Leadership Lessons: “Ready to Learn, Ready to Lead, Ready for Life”

CitizenshipWhile last month’s column found leadership lessons off the beaten path, this month took me down a more likely road to a chamber member whose mission is to “train leaders with life skills for the twenty-first century by establishing strong academics, character training, and a parenting program.” Life School is a charter school with over 5600 students enrolled at campuses in Dallas and Ellis County. The school’s chief financial officer Jennifer Wilson serves as treasurer for the Midlothian Chamber board. Jennifer also offers strengths-based leadership training to business and community leaders through Primer, with profits supporting the Life School Education Foundation. In addition to many other volunteer roles in Midlothian and Red Oak, Jennifer and Life School’s administrators, like chief development officer Charles Pulliam, are collaborating with Waxahachie school and chamber leaders through The Waxahachie Project.

So what inspires Life School’s leaders to share their talents and leadership development programs with the chambers and the community? The answer is found in one of the fifteen leader profile cards developed by Life School for administrators, teachers, and students. The citizenship attribute includes “contributing to society” and encourages questions like “How can I use my strengths to serve my community?” Sharing the perspective that a rising tide raises all boats discussed in my February column, Life School leaders believe that schools and communities have to work together so that all students find a place for success. As Charles explains, “Until the dropout rates hit zero, there is room for choice in public education.”

Life School loves to invite community members into its campuses. On “Financial Literacy Day,” volunteers from the financial field teach fourth graders at every campus how to differentiate between fixed and variable costs and how to calculate a profit. Created by Life School’s finance department and math specialists, the lesson teaches two of the most commonly tested financial literacy concepts on the TEKS. More importantly, though, it instills in young students the financial literacy leadership skills critical for life. Hearing from financial professionals who are passionate about the subject creates a memorable learning opportunity for the 4th graders.

Life School also invites the business community into the learning environment through the Senior Life Projects. Every Life School senior participates in a year-long project of his or her choosing that is the culmination of leadership attributes like resilience, self-management, problem-solving, and global perspective. Students pick a “passion project” and find a mentor who is a professional in the field of study to guide their efforts. In April, the students present to a panel of judges from the community, who evaluate the students based on their effective communication, critical thinking, information literacy, and collaboration skills – all leader profiles in the Life School’s learning deck.

The time invested by community members judging the Senior Life Projects ensures that students graduate with the soft skills and leadership attributes that businesses seek in employees. By incorporating feedback from the judges into the character development and leadership programs that formed the charter for the school, Life School helps develop a future work force that matches the needs of local business. Contact Jennifer at and let her know you would love to help mold your future employees by serving as a mentor or judge for the class of 2019.

#BringingHomeTheBacon aka Pepper the Pig

March was an exciting time for our chamber, our county, and our community. We saw new partnerships and collaborations built around the idea that together we are stronger and better. Trusting that a rising tide lifts all boats (see my February column), we are creating places in our community where everyone can belong. I found my inspiration for this month’s leadership column in the leaders found in barns scattered across the largest and smallest cities of our county. Last week, those leaders young and old came together as a county in the large metal barn sitting on the highway connecting Midlothian and Waxahachie.

Lifetimes of leadership lessons are there buried in the wood shavings, etched in the metal stands, and scratched in sand-filled show rings. I could write dozens of columns trying to capture the inspiring stories of discipline, trust, teamwork, selflessness, and resilience. You would be captivated by the hardworking kids, investing love, sweat, and money preparing their animals for the show ring and learning invaluable business lessons. You would see those same lessons chiseled in the hearts of the successful business leaders pouring tens of thousands of dollars back into the youth of today, fondly remembering their own walks through those rings decades earlier. You would hear grandfathers proudly introducing the kids they sponsored through the season, still investing heart, soul, and dollars, long after their own grandchildren graduated the programs. You might catch a glimpse of the gruff ag teacher trying to slip a hundred dollar bill from his wallet into the pot of money raised by the Ellis County Women in Business to support young women at the Expo with project #bringinghomethebacon. You purposefully wouldn’t hear even a whisper from the anonymous donors, working behind the scenes to partner with that newly-formed women’s group. But, you wouldn’t miss the hootin’ and hollerin’ of those women’s determined bid to win the auction for Pepper the Pig. And you would learn that Pepper was proudly raised and shown by Heritage Freshman Allison Bevers, who tragically lost her mother Missy two years ago this month.

I’ll get back to the executive suite interviews, the library of leadership books, and philosophical discussions about leadership theory soon. For now I am still trying to absorb every last detail of the character lessons that came to life in that large metal barn, where egos are checked and generosity flows quietly from those seeking no credit for their kind and selfless acts.

As my friend Clint Almand explained, these “new” traditions of partnering the business community with the youth expo actually date back to the 1880’s when the county expos and local chambers came together as the epicenter of commerce in communities across Texas. I can’t wait to see where we go with this rediscovered powerhouse of the Ellis County Youth Expo, the Ellis County Women in Business, our school ag departments, 4H and FFA families, and of course the chambers from across the county. If you want a front row seat at the very best leadership summit around, grab your bid card and join us at next year’s show and sale. Based on the warm welcome we received this year, I promise the “regulars” will make you feel like you belong.


Photo by Ashley Fordpig

“Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore’”

Poetry and Neiman Marcus were not the topics I expected to dominate a Kim & Jenny’s breakfast with Richard and Tammy Reno. We were meeting to discuss the values driving Omega Airline Software, a technology company in downtown Midlothian. In starting the business, which provides planning tools for scheduling aircraft maintenance, Richard brought a tradition of integrity, hard work, honesty, and credibility learned early in life watching his father run an office supply business on handshakes and verbal commitments.

In order to compete, Richard appreciated that Omega had to be able to produce more functionality with fewer people. Tech companies are generally staff intensive. With a fraction of the number of employees of competitors, the people at Omega had to be productive. In order for Omega’s employees to be more productive, they would all need to take ownership. All of Omega employees are knowledge workers, who Richard contends shouldn’t be managed, but must be empowered to own their responsibilities. Finally, Omega’s technical solutions would need to be elegant. The values of productivity, ownership, and elegance are easy to remember by the acronym POE, but I needed more explanation about the elegance value.

The biggest challenge tech companies face is deployment and, specifically, communication during deployment. Grinning, Richard explains he has to be trilingual with the ability to speak the language of computers, techies, and end users, as all three have very different communication styles. How does a technology company make connections between the designers and those using the systems when conversations take place in three languages? That’s where lessons from Stanley Marcus enter the picture with his emphasis on quality craftsmanship, done with style. I still had to wonder, how does a technology company deliver elegance? According to Richard, the elegance lies in the solutions. In mathematics, he explains, the simpler the formula, the closer you are to the truth, like E=MC2. The elegant answers in technology are easy to maintain; elegant solutions solve the problem without creating new ones. Elegant answers for technology companies are achieved with the same quality, craftsmanship, and style associated with clothes and furnishings.

“Talk” is a sacred word at Omega. Face-to-face or telephone conversations count; email and social media do not. In keeping with that value, Richard and Tammy are excited to announce that their other business, Woodrow’s Coffee Shop (back alley plaza between Campuzano’s and Mo’s), will be reopening soon for community conversations. “Wednesdays at Woodrows” will kick off March 14th with an open invitation to discuss pressing issues, beginning with: “How businesses shape a community.” Doors open at 7 am, with a 15-minute speaker at 7:45 am, followed by small group conversations until 9 am. Come early or late and really talk with your neighbors. Similar discussion groups will pick up every Wednesday, along with a monthly “Speed of Trust” book club led by Jennifer Wilson. It’s a testament to what makes Midlothian special that a tech company, which adopted Poe’s raven as its mascot, is leading the charge to rebuild interpersonal relationships that enhance culture and community. Repeating “nevermore” won’t prevent growth from swallowing what makes Midlothian a special place to live and work.  Perhaps real talk with real people will uncover some elegant solutions.

Raising Each Other Up and Loving One Another

For this month’s column I sat down with Chris York and Keith Nichols, leaders at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center, a longtime chamber member. As you might predict with a faith-based organization, key values are firmly embedded in the culture at the hospital.  Keith and Chris explained that three core values influence all leadership decisions: (1) love one another, (2) welcome feedback as a precious gift, and (3) lead change.

The “love one another” value expansively includes love for teammates, colleagues, patients, families, visitors and the community in general.  By pouring love, respect, dignity and compassion into the care team, leaders like Chris and Keith are able to encourage those team members to show compassion and empathy to all patients. By offering exceptional, compassionate, and low cost care, the team shows love to patients and their families. By planning soundly and delivering a level of care that causes patients from all over the region to travel to Ellis County for their care, the hospital is able to bless the community through contributions  to local schools, nonprofits and other worthy causes. As a reminder of his commitment, hanging in Chris’s office is the Vince Lomardi quote: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” All team members at Baylor Scott & White are coached to be “infuriated by mediocrity in the building.”

Loving others seems intuitive, but the second value Chris shared gave me pause.  Feedback is tough for many of us to swallow, so “welcoming it as a precious gift” seems unlikely.  But as leaders, Chris and Keith insist that they cannot get defensive or deflect criticisms. Instead, they allow it to marinate until they see the opportunities for improvement highlighted.  This openness to feedback allows the executive team to demonstrate the third core value – leading change.

Leading change at Baylor Scott & White builds on the foundation of the core values, like finding new and better ways to turn a terrible event in someone’s life into a blessing by chasing perfection at the bedside.  That focus on the patient in front of you, rather than worrying about competition, is how Baylor stays at the top of countless national rankings.  As Chris explains, “When you get distracted by someone else’s success, you’ve already lost.”  Well-versed in the advice of highly-regarded leaders, Chris quotes FDR: “A high tide raises all boats.”

We are fortunate as chamber members to spend time with people (often competitors) who support, encourage, and love one another so that we can all enjoy success. And we, too, can lead change by welcoming feedback as a precious gift for ourselves, our businesses, and our Chamber.  We might not achieve Baylor Scott & White’s goal of “showing the same enthusiasm for feedback that a kid has for the presents under the Christmas tree,” but we can chase perfection nonetheless. Thank you to everyone who has given us valuable feedback to guide our strategic vision as a Chamber as we try to serve as the high tide for one another.

Listen to The Story

To kick off the first of my columns as Chair, I sat down with Jamie Wickliffe (1994 Chamber Chair) to hear her thoughts about leadership. My husband Dan and I moved to Midlothian in 1998 and quickly came to admire Jamie Wickliffe for her leadership roles in our community and in her business. In 2004, we hired Jamie to help sell our house, mostly because I wanted an opportunity to know her better. Fast forward almost 15 years and Jamie wears many titles for me: friend, client, real estate broker, go-to real estate appraiser, office neighbor and landlady, and most importantly, trusted advisor. Jamie graciously shared her thoughts about the values and leadership skills that guide her professionally and personally from her office in downtown Midlothian.

Within Jamie’s organization, leadership is not about the title or the designation. Leadership is an opportunity for every individual to inspire excellence and to influence others. Jamie describes her real estate brokerage and appraisal team as facilitators of facts and knowledge, with a very important emotional component. A critical leadership skill for the emotional aspect is the ability to listen carefully – a skill that Jamie admits requires constant work, particularly when clients expect you to be the expert and to have the answers. To succeed as a trusted advisor, however, Jamie believes you first have to “let people tell their story.” Only after you genuinely listen to people share their own experiences, goals, and emotions, will they be receptive to expert advice.

Because a New Year’s post has to discuss goals, I asked Jamie about hers. In 2018, Jamie hopes to deliver the same quality of service in her role as trusted real estate advisor, while truly making spiritual, family, and personal time her first priority. To accomplish these goals, Jamie plans to let go (just a little) and allow others on her team and in the real estate community to use their respective talents and expertise to fill the gap. Stop by Jamie’s office (her name is on the door) and tell her your story and perhaps she will be able to refer someone your way.

Listening to and learning your story is also a key priority for the Chamber team as we develop a strategic plan to guide us through the next three years. We will be sending out a survey to members and stakeholders later this week and we genuinely welcome your input and insight. You are the chamber and your voice matters to your leadership team – cheers!