leader is going to be really key. If someone was communicating to me about a challenging situation, what are some of the words that they could use that would allow me to be more receptive to what they're saying? And I think about it from that perspective of if that communication was coming back to me, how would I want that communication delivered? Some of the tips that I would give someone to really harness some of that positivity is to always lead from the place of what is going well. So, if I am looking at my team and only focusing on the things I really need to work on and harping on what is not going well, you're sort of missing the mark. Instead, focus on some of the things that my team is good at and on playing to the strengths of the members of your team. Everyone is going to bring a different strength to the table and it really is going to be important for a leader to really draw out those characteristics from their team members in order for them to perform at their best. One of the tips that I always give, whether it's my direct reports at Legility or even attendees of my Lead the Way Positively workshop, is really focus on the things that your team members do well and let that be the driver for how you communicate, because you're always going to be coming at it from a place of positivity when you're looking at what you do well. And you can say, “Because you do this well, this potentially is how you can transfer that skill set to the things that you need to improve.” That would be the perspective that I would offer to someone who is really looking to lean into positivity.

MR: You said that you have [workshops for] those that are aspirational leaders or those that are new to leadership. Looking at those folks that are really new, what are some go-to tips you would give someone that's new to management?

KM: At Legility, for new team leaders and new managers, we offer a team summit. During that summit, we go over the Clifton Strengths assessment. We have everyone take this assessment beforehand, and it shows you where your strengths are across about 23 different areas. This is really key to setting a baseline. In theory, we generally all have a sense of what we’re good at, but we may not understand why. For example, you may have more of an inquisitive personality, so you approach things from the question perspective. You might be someone who focuses on solutions because you're goal-oriented. So, you’re always focusing on, how do I deliver for X? But those aren't the only things that you're good at, so doing an assessment of your skills is key to understanding the other strengths you also possess and how you can proactively lean into those as well. The other element of leadership is understanding your own coaching style. Although we are talking about being a manager, that term is a little antiquated because you are really looking to coach those who are on your teams to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Understanding your coaching style is going to be key and knowing how to apply different coaching styles depending on the personalities and the situations that you are dealing with as a leader. Those are two real baselines to start from, especially with new managers. And the other side of that, too, is really having some good go-tos for what to say when you're in a difficult situation, like how to phrase things in a way that would allow your team members to really hear what you're asking of them. Having the assessment of yourself also makes it easier for you to have that awareness of how those skills present in other people and then being able to play to their strengths. Now, you're taking that intelligence that you have, and you can now apply it in a way that is more proactive, and that's more intentional versus just kind of muddling through and trying to figure out what happens. Now, you have have tools in your arsenal that allow you to confidently say, these are some of the things that will be helpful to me as I go through my day-to-day.

MT: That's super helpful. That is some of the most practical, tangible advice.

MR: For those who have been managers or coaches [for some time], should they retake this test to see how their skillsets have changed, or what should they do to make sure that they're continuing to improve?

KM: When we go through the process of hiring or promoting new managers, we actually have any of the seasoned managers also take the strengths assessment because doing the assessment again, more likely than not, it's not going to really change because you are who you are at your core, but you may see some shifts in some skills strengthening and become more dominant over time as you expand your leadership experience. It’s natural that leaders will lean into some strengths a little bit more than others depending on their experience and as a result your strengths can shift. I would encourage seasoned managers to also consider taking those assessments, also thinking about ways to layer some of the things that they have learned throughout their experience. This is going to sound very similar to what I mentioned earlier, because the scale for assessing your coaching style is only going to shift insofar as where you are professionally. If you are junior, your experience is going to be a bit different and your frame of reference is going to be more narrow. On the other hand, if you are more seasoned, you are exposed to more and your leadership experience is going to be broader as your experience matures. Leaders should consider taking those assessments because, again, the thing that got you into a leadership role isn't necessarily the thing that you need to be doing today to be successful in your management role. Consider thinking about it from the perspective of strategy and delegation: How can you move from simply managing a team, to integrating larger principles and/or initiatives of the organization and how they are being delivered for those goals within your group? Doing the assessment is key, but also layering in the various elements becomes a lot more important. Specifically, being able to identify your strengths and weaknesses, knowing what your coaching style is and also knowing how to manage through difficult situations. Think about it as a culmination when you're more seasoned, because now you're managing up and managing across, doing a lot more from a strategic perspective and elevating those skills and using them in a more dynamic way.

MR: You mentioned going into conversations, [it’s key to] have your toolset for how you're going to say certain things and having conversations that might be awkward or tougher and being prepared. I'd love to just dive into those. What are some common conversations that might be challenging to have and how can people become prepared and do those successfully with their reports or vice versa?

KM: There are several different types of conversations that you will find yourself in as a manager. It could be a situation where you are trying to change behavior, so you are trying to provide coaching on an undesired behavior, or some aspect of a project that didn't go well. As a manager, you need to go in and have the adjustment conversation. Those conversations can be a little bit difficult for a lot of different reasons, especially when you have strong relationships with your team. You may be going from a cadence where things are going really smoothly to now having to step back and really provide some directive or coaching. During those conversations you have to be clear on your expectations, setting the tone for what the conversation is going to be about and making it very clear that the critique is about the action and the critique is not about the person. Some other types of conversations could be some of those necessary endings where you may have to transition someone off of a project. Be thoughtful about those conversations as well and really focus on being prepared. It's important that when you come into those conversations that you have done some prep work. You want to frame the conversation in a way that you have a very deft hand on the topic to be discussed so you're able to manage the unknown should it come up. Those conversations can go in multiple different directions and you want to be able to be clear on the things that you need to communicate during those conversations. And again, the prep work is really key because you want to be thoughtful when you're having the conversation. Where are you having the conversation? Should you be having that conversation alone? Do you need to bring in other stakeholders? And even in those difficult, necessary ending conversations, you also still want to let the person know that they have done good work. The assumption here isn't that it's all bad. It's just that we are at an impasse and need to make some shifts. At the same time, going back to the positive element. It's about an action and not about the person. Other difficult conversations [may entail] the ability to manage escalations within a company. That is also going to be key. You need to communicate information to a member of the organization that you don't have direct control over as a manager. You’ll want to come into those conversations being very prepared and do the legwork to understand the historical knowledge behind the thing you are escalating. I would say have a timeline of events and be thinking about what proposed solutions you want to come to the table with as well as layering in negotiation 101 skills to identify the win-win. The goal is to deliver the message in a way that's focused on resolving the issue while preserving the relationship.

MT: Again, such practical tips and so helpful.

MR: I think Mila and me, we've talked about this on the podcast: You can't be prepared for every answer that a report may have, but it’s important to do your homework. Then, you can answer to the best of your ability and then [if you don’t know the answer] respond like, “Hey, I don't know, but I'll find out.”

KM: What I also encourage is that when you walk away from those conversations that you're clear. If you're going to have a difficult conversation, you only want to do it once. So, when you're walking away, you want to make sure you're clear on expectations going forward and that you have buy-in, right? You're clear on what I'm communicating and also, you're clear on the expectations going forward.

MR: Switching gears a little bit … For Stellar Women, Mila and I are really passionate about elevating female leaders in the field, especially being in two very male dominated fields and just diversifying the field in general. And I saw on JD Supra, you are one of the authors on an article about the importance of diversifying the legal profession and some of the pitfalls for those who don't make this a priority. So just based on your expertise, for organizations that aren't making this a priority, what are some of those repercussions? What are they missing out on?

KM: You're really limiting the creativity of your team when you have a mono perspective. If you only have white males who are of a certain age, they are going to have a very similar experience versus a woman of the same age who might have a different perspective or a person of color of that same age who might have a different perspective. Having those diverse voices and experiences at the table elevates and diversifies the types of suggestions that are brought to the organization. The other element is retention. If you are not being intentional about diversifying your organization or having diversity of thought, there is this sense that you are limiting an employee's ability to grow. This is because their exposure is also limited because of your limitations. They may not feel heard. They may not have mentors that look like them. There may not be this sense that as an organization that diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the forefront of how we function in our day to day. If I do not see inclusivity, I'm going to seek that out elsewhere. For organizations who are being very thoughtful about that, I'm sure it can impact retention and it could also impact your clientele. Clients are being very thoughtful when they send in their RFPs, they want to know the makeup of your organization. Is it representative? Am I going to be working with a diverse group of individuals on projects or on cases that your organization might be managing? There are downstream impacts and there's also science and research that shows that it can impact your bottom line as well if you're taking a very narrow perspective of what your workforce looks like.

MR: I love how you are giving practical advice. For listeners out there who want to diversify their teams or their companies, but don't know where to start, what advice would you give to them?

KM: There has to be buy-in from your stakeholders. Have an open conversation with your organization about what it means to infuse diversity into your culture. One of the things that Legility has done is really taking a stance on forming a task force. Our diversity, equity, and inclusion task force works to understand the landscape of the organization and think about which aspects of the company would benefit from taking a closer look at how things are done. We are really investing in our DNI initiative. So, putting some financial resources behind that is going to be key because you don't just want another committee, right? You want an action-based organization that's really going to be focusing on delivering for your entire organization. We want to certainly be thoughtful from that perspective. Also, go out and have a third-party assessment of what your organization looks like. Having an unbiased perspective is going to be key. Naturally, if we see that no one is complaining, then the assumption is that everything might be fine, versus getting the pulse of the organization itself and understanding what that really means quantitatively. Now, for law firms, there are other certifications and programs that are more formal, such as the Mansfield Rule. What that is about is providing a framework to allow for different cross sections of diversity, equality, and inclusion. Think about the organization's makeup and requirement. For lawyers, that could be that 30 percent are women or 20 percent are people of color or LGBTQ, and then extending that further to individuals with disabilities. Think about what structures are already out there to help provide support. There is also the Diversity Institute, and that is another organization to tap into. There's also the SHRM Institute. That is also another organization that helps you frame what you need to do to create a blueprint to boost diversity within your organization. There is the organizational self-assessment, which I think is really key, but there's also that third-party perspective. There are so many frameworks out there that will allow you to do this in a thoughtful way. Those would be some of the suggestions that I would recommend.

MT: I really like that one nugget about not just being another committee, but having people dedicated to action. Because people can sit in a room and talk about how great diversity is all day long, but someone actually has to do something about it.

MR: And have the resources to do something.

KM: When we were starting this process, I met with several consultants and leaders in the space. That was the resounding feedback: If you are going to do this, make sure that there is a task force that is financed, because you want to be able to do actionable things within the organization. Everyone who is participating in this is coming from various parts of the organization and we have to be thoughtful that they're taking time out of their day to day to help with the success of this initiative. And what is an initiative if you don't have goals or milestones that you can work towards with actionable, tangible results behind it? It's been a very exciting time at Legility and a very interesting time within our country. I think that a lot of these conversations are certainly at the forefront. There are so many resources that are available to those who are really dedicated to being successful at boosting their diversity initiative.

MT: I mean, I've definitely said this at least 10 times now, but you've just given such practical, great, tangible advice. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. We really enjoyed chatting with you.

KM: It's been really awesome, so thank you so much for this. It has been the highlight for me. So, I want to say thank you. This has been awesome.

MR: It is my highlight as well. Good vibes. And, for Stellar Women, I’m Mary Rechtoris.

MT: And I'm Mila Taylor.

Both: Signing off.

Mary Rechtoris is a senior producer on the brand team at Relativity, where she's always collaborating and looking for new ways to develop and socialize stories.