What is leadership?
It’s essential to every successful organization, but leadership carries different meaning to everyone, and manifests in ways many of us don’t consider. As part of Ripple Effect’s Leadership Month, we recently sat down with some of our senior leadership to learn about the qualities, practices, and traits that they admire in great leaders, both inside and outside of Ripple, strategies they’ve learned, and the value of investing in growth and development of junior employees.
Meet Our Roundtable
See yourself in any of our senior leaders? Inspired by something you read? Connect with them on LinkedIn—their bios are linked below.
Bambo Bamgbose, Chief Financial Officer
Amy Bielski, President and Chief Executive Officer
Jessica Escobedo, Director of Science Policy
Amy Hein, Director of Scientific Workforce
Timothy La Rose, Director of Communications & Outreach
Patrick McCarthy, Director of Strategic Growth
Jennifer Pohlhaus, Chief Operating Officer
Kristy Riordan, Director of Research & Evaluation
Welcome to the Roundtable! Let’s get right into it. What is the most important quality of a great leader? Why?
Jennifer Pohlhaus: Humility. As leaders move up in levels, we get more removed from the day-to-day activities of the people we lead. This means we’re wrong about the details more often! Being OK with being wrong is at the core of humble leadership. And taking that one step further, it’s not simply being OK with being wrong, but welcoming others to tell you when you are wrong and where you can improve. You can only do this with humility.
Amy Hein: Agreed with humility. To be confident in what you know, you also need to be aware of what you don’t know. Everyone can teach us something.
Jessica Escobedo: I put being a good listener right at the top of the list. When you lead by listening, you’re underscoring the idea that everyone has important things to say. Great listeners can take all the different things they hear and coalesce them into a united vision.
Amy Bielski: Having a strong vision. That’s having a clear picture of where you want to go, but an original and specific approach for how to get there. And then communicating that well for everyone to buy into.
Patrick McCarthy: Confidence in their own abilities. A leader should encourage and enable their team to learn, grow and advance, and want their team to one day be more successful than they are. That’s when a leader has done their job. But that’s not possible if a leader is unsure of their own abilities and holds others back as a result.
Kristy Riordan: Fairness. If your people feel they aren’t treated fairly and work isn’t assigned fairly, it’s hard to form trust and camaraderie.
Bambo Bamgbose: Absolutely. It’s setting the tone for how to treat people. Culture is the most sustaining pillar of any business, so it’s important to be a great ambassador and inspire others to do the same.
Timothy La Rose: Remembering that we were all once junior, too. People progress quickly, and some of the best ideas in my career were ones that I made happen because of—and despite—my supervisors.
Timothy: Don’t tell anyone. But absolutely. Let’s keep finding ways to encourage the junior staff to share their ideas.
Who is a leader you either look up to now, or admired at the beginning of your career?
Timothy: There are so many! Jeffery Sachs, he always speaks truth to power. Benjamin Franklin—a printer, writer, diplomat, scientist, inventor, and statesperson, and he never took himself too seriously. Samantha Power, one of the most incredible communicators I’ve ever heard.
Kristy: I’ve been lucky to have a lot of strong female leaders, which is unusual for the types of jobs I’ve had. I really admired the project manager I worked under in the Army—her ability to command respect in an environment where that’s difficult. She helped teach me the importance of fairness and being sensitive to people’s lives outside work.
Bambo: I’ve always been inspired by Nelson Mandela—his resilience, perseverance, and imagination for a better world. And Barack Obama, who channeled a positive vision of hope and change into every aspect of his leadership.
Jennifer: My graduate school advisor, Kenneth Kreuzer, is a great mentor and leader. After I had already completed 4 years of graduate school, I was debating whether to stay in or leave the PhD program. I saw how Ken interacted with students and collaborative culture he built, however, and it was clear to me how respectful he was of everyone, regardless of their level. That inspired me. So I switched to his lab, and I finished out the program 2 years later!
Patrick: I had a college professor that challenged my thinking, challenged my abilities, and positioned me for leadership roles that stretched my areas of interest. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It allowed me to see may different sides of things and broadened my perspective. And it humbled me.
Kristy: [Laughing] Really?
Patrick: Not totally, Kristy. But at least that’s what I think those who know me would say. Humble enough to be thoughtful about how I approach new opportunities and respectful of learning about new topics before assuming things.
What have you learned about leadership while at Ripple Effect?
Kristy: In three years here, I’ve learned how to manage effectively at a fast pace. Government contracting can be a bit frantic, so learning to set high standards for your people and products, but keeping time and resources in mind so expectations are realistic.
Bambo: Leaders need to have the ability to imagine. Failure to imagine is how you avoid success. And being able to embrace change, and adapt yourself to circumstances bigger than you.
Amy Bielski: I stay out of the weeds because I trust our talented leaders to deliver great work. It’s important challenge our people to think differently and question status quos, because that’s how we discover better ways to work and perform
Jennifer: There are so many styles of leadership that can be effective! I first realized this when we got large enough to have Division meetings. When I started attending the division meetings, I saw how each division director communicates information out to their entire team, and how they did that in ways that made sense for them and for their division.
Amy Hein: Leadership happens at all levels. It’s not just about the people in the top positions.
Timothy: Couldn’t agree more. I’ve learned at Ripple that leadership is encouraged at all levels at all scales. Everyone has the opportunity to lead some aspect of our work.
Jessica: At Ripple, we have a matrixed leadership structure, and I’m always impressed by the success that can be achieved when people lead collaboratively, value others’ contributions and make room for lots of diverse opinions.
Patrick: Well said, Jessica. We have a strong team of leaders, and each thinks very differently about things. Very, very differently. And that’s good! I’ve always appreciated diversity of thought, and working here has taught me to see beyond what I gauge as the norm and open myself to more ideas.
What is one leadership strategy you try to implement when interacting with people you manage?
Amy Hein: I’m a problem-solver by nature, so I really work hard to step back and ask questions to help explore what people have already thought through and developed on their own before jumping in (this is still a work in progress for me)! A bit of a Socratic leadership style, I suppose.
Jessica: There is a model that separates coaching, leading, and mentoring. We often mix those roles into a single person, and I find it’s important to think about those when someone brings an issue to me. Do they want some coaching about ways to address the issue? Do they need help seeing the bigger picture? Are they looking for some validation that they’re on the right path? If I can get at the root of what they need in that moment, I believe I do a better job of supporting them as individuals and team members.
Jennifer: Having crucial conversations (Amy Hein wrote a great piece on this!) It can be easy to avoid hard conversations, but that doesn’t really help anyone. I encourage everyone to talk to one another and have the hard talks that serve to build trusting relationships over time. Our willingness to do this at Ripple Effect is what has helped us develop a strong, collaborative culture.
Timothy: Although it wasn’t called this at previous companies, I value stretch goals. Giving people a chance to challenge your assumptions about their limits is very important.
Kristy: Putting a lot of trust in people who work for me. We set this tone from the top down at Ripple. You’re trusted to get your work done, but your schedule and the hours that you work are really up to you. No one needs to be asking where you are—I trust that you’re getting it done, and if you’re having trouble you’ll let me know.
Patrick: I provide a LOT of transparency to my team. I want each staff member to have context for what they are doing. Why are they doing it? How should they do it? What comes after the thing they are working on?
Timothy: That’s so important. Sharing the big vision and broader strategy makes it easier for people to fit in.
Patrick: Exactly. I’ve always felt more ownership of my own activities if I had answers to those questions, and I try to cultivate that same sense of ownership with my team. I feel like my team appreciates knowing how the work they do fits into the bigger picture. Then it’s just not a task—it’s part of something greater.
What is your favorite quote on leadership? Why did you pick it?
Bambo: “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” –Eleanor Roosevelt. Stepping outside your comfort zone brings out dimensions of your character and personality that may have been hidden before. So it’s overcoming self-doubt and learning about yourself, so that you can better teach others.
Jennifer: Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” This quote is the ethos of our business as consultants. And it’s important for leaders to listen to the other smart people in the room.
Timothy: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”—Max DePree. I love this quote because it accurately expresses how leaders often serve multiple roles. Not just to sit back and tell everyone what to do, but to set a vision with the help of the team, and then roll up their sleeves.
Kristy: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” —Norman Schwarzkopf. Intent is important: If you’re not coming from a place of authenticity and care for making something better, then it doesn’t matter what your strategy is.
Amy Hein: Abraham Lincoln: “Never assume malice when ignorance is plausible.” It’s so easy to tell yourself a story about someone else’s intentions. So I remind myself to always give people the benefit of the doubt and actually ask about their true intention before assuming it.
Patrick: This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along…
Bambo: Where’s this going?
Patrick: Bear with me. The priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
Bambo: Ah! I love that.
Jessica: So this is more of an old joke than a quote, but I think it’s an important leadership message nonetheless. “One manager says to another, ‘What if we invest all this time in training our people and then they leave?’”
Amy Bielski: [Laughs] This question makes me lose sleep!
Jessica: So the other manager says ‘But what if we don’t, and they stay?’” I think this captures a couple of fundamental truths about leadership: First, your people are everything. If you’re not investing in them, you’re bound to fail. And second, good leaders are looking at all sides of the problem. It’s easy to only see the negative: the high cost of investing in someone who leaves. But when you flip it and realize it will be much more costly to keep people you haven’t invested in, then you’re thinking like a leader who is considering the big picture.
What’s the value of investing in the development of junior employees?
Jennifer: Junior employees are our future, so the value of investing in them is exponential!
Timothy: Agreed—junior employees are future leaders. Their motivation, insights and perspectives are a huge resource for any company, especially in communications. They should be allowed—even encouraged—to make mistakes trying new things. Some of the best creations of humanity have come from mistakes.
Patrick: A leader is only as good as their team. Growth requires teaching, encouraging and mentoring staff. I try to position every staff member for their next position up because if they grow, I grow.
Jessica: We invest in the development of our staff because we want them to be successful, personally and professionally! Like Timothy said earlier, I think we all remember being junior in our roles and just learning the ropes. It’s so much easier to perform at your best when you feel supported and like making mistakes is okay.
Amy Hein: It shows your commitment and belief in them and it’s great when they can choose and see their own growth, too.
Kristy: You want people to feel valued and like they can grow in an organization. Even if junior employees spend just a few years here, we want them to be stronger and grow here, because that’s just good business and a good people practice.
In a remote-work, virtually connected world, how do you lead effectively with less face-to-face contact?
Jessica: I spend time getting to know people as individuals. If you’re leading a remote team, you have to put a little more time and effort into that because you don’t have opportunities for those conversations in the office.
Amy Hein: Right—it’s finding other ways to connect with people. I find I talk to people on the phone a lot more and try and rely on email less. Cards and even texts can be a personal way to connect with folks.
Jessica: It’s that personal touch. You really have to ramp up your communication efforts and make sure everyone knows what’s going on and feels like they can communicate with you when they have concerns.
Kristy: Making sure that you build solid relationships with staff so that even if people can’t have face to face time, there’s protected time and it’s not an afterthought. And making sure you have the technology in place to keep people included if they aren’t on site.
Jennifer: Communicating over email isn’t always easy, so establishing that culture of collaboration and trust is such a key step.
Kristy: Totally. I’ve been in environments where people feel like second class citizens, and feel like they don’t have access to resources. So, equal access is important.
Timothy: It’s important to be proactively available. Ping staff members occasionally and check in regularly—tailor the frequency to each employee. As a leader, you do need to be able to pick up the phone at odd hours, too.
What lesson(s) do you hope to pass down to the next generation of leaders?
Amy Hein: Don’t try to emulate someone else; instead, be the best you, you can be. Play to your own strengths, develop those, and find where they are valued.
Jennifer: You have to figure out what style works for you, and it might not be the same as someone else’s. To Amy H’s point, emulating other great leaders can be a great start, but the more important step is to be confident in yourself and let your own style shine through.
Jessica: I agree. It’s really important to me that people understand that there are different types of leaders and that many different leadership styles can be successful. Culturally, Americans see a lot of examples of “single visionary at the top” type leadership that tends to favor dominant extroverts. But there are lots of other leadership styles, especially here at Ripple Effect.
Patrick: Absolutely. And it’s worth mentioning that we all learn from one another’s strengths. I probably fit one of those extrovert models Jessica mentions, but I’ve learned how to adapt that for different situations and teams. Accepting that some styles work better with different audiences. It’s made me a better manager and leader.
Jessica: Well said. I hope that up-and-coming leaders will see the value in leading in a way that fits their style, since being authentic is a critical quality for good leadership.
Timothy: Take the tough jobs early on in your career. Go to the field, see the world, or work on the hard stuff before you have life obligations that make it more difficult to gain practical, hands on experience that you can later draw on.
Amy Bielski: Every experience, both good and bad, is an opportunity to learn
Kristy: Be patient with yourself. It takes time and effort to grow in areas that aren’t necessarily technical – like meeting with clients, or negotiating a deal, interfacing with employees. Soft skills are what make great leaders, and they don’t happen overnight. It takes experience—and failure.
Bambo: I second that! Failure is a part of learning and growing.
Kristy: You bet. We all want to strive to get to the next level as quickly as we can, but it’s important to remember there’s a learning curve. Be patient with yourself and you’ll get there.
That’s all! Thanks so much for sitting down with us and sharing your stories.
We hope you found this Roundtable fun, engaging, and helpful. Please comment with any questions you have, and if you see yourself as a leader and future Rippler, please visit our Careers page and apply for an open position. We’ll see you next time!