Leadership Moments with Kim Arellano

Here at AchieveForum, we talk a lot about leadership moments. We talk about how each employee will face a leadership moment at some point, and that regardless of role or rank, all employees need to be equipped for it when the time comes.

So what exactly is a leadership moment?

In this series, we’ll talk to our colleagues, partners, and industry professionals to answer this question and delve deeper into what constitutes leadership and how our peers have faced these leadership moments in their own journey to success.

We kicked off this series by sitting down with our own Executive Consultant, Kim Arellano.

You can listen to this interview in podcast form on the Leadership Roundtable.

Nicole Muto: Hi, I’m Nicole Muto, a marketing manager based out of our Boston office. Today I’m joined by one of AchieveForum’s Executive Consultants, Kim Arellano. Hi Kim, thanks for joining us.

Kim Arellano: Hi, thanks for having me.

NM: Of course, we’re so happy to have you on and launch this leadership moments series. Let’s start by having you introduce yourself and maybe give a bit of a background here with your role at AchieveForum, how long you’ve been here, and where your area of expertise is.

KA: I’m Kim Arellano as you mentioned, I’m an Executive Consultant and what an Executive Consultant does is a bit ambiguous. We’re really here to work with the clients and work with their organizations to think about leadership and to think about leadership in context of where the organization wants to go and how leaders are going to play an important role in getting there. We help the clients think through structure, process, audience modality – in how they can best get their folks to that leadership state that will make them successful. So my role is to facilitate that conversation, to bring ideas, to be a thought partner, and to be very curious and ask a lot of questions. I’ve been with AchieveForum for – oh my – I think I’m having an anniversary soon. It might be six years at the end of this month. I came from an organizational development background, and before that I was a Regional Sales Manager for a large telecommunications company, so I’ve actually been in those roles and look forward to teaching in those roles in that world, so I’m very excited to be here – this is my passion.

NM: That’s awesome and really great to hear. You and I actually got to work together recently on a piece that we wrote about the generational gap and how to bridge that and that’s sort of your area of expertise… I think when we think leadership moments, in the traditional sense, you know, there’s a hierarchy and that’s just not the case anymore. Everyone in different generations and cohorts are facing these moments, so I think it’ll be interesting to frame our conversation around this.

NM: So let’s get into it. We talk a lot about leadership moments here, and I’m sure you’ve seen it on our site and in our content. We really want to help define this concept for our listeners and readers and really give people an idea of what a leadership moment is. With that being said, I’d love to get your definition of ‘leadership moments’ in your own words.

KA: Yeah, so if we separate out those two words, you have the word leadership and you have the word moment, and together it sounds like those moments in times when we actually are leading and I would argue that that’s not really what we’re thinking of when we say leadership moments. We lead all the time, whether we’re leading with positive influence or negative influence or ambivalent influence. We’re always leading. So when I think of leadership moments, I think it’s that opportunity when there is a moment when we are leading when we notice or feel that something has shifted and changed – positive or negative. So a leadership moment could be when you get feedback in a client conversation, or feedback in a conversation where they feel really inspired or helped by your leadership; or conversely, you may have a moment where you get off a call and go “ugh, that didn’t feel right”. So those are leadership moments. I think those are the times when we have that emotional connection and presence of our impact of our leadership on somebody else. So that’s how I think of leadership moments.

NM: I really like that, and I completely agree. I think a leadership moment isn’t always a time when you’re in charge or have to take the reins. It’s not necessarily about leading [in a traditional sense] but more about developing your leadership style and how you can be successful and I think that’s a really important point that you brought up there – that it’s how you show up.

KA: Right, I think we often go through our day in this kind of autopilot moment, just in a state of being which is perfectly fine. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. But that pivotal leadership moment is almost when we have that schism again, both positive and negative, where we become somewhat conscious or we should be conscious of our impact when we’re really demonstrating and we’re really impacting others.

NM: Exactly. Can you think of a moment in your own career or life – anything you’ve faced thus far – that has stuck out or shaped the way you operate?

KA: I try to think of this everyday – “what were my leadership moments of the day?”. So there’s so many to count, and you know, I talk about this idea of how we learn and how we grow and you know, take the example of when did you learn humility? Did you learn it in one fell swoop? Did you take a computer-based program on it? Are you humble? Have you been humiliated? It becomes very layered. And so when you start to think of the idea of humility as a leadership behavior, where does it apply in those leadership moments? I think that’s an important one because often our egos protect us very successfully and that’s the way it’s supposed to be if we didn’t have good, strong egos.

KA: We might not be as successful as we are so that ability to self-reflect, see the positives in ourselves, and go forth into the world, but that balance and that tool of humility comes into play and helps us really grow and develop as people. So when I think of a leadership moment, there’s a time specifically that I remember sitting across from someone who I very much respected, who was a wonderful peer and mentor, and I was sharing my frustration and I remember saying, “I’ve said this over and over again. I’ve drawn charts and graphs – you know, I’ve done everything to try and get my point across just short of interpretive dance.” And I remember her looking across the table and saying, “Well, maybe it’s not the people you’re trying to get your point across to. Maybe it’s your delivery. Maybe it’s your message. What are you missing? Not in terms of your delivery, but in terms of what you’re delivering.” I call that humility because there is often this leadership moment where we’re taking charge and we know the way and we think, “Oh, we’ve got this, we’re moving forward”, and you know, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and trudging forward and that moment of reflection and humility that offers us that gift to reflect and serves us that opportunity to think a lot deeper and connect a lot more.

KA: When I think about that leadership moment, it was all emotion and I would profess that leadership in its essence is an emotional thing. It’s not a cognitive thing. We move forward through this life really taking charge and being inspirational and all of those kinds of things and when we think about our leadership moments, humility is one that I really value because that reminds me that it’s so much deeper than me and my skills and my leadership and how I move through the world – it’s so multifaceted when I’m actually conscious of leading it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s what I do every single day. It’s how I hold myself. It’s how I converse with others. It’s how I think about things and how open I am and there’s tons of others right? There’s communication there. Ask yourself, “Do I feel right? Do I feel great?”. Sometimes I come away from conversations thinking, “I probably shouldn’t have said that, even though I meant it”. Where was it coming from? Was it coming from a place of my own ego, or was it coming from a place of humility and true understanding for, you know, being a leader in how we approach and move through things.

NM: I completely agree – I’ve had those negative moments [of doubt] myself. I’ve had a similar moment in my own career of those feelings of, “I don’t know how else I can say or do this” and it really is a moment where you have to decide, okay I need to take a step back and see how I’m not communicating well, or I can just dwell in my frustration. That moment helps you grow and shapes your leadership style.

NM: That example actually reminded me of something we discussed while we were working on the generational gap blog post. You had taken part in an open discussion where a Baby Boomer manager was lamenting that her younger report was questioning her leadership style and her decisions. Her employee was saying, “Oh why do you do this? Why do you do it like that? Have you thought of doing x, y, and z?” The Boomer took it offensively, where as a Millennial manager was seeing it through the lens of, “Oh, she just wants to understand the process. How did you get from a to b? She just wants to orient her way of thinking for next time.” It was two completely different takes on the same situation, and it’s a perfect example of those leadership moments that I think really tie into your idea of humility and that being a time where you need to step up and figure out how you’re going to lead, what you’re going to change, and how you’re going to relate to your team – it can’t be, you know, your own ego getting in the way.

KA: Yeah, I think again, I think we have these all day – even if you’re not in a leadership position. Even when people aren’t technically reporting to you, it’s important to be cognizant of what you put out there from an emotional perspective in terms of your leadership. Because people are always watching and they’re going to take cues. They’re watching to see if you’re listening, if you’re understanding, and I think a leader can be extremely successful if they suspend that “I need you to understand me” moment, which is where a lot of the miscommunication comes from. The example you gave was perfect.

KA: You know, the Boomer wanted to be understood that “this is the way things work – I need you to understand me on that”. And the Millennial was like “this is how we collaborate, I need you to understand there’s nothing nefarious about what I’m trying to do”. It wasn’t until there was a suspension of what you really need to listen to, what somebody else means, that’s where leadership comes from and the outcome is almost irrelevant and I’ve used this example before for myself. There are times when I said what I wanted to say and I felt awful after I got my point across. I got the results I wanted, but I felt icky and then there’s those times when it was a hard message to deliver, and it was a hard conversation to be had and I came out on top of that. It wasn’t the result I wanted, it wasn’t how I wanted it to end but I felt very good about the conversation and I felt very good about the long-term trust. I was building a relationship with that person, and you can sense it and feel it. Those are leadership moments and what you choose to do and how you react is really important. I think in terms of leadership development, the more we can spend time connecting those emotions and feelings to our behaviors, then you start to get almost proactive. You start to see the situation in a different light.

KA: Instead of jumping in with a knee-jerk reaction, you give yourself some time and space to think it through and go, “Okay, if I do it this way, if I suspend my ego for a minute and try to understand where this person is coming from, I know that in the end – regardless of the outcome – we’ll have such a stronger relationship because of it”. That’s going to help in the long run. The more you can experience that, the more you can exercise self-reflection, you can thrive in those moments and become a better leader. So when we talk about leadership moments here, that’s what we’re trying to instruct – how can we put our clients and our customers and ourselves into as many of those leadership moments where we’ve got the cognitive brain and the emotional brain working together to think things through. How do I act? How do I react and how can I anticipate where someone’s going to go based on my experiences and my reflections and change the outcome to something even better.

NM: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s a really important part, in leadership moments, but in a general sense in your career. You need to have those soft skills and the interpersonal skills to connect with people and take that step back. I know we’ve talked about this before, but I would love to hear your opinion on those soft skills and how you can build them up and get to a point where, when these moments arise, you know how to handle it in this way, versus your ego acting up and taking control.

KA: So that’s an awesome, excellent question and I think if you can figure it out so it works for everybody, you can retire very rich.

NM: I think so too.

KA: You know, it’s very different for everybody and I think that’s the one big mistake we make is that a leadership behavior is a leadership behavior and that we need to teach everybody those behaviors. I would argue that everybody is different and that everybody has a natural leadership behavior that helps them, and a natural leadership behavior that becomes their Achilles heel. And not only is there a strengths and weaknesses conversation, but there’s also this development over time and how your experiences have led you to rely on other leadership behaviors versus, you know, some of other types of behaviors one over the other and so in terms of “how do you develop those soft skills?”, I think that in my opinion, that’s a whole reflection – that opportunity to think back and think through my experiences and say, “when did this happen and how did it happen and how did it help me? How did that hinder?”.

KA: I would say that’s extremely valuable when someone is ready to get that honest, wonderful feedback from another person and when we think of feedback we almost cringe, we think “oh – these are the things I’ve done wrong, this person can gently help me change what I’m doing wrong”. I would almost say we have to think the opposite. We have to approach it from what we call appreciative inquiry. Ask, “What do you do right? What do I appreciate about you, Nicole, as a leader? What are some things I see in you that if did more, or really knew how great you were, you can do it even better”. That appreciative inquiry component as it relates to leadership development is incredibly valuable. What it says is that we’re not faulty, we don’t always have to completely fix ourselves to be a good leader. It actually says in some ways we’re great leaders already, we just need to polish the diamond and play with it a bit more. We need to lead with the things that we’re good at and mitigate the things that we’re not so it’s very individual – not only in terms of who we are, but in terms of where we’re at.

KA: So if I’ve been a leader for 20 years in an organization, and I know it’s successful and I know how to make things successful, that’s a different conversation than someone who is fresh out of college and just jumping into this, where you’re really starting to see where their leadership is emerging and how they got there. I think you should still focus on the positive, on the good aspects of leadership and how to do that more and how to replace some of the things that get us in trouble but how we get there from leadership development I think is a little bit different. I think the reflective component is maybe a lot deeper and based on experience. And in some cases, you may be undoing years and years of behaviors that may have once been successful that are no longer successful. So for that person, there’s a lot of one-on-one coaching and a lot of opportunity to reflect and think more deeply and maybe for the person who’s just starting out, leadership development is more of an awareness. Here’s some of the components, here’s some things you can play with, here’s how you can start to develop some of these experiences. Here’s how you can start to work with different generations, or here’s how you can start being a collaborative leader. So you’re trying to get as many experiences and then there’s everywhere in between. So I don’t know if that answered your question at all other than a common denominator and all of it is to recognize your individuality as a person. Figure out what your leadership skills are, what your genius is, and make it shine.

NM: I think you answered the question and you didn’t, but it was a perfect response because you’re right, there really is no one-size-fits-all solution. As a Millennial myself and where I’m at in my career, learning all of that new information and figuring out where it fits into my own leadership style is vastly different than a more establish colleague like yourself. I think that’s a really interesting point, is that no matter what point you’re at in your career, you’re going to face a leadership moment. The difference is in your response to it. Whether you’re just starting out, or you’re in the middle, or you’re at the top – there’s all different types of moments and figuring out how you’re going to react is what makes it a leadership learning moment.

KA: You know, I contemplate what we think when we think about leadership. So I talked about it in terms of context, of individual leadership, and where you are in your career and in time, and I’ve been toying with this idea of thinking through leadership and leadership moments and behaviors also from the aspect of a peer group versus leading folks that are on that typical hierarchy. So on paper, you’re getting paid to lead, right? And I remember in my research, I was asking the question of, “Where did you learn your leadership behaviors?” and most people would answer, “I learned it from a coach”, or “I learned it from reading books, from myself”. I don’t really think I heard anybody say, “I learned leadership from watching people that report to me” or “I learned leadership from working with my peers and recognizing how my leadership style blossomed”.

NM: That’s super interesting that you say that. I’m just thinking about that now in my own context, and I’ve honestly learned a lot from my peers and my direct managers. It’s just not the first that comes to my mind, at least, when I think of leadership development. So now I’m thinking, “Oh, where did I get this information?” and most of it has been learned from watching my peers or my superiors, or interacting with them myself. My interpersonal skills have just been developed from my own relationships, whether it be my career or just my life in general. I don’t think I ever thought of it that way.

KA: So sitting in that reflection, then you start to think differently about what was it that made me a successful or not successful leader with my own peers, you know, so that pressure is almost off and gives you the opportunity to reflect even deeper on what it is that makes me an amazing leader. You start to think of the circumstances or situations. I’ll give you one. When I was 26 years old, I had a friend who was a bus driver for tours for 20-something year olds to come on and he invited me with him. It was me, an American, him, he was an American, two South Africans, and 26 Australians – and I have so many wonderful stories about this, but we won’t go into that – but I remember my first day. It’s something I’ve known about myself amongst my peers, I always take charge. I have a tendency to step forward and say, “okay guys, come on, let’s go”. That’s a strength on the one hand and a weakness on the other – let’s lead on one hand, and let’s listen on the other. But I remember getting off that bus and saying to this group, “Okay, we’re in San Diego – what are we going to do? Let’s go!” and I remember one of them looking at me and he just said, “Go where you want to go and people will follow you. Don’t worry about getting people organized, just do your thing, and if you’re by yourself, who cares?”.

KA: I’ve remembered that lesson forever, and it’s a silly lesson, but it was so true. It was that there are people who lead and there are people who follow, and then the followers will lead and the others will follow. It’s the way we interact with our peers and if you’re thinking about your life and moving through life not as “I have to get these people to follow me” but as “I’m looking for the best experience, I want to enjoy life and have a good time and have fun”, people will naturally want to follow you. They’ll want to be part of the conversation and the journey without you having to be conscious or organized around getting people to think this way or that way. That was a lesson I learned from my peers, not a lesson I learned from people who reported to me or I reported to. It’s one that I remind myself of everyday.

KA: I think from the leadership behavior perspective, as we start to teach that and explore the process of being able to think about leadership moments and how you lead your peers is something we should explore more.

NM: I think that’s just really solid life advice in general. You can take that through all facets of your career and your life and whatever you’re doing. But that’s a really important thing I think people forget about. It’s more important to lead in a way that you’re proud of and where you are genuinely doing what you want to do versus leading in a way where your only goal is to get people to follow you – it’s disingenuous.

KA: Yeah, if you’re inspirational people will want to follow you. If you know how to make people feel good, they’ll want to follow you. If you’re willing to help them find what they’re looking for, they’ll want to follow you. Ask questions like “What excites you?” or “What inspires you? How can I help you be inspired?”. That’s a leadership moment.

NM: I think that’s a perfect message to take forward in life and leadership.

KA: As a I reflect further on it, you know, what an amazing leader that Australian was. I remember his name was Dean, and I remember him now because in that moment he really saw me. And I’d known the guy for all of 15 minutes. Like I said, I remember his name. I’ve got one of his CDs – I still have it somewhere. I just have such warm, fond memories of him because in that moment, he was able to look at me and give me a piece of advice unsolicited. He had no idea how I was going to take it, but somehow he intuitively knew and when I think about what he must have become as a leader, he must be a fantastic, wonderful leader because he demonstrated that for sure. He thought, “Hey, I know what’s going to solve your problem” through truly seeking to understand me, and you just can’t do that if you’re only focusing on yourself.

NM: Yeah, I doubt he had any idea he was in a leadership moment or that it would have such a long-lasting effect, but it’s such a testament to the importance of our responses when these moments arise. These moments can really shape your career or life trajectory. This particular instance really shaped your own existence and path.

KA: Exactly.

NM: I’m really glad we got to have this conversation. You have shared some truly great moments and opened my eyes with your words of wisdom.

KA: Oh I am so glad to have had this conversation – these moments are so important to me.

Listen to this interview on the Leadership Roundtable here.

Interviewee’s Biography

Kimberly I. Arellano, PhD. is an Executive Consultant to large organizations in the area of Leadership Development – specifically the Next Generation of Leadership.  Kim has contributed to numerous blogs, articles and radio shows, most notably on NPR on the topic on Generational Leadership.  Recently, Kim’s work is featured in AchieveForum’s Building Next Gen Leaders for a VUCA World and Leadership in the Digital Age (LDA) development programs.

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