In two months I will be graduating from Western University after five years of study. With the ending to this chapter of my life fast approaching, I can’t help but reflect on how much things have changed -- how much I have changed. I am no longer the young woman I was in September 2016, standing in my dorm room with boxes on every flat surface, my parents and I valiantly hiding our tears from each other as I prepared to take the next step in my journey. 2016 Julia came to Western to learn, but she had no idea just how much she would learn, nor how much of that learning would take place outside of the classroom.
In a recent fit of nostalgia, I attempted to recall the best moments of my last five years: those that stood out as having changed my life irrevocably for the better. Immediately, one moment in particular came to mind: the rainy day in January 2018 that I walked through the front doors of Innovation Works for the first time.
I started at Innovation Works as a Welcome Desk volunteer. Now, three and a half years later, I have filled many roles: Welcome Desk volunteer, Socialpreneur Chat facilitator, Co-Tenant Tuesday blog writer and -- most recently -- junior project manager for the COVID-19 Recovery Project and the 2021 Community Bond Project. In this time, I not only learned a variety of important concepts and technical skills (the work-to-the-middle model of social enterprise, project management tools, impact assessment, group facilitation, networking, etc.), but I also learned some important lessons about leadership. While it is bittersweet to be leaving Innovation Works to begin law school when it has been such an important part of my life for so long, I will not be truly leaving. Rather, I will take the lessons I learned there with me wherever I go.
Thus, without further ado, here are the six greatest leadership lessons I learned in my time at Innovation Works and Pillar Nonprofit Network:
1. Your values should be at the core of every decision you make.
This pandemic, with its ever-changing conditions, has led to much uncertainty all around the world, to put it mildly. Because of this, working as the COVID-19 Recovery Project manager this Summer was difficult: if the government wasn’t even sure what to do, how was our team supposed to decide? We engaged in many debates around what actions to take, and there were certainly times in the beginning where it felt almost impossible to determine our next steps.
However, everything changed when we came to the following realization: no matter how much everything else is changing, our organizational values should always stay constant. Once we realized this, we had a solid foundation to build on. When our team reached a moment of decision-making paralysis, we asked ourselves: What are our values? Does this proposed change stay true to who we are? In this way, no matter how much the day-to-day experience of Innovation Works changed, everything we did still felt true to our culture of fun and community support. I firmly believe that this learning is the one that ultimately allowed us to both maintain a thriving online community during lockdown and re-enter the building successfully in July.
This is a lesson that I apply to my life personally as well as professionally. When I am feeling uncertain, when I am second-guessing my own actions, or when I have a big decision to make, I check in with my own values and use them as my guide. I have now learned that the best leaders must be faithful to their values, and I will strive to emulate that going forward.
2. Everyone has something to contribute; it is important to not only welcome new voices but also to encourage new voices to speak up and challenge your ideas.
When I started at Innovation Works, I was a second-year English student who had not yet begun her business education at Ivey. To say that I felt impostor syndrome would be an understatement: what value would a nineteen-year-old volunteer bring to an organization like Pillar?
In my first couple months, I was shocked to learn just how much my opinion was actually valued. Pillar leadership would frequently tap any volunteers who were interested to work on various projects and, when a big decision needed to be made, we were often consulted. Moreover, our ideas were taken seriously and leadership would often follow up with us where necessary.
Innovation Works helped me build my professional confidence by teaching me that still having much to learn doesn’t mean I don’t also have much to contribute. I learned that a cohesive organizational culture with significant employee buy-in is achieved when a leader 1) recognizes the value that each person brings to an organization, 2) demonstrates to their team how much each person’s unique perspective is valued, and 3) actively creates opportunities for voices to be heard.
Furthermore, I learned in my capacity as junior project manager just how important a diversity of perspectives is to the success of a project. Our COVID-19 plan was only as comprehensive as it was because we frequently consulted our volunteers and our co-tenants. Our policies were only as clear as they were because our team had discussed them together at length. In one such debate, I came to the realization that, despite being in a conversation that included the Executive Director of Pillar and the Director of Innovation Works, my ideas were being given equal weight. In our weekly project team meetings, each person’s ideas were given respect and judged on merit. It was that freedom of speech that allowed our team to feel psychologically safe enough to bring up important concerns and challenge each other's ideas. A team takes its cues from its leaders, and by encouraging us to speak up, Michelle and Loredana created a culture of radical transparency. In a project like COVID-19 Recovery, where an oversight can mean an unsafe work environment, the importance of creating a culture where employees feel safe enough to express concerns cannot be overstated.
In this way, I have learned that the best work comes out of an organization that values transparency and honesty, and that this kind of culture can only be created if leaders are willing to lead by example.
3. Communication is key.
In the same vein as #2, our the COVID-19 Recovery Project would not have been successful without the support of the Pillar team, our volunteers, or our co-tenants members.
It was the boots-on-the-ground knowledge of our volunteers that allowed us to make significant adjustments to our re-entry plan. By working with volunteers to design what a volunteer’s responsibilities might look like during COVID-19, we ensured that the plan we created was something that everyone -- not just our leadership team -- could feel confident in. If there isn’t two-way communication between leadership and employees, it is much more difficult to generate buy-in. During COVID-19 times, when organizational uncertainty could lead to health and safety risks, buy-in from all levels of an organization is more important than ever before.
Furthermore, it was our consultations with co-tenant members that ensured our plan was as thorough as it needed to be. We did our FAQ page in reverse: we asked our community members what questions they had and then constructed our FAQ page based on those questions. This led to the identification of many considerations that needed to be incorporated into our plan. In addition, we conducted multiple Town Halls where we presented our plan to co-tenants both to be informative and to solicit feedback. This process allowed us to ensure our re-entry plan was one that our members could understand and feel confident in.
Lastly, we maintained a very clear communication process throughout the months spent developing our re-entry plan. If any changes occurred, our project team would first communicate with the rest of the Pillar staff team, then our volunteers, and then our co-tenants. Moreover, we ensured that all three of these stakeholders were always included. This ensured that the right people were informed at the right time (Pillar staff was already informed so volunteers could ask questions, volunteers were already informed so that co-tenants could ask questions) and allowed us to take a united approach to COVID-19.
In this way, I learned that, in times of organizational change, frequent and strategic communication will always be the key to success.
4. The best leadership development comes from letting people take risks and try new things with support and opportunities for reflection along the way.
On my very first shift at Innovation Works, I entered the building in order to “assist” with the facilitation of Socialpreneur Chats, or so I had been told. Imagine my surprise when, upon arrival, my supervisor informed me that I would be facilitating the group myself?
I consider that day one of the most important moments in my development as a leader. My supervisor gave me the chance to try something new and to get outside of my comfort zone. However, crucially, he stayed there to give me support if I needed it. He said to me, “I think you’ll be good at it, so I want you to try it. If you don’t like it, no big deal.” To my surprise, I learned that I didn’t need nearly as much support as I thought, and that I love group facilitation.
Three years later, I now serve as the chair of the Equity Advocacy Committee and the Mental Health Roundtable at Western. Group facilitation is one of my favourite things to do. However, had it not been for Innovation Works, it might have taken me much longer to realize my enjoyment of this task and even longer to work up the courage to seek it out myself.
By creating a culture where it was safe to try new things -- a culture where failure was a learning experience -- my supervisor helped me overcome my impostor syndrome and develop a new skill. From this, I learned that the best leaders are the ones who give you the opportunity to try new things, who will be there to catch you when you fall, and who will give you the support needed to get up and try again.
5. Good organizations are accepting of diversity; great organizations celebrate diversity.
I told you I started at Innovation Works in second year university; what I didn’t tell you is that I also realized I am bisexual that very same year. At that time, I still had a lot of questions: was I going to tell my parents? Is it safe to be out in the workplace? Did I want to be out in the workplace?
When I first began working at Innovation Works, I noticed a variety of things: that the bathrooms had signs on the doors to show that all genders were welcome; that our poster wall by the desk frequently promoted LGBTQ2+ events; that Trans* London was a co-tenant; and that Innovation Works celebrated Pride. It’s not what an organization says about diversity that matters to me, it’s the actions that make an impact.
By living inclusion rather than simply paying it lip service, Innovation Works became a place that allowed me to bring my authentic self to work. At a crucial time in my life, Innovation Works taught me that who I am at work and who I am at home do not need to be two separate people. For that reason, my time as an Innovation Works volunteer was the first time I ever came out as bisexual in the workplace. More importantly, it certainly was not the last.
When I came out, my co-workers were very supportive. Not only that: they also helped give me a voice. When I wrote a piece on being bisexual to share on my own social media, the Innovation Works Community Animator offered to share it using Innovation Works’ social media platforms, provided that was something I wanted. In this way, Innovation Works helped me share my story with others and allowed my voice to be heard. Moreover, they offered to do this completely unprompted during a Summer that I had taken a break from volunteering with them to work for another company in Toronto. The genuine care and support behind that act is something I will never forget.
Furthermore, this Summer I was given the opportunity to both 1) help Innovation Works plan its Pride celebration, and 2) host an LGBTQ2+ themed Salad Club meeting. Once again, I was given the opportunity to use my voice to help others learn. In this way, Innovation Works didn’t just make me feel like I was accepted there: I felt that I could celebrate my differences and that others would celebrate them with me. Because of this experience, I learned that I do not want to work for a company where I could not be my authentic self, which completely changed my outlook on recruiting.
Thus, I learned that the best organizations are ones that celebrate diversity both by making inclusion a priority and by elevating the voices of diverse individuals in the workplace.
6. The best organizational culture is one that doesn’t insist on separating work life and personal life.
After one year of pandemic living, it is clear that the line between “work life” and “home life” has blurred. However, one of the most interesting things that I learned this year is that this blurring may be for the best.
Now, I’m not saying that you should treat the workplace like your home: professionalism is to be expected. Rather, I believe that being able to be open about your personal life -- the good and the bad -- is an essential part of creating a supportive work environment.
At the beginning of the pandemic, our volunteer team began to start and finish each meeting with a check in: “how are you entering this meeting today?” and “how are you leaving?” This gave our team the opportunity to share our true feelings: we were excited about getting a new pet, we were worried about the pandemic, we were proud we went for a walk today, etc. Most importantly, our leaders took the initiative to make the conversation genuine. By starting the conversation with “I’m feeling a little burnt out, but I’m excited to share our plan with you all” rather than “everything is great!,” the rest of felt that we could be honest about how we were feeling. This honesty led to better team bonding than we had ever had before and allowed us to draw support from each other.
Furthermore, though the pandemic made us realize how important sharing truly is, Innovation Works has always been a place for making genuine connections. Whether it be through social groups (like the Spanish Speaking Circle and Salad Club) or more informal conversations, Innovation Works is a place to share your interests and take part in a vibrant community. Even more importantly, Innovation Works is a place where we celebrate each other’s successes, even if those achievements have nothing to do with work.
I applied to law schools this Fall, and, when I was accepted, there was an all-Pillar-staff announcement congratulating me. The genuine support from my colleagues was incredibly heartwarming but by no means unusual. At Pillar, we celebrate community and we celebrate each other. It is this culture that made me love coming to work every day, and it is this culture that kept me coming back, squeezing in volunteer shifts despite my busy schedule. Innovation Works has taught me that work life and personal life need not be separate: in fact, by prioritizing sharing interests and making genuine connections, a leader can create a workplace in which people truly want to be involved.
My decision to walk through the front doors of 201 King Street that day was one of the best I ever made. The amount that I have grown as a young professional, as a leader, and as a person over the last 3.5 years is immeasurable and due, in no small part, to the support of the Innovation Works community. As I begin law school in the fall, I will not only take these lessons with me, but I will take the friendships too. In my time at Innovation Works, I have met so many kind, talented people who want to make this world a better place. My life is richer for having met each one of them.
Though I am now leaving London, Ontario, Innovation Works has taught me that community is something that exists #BeyondTheWalls of any building, no matter how beautiful that building may be. The connections I have made are ones that I will maintain, so, though it is bittersweet to be leaving, I know that I will still be a part of this vibrant community. Therefore, I only have one more thing to say:
Innovation Works, thank you for everything.