The final event of the fall 2019 Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series examined the concept of leadership. The talk was given by Natalya Leahy, a graduate of the Broad College who completed her MBA in 2006 with concentrations in both finance and supply chain management.
Leahy began her post-MBA career as an intern at Procter & Gamble, where she went on to work full-time for almost 10 years. In 2015 she was recruited by Holland America Group, the largest division of Carnival Corporation, where she serves as a Group CFO today. Leahy also makes a conscious effort to give back as both a board member for the Seattle Aquarium and as a former advisory board member for the Broad College.
Having served in a variety of management roles, Leahy focused her presentation on leadership. She told a story of how, at the age of 12, she started a community project in her hometown of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and how that experience has stayed with her.
“I came upon a fact that continues to fascinate me: the ability of an individual person to influence someone else to follow a passion, a vision that makes a difference when supported by the team,” Leahy said. She used this as the framework for the rest of her presentation.
“Leadership is all about people,” she said. “It’s the ability to draw people together for a shared vision.”
In her experience, what makes a good leader is not only someone’s industry know-how or hard skills but their ability to connect with and empower their team members. Active listening, diversity, passion, communication, delegation and feedback are the qualities and practices Leahy has found to be the most essential for effective leadership.
Leahy expressed the importance of active listening and being engaged with one’s team. She shared a story of being at home with her children and being called out by her 8-year-old for not paying attention. “Hearing is not listening,” her daughter told her. Leahy noted how much truth there is in what her daughter said. Listening involves so much more than just recollection of content. It is an act of active connection with another human being.
Leahy strives to bring people together from a variety of backgrounds. “Diverse teams always produce stronger results than homogenous ones,” she said, and gave an example of company retreat that her team takes every year. She explained how events like these break down barriers between people of different backgrounds and allow each individual to have a voice, and even challenge each other when necessary because there is a feeling of comfortability and trust.
“The winning idea is not just the idea itself but how much you stick to it and are willing to fight for it,” Leahy said. She expressed the need to have both conviction and the courage to stand by what you think it is right. “Passion is energy; it is infectious and powerful.” Leahy also noted that passion is frequently a defining factor behind successful ideas, projects and innovation.
Leahy spent a large portion of her presentation on communication, which she feels is the key to influencing others, and touched on all aspects of effective communication from direct conversation to body language. She noted the importance of informal communication, such as tone, body language and authenticity, and how people pay much more attention to this than formal communication.
Delegation is a critical skill for leaders to master. Leahy referred back to empowering a team to feel comfortable and confident in what they are doing and explained that this includes an environment where people feel comfortable to fail. Trusting your team to handle tasks allows you to focus on the big picture, she said.
Leahy explained the necessity of effective feedback and said that while many leaders have no problem taking feedback, very few are skilled at giving it. “Constructive feedback requires three components: being timely, genuine and based on fact, not just your opinion,” Leahy said. She explained how critical it is for leaders to adopt giving effective feedback because it creates an environment where all team members feel confident to do the same.