Ivanhoe Donaldson – “Hard but Fair”- Finding My Strengths through a Mentor
In my varying leadership roles over the years, I have worked to develop staff, managers and professionals to perform their best in their respective roles. I have employed many techniques to extract the highest performance achievable in the administration of projects and programs. Now, as a strengths consultant, I engage my clients in helping leaders to breakthrough performance barriers that have been holding them back from achieving optimal success.
While on my journey exploring the virtues of using strengths to bring out the best in yourself and others, I became drawn to how other people have helped me over the years to become the person that I am today. Just recently, I heard that one of my mentors had passed away. His name was Ivanhoe Donaldson, a civil rights activist and an astute political tactician who became a confidant of Marion Barry, the former Mayor of Washington, D.C. In his early years, Ivanhoe assisted in voter-registration in the South where he became a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He worked with SNCC for a number of years as director of their New York office where he had an enduring association with Marion Barry who was the national chairman for SNCC. He went on to manage Barry’s successful campaigns for the D.C. City Council and then later his upset victory to become mayor of the District of Columbia. During Barry’s term as mayor, Ivanhoe was described as a combative but effective troubleshooter for the mayor where he served as Director of the Department of Employment Services and Deputy Mayor for Economic Development.
It was at the Department of Employment Services where I first met Ivanhoe. I was just out of college and had begun my public service career with the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. The summer youth program was the mayor’s signature project. He had run his campaign on promising all young people in the city between the ages of 14 and 21 a summer job if they wanted to work. This, to say the least, was a daunting task. Registering, hiring, placing and paying over 30,000 youth for summer jobs proved to be too much for the system and the first year of this ambitious endeavor was dubbed a failure. Kids got lost in the system, job placements were inadequate and, worst of all, many of the young people didn’t get paid on time or at all. The mayor took full responsibility for the flop and insisted that the breakdown was due to his overzealous plan that overloaded the system. While, not backing down on his promise to give all youth the opportunity to work, the mayor promised to dedicate the proper resources and leadership needed to fix the problems. To do this, the mayor hired a new staff and called in Ivanhoe to oversee the program who was charged with ensuring its success.
I remember sitting in a room with newly hired staff waiting to meet the new director. While I had heard of him, I had never seen of met him before. When he came into the room, I remember him being much smaller than I had imagined. He was very animated and moved around a lot. He seemed a little nervous. He was introduced to the team, an eclectic group of movers and shakers, who were fired up to get started. Being from Bronx, Ivanhoe brought is distinctive New York accent to his persona. He challenged the group to do their best and to be their best while noting the challenges that were before us. He said that we needed to keep up with him and not to fall behind. He said that, “I’m hard but I’m fair”. This phrase stuck with me because I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.
After the meeting, the team members began to talk about our new boss and those that knew him began to add flavor to the hard but fair representation – “he’s kind of crazy you know” – “I’ve seen him make grown men cry” – “he will chop you off at the knees and won’t think anything of it”. Well, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect but I knew it would be an interesting ride.
The summer youth team had a standing meeting with Ivanhoe at 5:30 every day. We would often wait in his conference room sometimes for up to an hour for him to arrive. His mood would change depending on how his day had been going. At these meetings, we had to give updated on the status of program operations. In one of our first meetings, when he walked in he noticed that on of the participants had their chair pushed back a little too far and his head was touching one of the paintings on the wall. Ivanhoe paused and glared over at the individual and in a stern tone said, “who in the hell do you think that you are?” He went on to explain that the picture belonged to the tax payers of the city and that the staffer was defacing their property. The meetings would often go on for several hours into the night including tense encounters especially when either information or substance from staff was deficient. Ivanhoe did run a tight ship. I admired his commitment and his tenacious spirit. And yes, I did actually see him make a grown man cry in a meeting. But all in all, he believed in us. He believed that we could actually pull this off and make the program successful.
One evening, I was bringing some information to his office suite. As I was about to leave, Ivanhoe called me into his office and told me to sit down. He asked me how things were going and wanted to know what I thought we should do. He told me that he saw me as up and coming and that he expected much me. During this encounter he repeated to me that he “was hard but fair” and told me to never be afraid of that. He seemed to know how others perceived him.
As time passed, tensions grew as the onset of summer was imminent. Deadlines were nearing and in all big projects, some aspects program were going awry. In one specific incident, in the Spring, Ivanhoe became dissatisfied with the contractor that was working on the payroll process for the youth. In a surprising move, he abruptly fired the contractor and said that we would process the payroll in-house. Needless to say, this was going to be a most daunting task. Knowing that I had an affinity for computers and that I had an integral knowledge of the overall operations of the program, Ivanhoe directed me to work with the IT staff to design the payroll process.
Over the next 2 months, staff worked 24/7 to accomplish the task at hand. It was during a very contentious status meeting were it looked like that we were not going to meet our deadline. Of course this would have been a total disaster and was unacceptable. Failure was not an option. To my surprise, Ivanhoe pulled me aside after the meeting where he actually grabbed me by my shirt collar, held me against the wall and said “Larry, you can do this – I need you to make these IT people see this through. Let me know what you need. I am depending on you.” Well, I was shocked. First of all, I was probably the least senior member in the room that day and I wasn’t sure what I could do the influence the others on the team.
This experience challenged me to find my strengths. Now that I have taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment I know what my strengths themes are today. Upon reflection, I can see how I relied on these combination of talents to navigate this test. I can see that early in my career these talents were manifested in my actions. My top 5 strengths are: Maximizer, Arranger, Strategic, Analytical and Responsibility. In this situation, I used each of my strengths to help the team make the summer program a success. With many moving parts, I grew my talents and pushed my abilities in the realms of arranger and strategic. I sharpened my skills in the ranges of maximizer and analytical. And, I became grounded in scope of responsibility as I realized the magnitude of what we were trying to accomplish.
Yes, I grew considerably that year. I was pushed by a mentor that I didn’t even know that I needed. Ivanhoe Donaldson saw something in me that I didn’t know that I had – he saw my strengths before I saw my own. I am eternally grateful to my mentor for spurring my growth and seeding my accomplishments. But I am most thankful to him for helping me to find my strengths – It was “hard but fair”.
If you want to reach your personal and leadership potential, then it requires maximizing your strengths. This only happens if you develop and focus on the areas you are most talented and strong. Take a step back and assess your own strengths. Understanding what influences you and how you make decisions. It takes being disciplined and being intentional if you want to become the best in your strengths. People often miss this opportunity because they never discovered their strengths or they spend more time focusing on and sharpening their weaknesses – they try to be well rounded and master many things and they lose sight of their passions and their dreams. They fear risk and stay in their comfort zone while never moving past their successes or failures. If you desire to begin maximizing your strengths and celebrating your gifts and talents, then begin by focusing on what you do well, your strengths and contributions.
Building on and developing strengths is a lifelong process. It takes focus and tenacity to “Discover, Declare and Develop” your strengths, which is a tenant of the StrengthsFinder® movement. Employing a strengths-based approach to fully engaging your strengths is the best way to create high performing teams and organizations of excellence. Larry Hammond, Principal –V1H Consulting
To learn more about Larry Hammond, V1H Consulting or how to build on your or your team’s strengths visit us at: www.v1hconsulting.com
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