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Becoming an Authentic Leader: A Conversation with Christine Essel and Judy Belk

Wednesday, November 20, 2019
To celebrate the launch of evolve — a new suite of programming championing transformational leadership — Christine Essel held a conversation with Judy Belk to discuss her leadership philosophy and the skills needed to be an authentic leader.
Judy Belk leads The California Wellness Foundation in pursuing its mission to improve the health of the people of California. In her role, she uses her vision and her voice to help Cal Wellness “level the playing field” so that everyone has access to good-paying jobs, safe neighborhoods, and quality health care services.

Christine Essel: The world is coming at us much faster than it has in the past. Things are changing through technology, global communications, through the political landscape alongside all the divisions and views on how the world should work. So given all that, what do you see as the most significant challenges philanthropy leaders are facing today?

Judy Belk: The challenges we face today are very different from those we might have encountered 20 years ago. Our workforce is changing drastically in terms of diversity, skill sets, and career aspirations. Workers, especially millennials, increasingly want to be part of organizations that reflect their values. In philanthropy, we’re fortunate to come to work every day equipped with our mission of serving the broad community. But regardless of whether it’s the nonprofit or private sectors, our working population doesn’t want to decide between putting aside their views about service when choosing a career path. 


Christine: Our sector is certainly not immune to these challenges and must embrace the future of work. In my career, I’ve always enjoyed building teams that perform well together, that are professionally satisfied with their work, and that can grow in their jobs. I’m also aware that how I accomplish this goal is always changing. In your opinion, how do the rapid shifts above require leaders to adapt?

Judy: These changes and challenges have been weighing on my mind lately. As demographics shift in our workforce, we can’t merely look at what people do. We must instead examine how people do their jobs and identify the ingredients that help them flourish. I’ve always been interested in the human side of organizational design. Throughout my career, I’ve worked in government, nonprofits, and corporations. I’ve consistently paid attention to leaders in those organizations — to leaders who brought out the best in me and those who fell short in my estimation. I asked myself why I did my best work under certain leaders’ guidance and why I was not my authentic self in other situations. These questions have taken me through a journey of contemplating my leadership role and style. I’ve drawn upon my own experiences to challenge my current thinking about bringing the best out of folks. 


Christine: I appreciate you mentioning authenticity. In recent years, we have come around to the importance of building authentic brands for mission-driven organizations. However, the nonprofit sector has not been at the forefront of investing in internal culture. Do you see a shift in our field toward empowering our leaders to be more authentic at work?

Judy: In a large corporation, there are a variety of ways that people could move up, move across, and move laterally throughout their career growth. In small nonprofit organizations, it is undeniably a struggle to get and keep the talent. I’m personally excited by the conversations among CEOs and health funders in Los Angeles and nationally around building a learning culture through motivating others. We ask ourselves critical questions about professional development opportunities, coaching,  ways to help folks bring their full self into the organization, and what wellness means in balancing work and family demands. I don’t think the philanthropy sector was thinking and pushing these ideas 10 or 20 years ago. 


Christine: How are you embodying this culture shift at The California Wellness Foundation?

Judy:  There has been significant research guiding us to reflect upon and practice authentic leadership. One of the leaders I admire is Ernie Wilson, a board member of The California Wellness Foundation and the USC Center for Third Space Thinking. He champions a fresh way of thinking rooted in five key competencies required for success in today’s ever-changing world: adaptability, cultural competency, empathy, intellectual curiosity, and 360-degree thinking. I find the Third Space thinking helpful in considering how performances develop, how we hire at Cal Wellness, and how we compensate folks. In our work, we put our values front and center while also cultivating respect, integrity, excellence, learning, and trust. We’re building the optimal environment where team members are willing to try, fail, and learn from successes and failures. We are looking to motivate individuals to use critical thinking to identify new possibilities and employ creative problem solving to challenge the status quo.


Christine: With these holistic internal practices, what skills do you hope to develop in leaders?

Judy: I genuinely believe there’s very little that any of us can do without collaborating. And we can’t discuss effective collaboration without self-awareness, empathy, and humility. We must recognize how our actions are making a difference and understand how our behaviors impact other team members on a day to day basis. It’s also important to be thoughtful and have the courage of one's convictions. It’s been a lifetime quest for me to show courage, which could be vastly different for everyone. In a team, I hope that being courageous means speaking our minds, acting within our beliefs, being willing to walk the talk, and being held accountable for our actions. While many people refer to these practices as soft skills, I consider them essential skills. Even though we all need technical skills to do our jobs, we cannot do them well without our authentic selves.


Christine: You mentioned empathy as an essential skill for leaders. I cannot agree with you more as I believe we can’t be fully present and listen to others without showing compassion. What does it mean for you to show up as an empathetic leader?

Judy:  Recognizing and overcoming the blind spot about empathy has guided me through many tough conversations. It’s often easy to focus solely on the “tip of the iceberg” – a team member’s visible behaviors that we can all observe in the workplace. However, it takes empathy to consider that someone might not deliver their best work because of unspoken reasons below the iceberg. In those cases, I regularly ask myself whether I haven’t been clear on setting the vision or if my team members don’t have the skills or resources to do the work. Those tough conversations might lead to difficult decisions. Ultimately, empathy allows me to address the problem and respectfully make those decisions.


Christine: It seems evident that to be empathetic, you must have self-awareness. And to show empathy to others, you might need to show courage. How did you build up these essential skills?

Judy:  I’ve been on a journey to learn these skills as a leader. And I feel a lot of gratitude to the leaders in my life who took a chance on me. When Bob Haas, former CEO of Levi Strauss, allowed me to lead, I certainly wasn’t the most experienced. The same with Melissa Berman, who granted me the opportunity to build Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors into a global philanthropic presence. Both organizations invested in training me to become a skillful leader. I appreciate those moments and spaces in my career to truly consider what I did at work, how I did it, and which values I held when I made certain decisions. 


Christine: To show up as your full self at work — to be self-aware, empathetic, courageous — what do you do to take care of yourself?

Judy:  First of all, writing is critical to me and has been a constant thread in my personal and professional lives. I write to figure things out. I write to take care of myself. Then, I have a robust support system filled with women who’ve known me for a long time and thought I was pretty cool even before becoming a CEO. I trust these women who all know me well. I’ve also been fortunate in terms of love, of a life partner who keeps me sane. I always say, “Find work that you love, find a partner that you love even more.” I take care of myself sometimes by taking short breaks and sitting in the sun in smaller ways. The water inspires me, and so I spend a lot of time walking on the beach. Most importantly, I am fully present in all interactions and look for opportunities to express gratitude in my personal and work lives.


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