June 24, 2019

Jayme Smithers

Bringing people together and building community: A leader’s journey

Community. What does it mean to you?

The simplest definition is a group of individuals living in the same general area. Go deeper, and community becomes a collection of people who may span the globe but share common values, ideas, norms, and identity. It’s essentially individuals united by a common purpose.

My definition of community and the power of bringing people together has evolved dramatically since I first hit the job market with a commerce degree in my back pocket and some burning ambition.

Early in my career as a sales team leader, that definition was decidedly narrow. Back then, one of my monthly staff meetings would have been scripted more or less like this: gather the team together, discuss monthly targets, hand out some MVPs, field questions, adjourn the meeting then retreat to my corner office to high-five myself in the mirror and call it an HR home run. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Fast forward 15 years, and I find myself in a drastically different leadership paradigm.

Along the way, my leadership journey has been punctuated with epiphanies and aha moments that have been humbling for a competitive guy like me who once ski raced at a national level. However, they’ve also been profoundly inspiring to the part of my personality that’s willing to learn and grow. Lessons from the leadership road inform the values of transparency, inclusivity, and diversity that I now aspire to embody every day when I got to work.

My notion of community has gone from small “c” to large “C.”

Perceived connection vs. actual connection

However, let’s return to the meeting I mentioned from years ago that was one of my earliest leadership epiphanies.

I was a manager at BusinessObjects responsible for a sales team of 100 people. After everyone had returned to their desks, I looked to one of my close confidants for affirmation that I had knocked it out of the park in terms of connecting with the team. “You really think so?” she replied bluntly. Her point: My practice of making a public show of handing out MVPs divided the room, instead of uniting people. Her honest feedback gave me that awkwardly exposed feeling, like standing in front of an audience to give a talk then suddenly realizing your fly is undone.

The disconnect between perceived connection and actual connection with my team was disconcerting. This was one of my early lessons in vulnerability and transparency as a leader.

From that point forward, I started sharing stories from the corner of the company. It was a simple yet different approach, giving voice to people other than the loud and outgoing. Baby steps for sure, but important ones to take on my leadership journey nonetheless. Of course, there have been many others that have led to my deepening awareness of the community.

The disconnect between perceived connection and actual connection with my team was disconcerting. This was one of my early lessons in vulnerability and transparency as a leader.

Busting down walls and bringing people together isn’t about finding consensus all the time on every issue. Humans are complex bundles of emotion, intelligence, values, and ideas. Giving space for this diversity makes teams stronger. People can agree to disagree when the conversation is anchored to a foundation of mutual respect and understanding of differing points of view. Conversely, disagreement based on misunderstanding and fear is toxic to organizational performance.

Today at ThoughtExchange, where both operationally and through the platform we’re selling to other leaders, it’s all about growing and harnessing community intelligence. We’re bringing people and teams together, and empowering leaders to crowdsource answers in real time and staff to become the best versions of themselves!

Please don’t confuse this with merely making people feel better—community intelligence and the new leadership paradigm are all about business outcomes, that’s for sure. However, it just so happens that by focusing on the right business outcomes in the right way, there can be an equally inspiring and motivating benefit for employees, customers, members, and communities.  

Transparent and courageous leadership

Since joining ThoughtExchange in 2017, I’ve been fortunate to share this community-building journey with many companies and organizations that have made transparency, inclusion, and diversity core to their cultures.

Take the experience of Rose Sheldon, Director of Enterprise Learning Programs for Allstate Corporation. Recently, she brought two new teams of employees into her department. Sheldon knew people can often be anxious and apprehensive when they don’t know how they will fit within a new leader’s vision, she decided to think outside the silo to ease this transition.

Using digital engagement technology, she invited members of these teams to ask her questions, and gave them space to be as personal as they wanted. Sheldon opened herself wide. The result was a fascinating exchange that delved into uncomfortable territories, such as her biggest career failures. Sheldon’s transparency, courage, and vulnerability had an immediately positive impact, removing walls before the mortar between bricks had even dried. Allstate wins, Sheldon wins, employees win.

Westview School Corporation in Indiana provides another poignant leadership example. Roughly half the district’s students come from conservative Amish families, most of whom leave school after finishing Grade 8 and then go to work. The rest of the student population continues to high school and like most teenagers are interested in pursuing higher education. Amish kids belong to families that live without electricity or electronic devices. Their classmates come from families that are deeply integrated with technology.

From a cultural perspective, they are vastly different populations. Consequently, Westview has struggled with how best to bring them together for important conversations around education and other school district business. That’s why Westview decided to take a creative approach to engagement and use a combination of digital technology and good old fashioned paper-and-pencil to send questions to these diverse communities.

Afterward, they collected the Amish paper responses and entered them into a database alongside the responses from the rest of the school community that everybody could see. The result was the beginnings of a true conversation between the two communities. Where once there was misunderstanding, prejudice, and suspicion, there is now a deeper understanding and mutual respect for ways of life that are as different as the desert is from a coastal rainforest.

These are just two anecdotes of countless that demonstrate the transformative power of bringing people together and building community. Ask any leader; once you experience a company where walls are being torn down and silos dismantled, it’s impossible to go back. Why would you want to?

Jayme Smithers
Vice President of Revenue Jayme is responsible for the Sales, Marketing, Customer Success and overall Go to Market (GTM). Jayme is passionate about ThoughtExchange because the power to engage communities and corporations with the right insight creates momentous change. Prior to ThoughtExchange, he has successfully built and scaled high performance teams by leveraging systems and processes to ensure the customer is at the heart of any decision. Outside of ThoughtExchange, Jayme enjoys the outdoors with his wife Tove, their sons Henning and Maro and their two dogs, Caesar and Gertrude. Jayme is active in philanthropic efforts and supports the Strachan Hartley Legacy Foundation www.shlf.ca where he raises donations for local charities to make a difference in the lives of youth through sport and education.

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