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Keys to Servant Leadership in the Public Sector
Episode 157th February 2023 • Leadership Forum: The Podcast • John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University
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Mo Wright hopes anyone who works in the public sector does so with a servant-leader mentality. He builds up other leaders through his business, RAMA Consulting, and community organizations such as the African American Leadership Academy. His advice: Live your life by design and not default: Know what you want, why you want it and what you’re willing to sacrifice to get it. Then, to create a mission-focused culture, model your passion. Manage effectively by keeping your finger on the pulse of your workers to understand where they’re coming from. And maintain both a microscopic and telescopic perspective: Watch performance indicators, but keep your eyes on the horizon to anticipate large-scale organizational shifts. 


Trevor Brown 0:14

Welcome to the podcast leadership conversation with leaders who serve the public good. My name is Trevor Brown, and I'm privileged to serve as Dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, where we aspire to fulfill a simple phrase that Senator John Glenn use to describe what we do, inspire citizenship and develop leadership. I also have the honor of serving as the host of this conversation series. So welcome to a thoughtful and reflective conversation about leadership. My guest today is Mo Wright president and founder of Rama Consulting Incorporated, performance management consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, stakeholder engagement and employee development. Mo also is the leader of Milan development LLC, which provides capacity building and support services to small and minority businesses. Mo serves on several community boards and committees including Huntington banks Business Advisory Committee, he serves as the chairman of the Columbus Metropolitan Club, the Planning and Investment chair for the university United Way's Board of Trustees, and vice chair of the city of Columbus's Recreation and Parks Commission. Finally, Mo is also the co-Executive Director of the African American leadership academy. The Academy's mission is to increase the number of Central Ohio's African American leaders and broaden its awareness of a wider pool of capable and civic minded African American professionals. Mo, welcome to our podcast. And thank you for joining me for a conversation about Leadership and Civic Engagement in the public sector.

Mo Wright 1:50

Hey, thank you for having me. Looking forward to the conversation.

Trevor Brown 1:53

Let's start by just talking about today's workforce. And, you know, you can interpret workforce broadly, we're primarily interested here in the public sector, but even there we interpret that broadly is public organizations, nonprofits, etc. What do you see as the primary challenges facing the workforce today?

Mo Wright 2:14

then I think we'll you know,:

Trevor Brown 4:06

Yeah, it's funny, you said we all fear the R word. And I knew what you meant, given what you said before, which was recession, but then you immediately jumped jumped into remote work. And those are two R's that leaders are challenged with right now. But But overall, I thought you did a great job of describing what what I know many organizations are struggling with, it's just a high degree of uncertainty and trying to figure out in any one situation, what what should I focus on as a leader? So tell us how do we how do you guide leaders in the public and nonprofit sector to rise to these challenges? How do you help them prioritize and identify where they should focus and what have you learned about what strategies are effective?

Mo Wright 4:51

Well, you know, fundamentally, I think regardless of where you are serving, there's a few in my mind, universals. I like to think that everyone who goes to work in a public sector, organization, nonprofit, government agency, any of those things? First of all, I hope it's going to work with a servant leaders mentality. And you know, I often reflect on the work of Robert Greenleaf, who's kind of the father of this servant leadership research and data. And he talks about, he lays out certainly his book, a lot of qualities of servant leaders. I do think, though, in terms of how we're seeing helping leaders, it's really about helping folks to understand three things. What do I really want, is fundamental. And I use the word really, because we want a lot of things when we boil it down, and really challenge leaders to get intentional about living their life by design, and not by default is what we call it in the Leadership Academy. But what do I really want? Number two is why do I want it? And so really getting clear about why do I want it? Is it a role? Is it a salary is it a quality of life issue is that I want to work in a certain environment, but why do I really want it? And then thirdly, what am I willing to do to get it? And you know, it's we talk to young people, sometimes they say, Well, I want to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, we say, Oh, that's great. And when you get to that question about what are you willing to do to get it, we might have to say to them, what that means you're not going to move nine times, and three of those assignments might be international, and the face has changed. You know, I don't know, I really wanted to make that level of sacrifice. And so I think all leaders right now having to get real clear about what they want. I think a part of the great resignation, we saw was individuals questioning if they were in the right roles, doing the right things, having the right level of impact, and we saw people, you know, really vote with their feet to move out of organization, they had been a part of for years, decided not to return to the workforce, and many of them decided they wanted to pursue things like entrepreneurship on their own. So I think all that's playing out, but I do think, you know, in my mind, you know, there's a whole lot of other strategies that can be used, but I think helping leaders to get clear on those three questions. What do I really want? Why do I want it? And what am I willing to do to get it still to me as an age old opportunity for folksto get better.

Trevor Brown 7:05

So that's a no thyself starting point, right? Like as a leader, I need to figure out who I am what motivates me and what I'm willing to do to to achieve it? Yeah, but let's say I figured that out. Let's say I resolve those questions, hopefully, with your good assistance. Now. Now I'm looking at a workforce, particularly in the nonprofit and public sector, where, you know, with inflation running rampant, you got you got people leaving, in large numbers, because of the ageing of the workforce. In some cases, let's say I've decided I'm inspired by the mission of this organization, and I want to I want to make a difference. And I'm willing to make some sacrifice, what what guidance do you have for leaders about how to translate that passion down to their their workforce, which may be increasingly ambivalent?

Mo Wright 7:54

Yeah, my sense is that folks still watch leaders, both formally and informally. So I think leadership behaviors matter. I also think that as individuals model the way other folks are more likely to emulate what they're seeing at least the good behaviors of what they're seeing. But I also think, you know, which organizations today, you know, in my mind have to be focused on building what I call A-list players, right? And in my mind, A-list players want to be measured, they want to understand what's required of me what's going to make our organization successful, and how do I rise to that occasion. And so like going on the days of really directive leadership, where folks are being asked to do a and b every day, and you're being given all the direction to do it, I think today, what folks are doing is really agreeing on large scale objectives, agreeing on how the work should be done from a culture perspective, and then letting folks use their creativity and even their workstyle to come into that organization and be much more successful than being directed. And so I think that's playing out a little bit too, in terms of what we're seeing with leaders as well.

Trevor Brown 9:04

Yeah, talk a little bit that's more of a sort of a coaching style, rather than, you know, running a plug and play of like, yeah, as you say, Do this, do that do this. I could imagine that that many leaders of you know, sort of our generation and before were just much more comfortable with saying, here are the five steps you need to do whereas was now as you say, it's like, here's the target. Let me help you get there. If I'm the more directive leader, I'm comfortable, sort of saying, you know, here's how you here's how you make the hamburger. Here's Step One here, step two here, step three, whereas now the problems we face are shifting. They're they're multiple, how, how do I coach people rather than direct them?

Mo Wright 9:51

Yeah, I think you know, it's less about you know, how to do something today and really, this generation of workers want to understand why we are doing certain things. So the rationale becomes really important. helping folks to buy into the Northstar of many organizations and teams is going to be important. Because if I really understand what your outcome is, then I understand how to self police my own behavior in order to help you be successful. And so I think a lot of individuals are at a place now where they want to make sure they understand they buy into the concept and the culture of what organizations are doing. But they want the flexibility and the creativity to be able to do it themselves. And so I think what leaders have to do in that case, is really tap into what motivates their individual employees, what kinds of assignments are considered stretches for those employees that really make sure that year to year, they're given folks opportunities to display a different part of their leadership than just the mundane daily tasks that they might do. And I think that's important when you have we think about government organizations, for example, who oftentimes are charged to do the same thing each and every day, right? How do you add creativity, and innovation to those environments becomes a behavior of the leaders. And so I go back to believing that many leaders have to see that behavior modeled in the folks that they are following. And they have to see that there's some benefit and some extra reward for that type of thinking in the organization. So one of the behaviors of leaders of teams like that you want to be recognized in that effort doesn't have to be always pay, or big award ceremonies, but you do want to make sure you are calling out and being supportive of individuals who are going the extra mile, to think about things differently, or to bring about a different outcome through a different strategy. The more people see you actually reinforcing that behavior, the more they will get themselves in line with understanding how to add more value.

Trevor Brown:

Love it. So you know, first walk the talk, you got it, you got to model it, and then celebrate it. Right, celebrate it, when you see it and others. What are some other? What are some other strategies and tools that you've seen, that are effective to try and create that culture of, of mission focus? So starts with the leader, and then celebrate the employees that do it. Are there other tools that that leaders in the public and nonprofit sector can draw on to try and keep that create that culture of commitment to mission?

Mo Wright:

Yeah, I think there's a number of things about you know, about nine years ago, I kind of sat down and really observe a What am I seeing in in leaders that is consistent, that I believe are the behaviors and I talk about behaviors a lot, because in organizations that remind leaders that people can't judge your intentions, they only see what happened, right? They have no idea really why it happened. And oftentimes, people make up their own narratives about why things are the way they are. So I ask leaders to really focus on what am I doing, not what my intentions are? And not what am I saying, but what am I doing that that folks around me can really observe? So so in my mind has a number of behaviors. One is I think that leaders are emotionally intelligent. And that's this notion of, I have an understanding and license over my own emotions and the emotions of others and I can manage those effectively. And so knowing that, you know, if a team member is down for a number of reasons, how do you not add to that stress by adding a new assignment today, making sure you keep your put your hand on the pulse of your people is going to be important to that understanding when the team is fatigued, or when folks need a break. And we need to kind of shut it down for a day we do that arraignment where we had these periods of, of high volume and it just say, Hey, we're gonna take Friday off and it's, it's gonna be a closure, because we recognize what we're seeing in our people. So emotional intelligence is a huge one. I say that leaders have to be both microscope and telescope focus. I think good leaders in this generation of organization means you've got to be able to get into the details and down to that microscopic level, understanding what's driving the numbers, understanding the KPIs, understanding what is behind those KPIs. But at the same time, I think the leaders have got to be able to keep their eyes on the horizon. And that's that telescope focus, can you look beyond the trees and really see what's coming? Can you skate where the puck is going? Can you anticipate large scale organizational shifts? You know, I wish that some of us were good enough to predict what was going to happen with COVID. But what we saw there is a year or two years of people having to figure it out. And the good thing I think it came out of that is we did things in terms of how we deliver education, how we deliver social services, how individuals and teams connect during that two years that we never thought was possible. And so imagine taking a think about Columbus, a school district with over 50,000 Kids online and keeping them in the educational process. And so I think what it did was it allowed the public sector to be forced to think about some things differently than they never had to. And now that level of innovation we think and continue it folks are intentional about thinking about what could happen so I look at it like this if I'm in a car and If I have my seat too low, I lose a certain level of Horizon on the car. But but my my goal is a leader has to always be able to ask, you know, what balls might be rolling to the street in front of me, right? And can I anticipate those balls coming out before they're up and about to do harm? I think that's the same charge, and mostly just today is being able to anticipate what those balls can be rolled in from the car without me seeing.

Trevor Brown:

Thanks for Thanks for that, that loved all those metaphors, very clear, thinking about how we how we should operate and behave and aspire as leaders. Let's talk about the African American leadership academy. Tell us a little bit about its goals. And you know, I know broadly, you want to increase the number of African American leaders here in central Ohio. What what are some of the challenges faced there? And what are some of the steps that we need to take as a community to increase the total number of leaders and among us?

Mo Wright:

Yeah, the academy was started, we're coming up on now about 20 years ago. And it really was the leadership of some local leaders, Larry and Donna James Gibbet McGee Brown, former Supreme Court justice, Janet Jackson at the time who was at United President of United Way, Don Vickers, who was at the Academy for leadership and governance, they really came together and said, you know, quite honestly, we are the only African American leaders who get the calls when corporate America or individuals in our community want to have African American representation. The five, six people I just named are the people who get the calls. And what they said was, we know there's a number of talented African American individuals who could be equally as invested and engaged if they were given opportunities. So it started them down this pathway to say, how do we develop an academy model where we take folks through a fellowship experience, annually, where they can learn the skills, they need to be effective in the roles they're in or to get to their next, and at the same time, develop a sense of community so that African American leaders understand who the other leaders in the community are, they understand how to work together, and they have a sense of, of collaboration. And so that was the vision 18 years ago today, the program, we graduate between 20 and 40 individuals a year going through the curriculum, and it's a 10 month leadership fellowship experience, it's at no cost to the individuals. Why is that? Well, what we know is historically, people of color have not been given opportunities for leadership development within the organization at the same rate as their white counterparts. And so the program was designed to make sure that money was never an impediment to folks getting the kind of development they need. We also were sponsorship based, we have a number of corporations and organizations who support us who all believe that there is a need to have strong African American leaders in our community, and that there is a good thing in developing leaders from a cultural based perspective. So what do we do we talk about the traditional leadership strategies, things like influencing strategies, things like the power of the message in terms of what are those things early on that mom and grandma told you that are playing out in terms of how you lead and show up? How do you get out of your own way? How do you think about value added connections and how to grow those. And in doing that, what we found is leaders really develop a level of competence, that's really unprecedented, and they just start to take off. So they leave our program. And they get engaged in all kinds of individual and professional endeavors. That really kind of further our community. And that's really they give back is that is individuals mostly stay in central Ohio, they're leading the central Ohio, and it really has kind of a who's who of black Columbus, when it comes to the leadership of who have gone through our program. But our mission is to increase the availability so that no one's able to say, I don't know where there's talented leaders of color, we want to make sure there's always an answer to that question.

Trevor Brown:

So you're you're building that pipeline.

Mo Wright:


Trevor Brown:

And now I want to turn to you and learn more about your leadership journey. And we could start by You are now the sort of CO chairing this, but you're a graduate of this, this program, what what drove you to want to enter the program? And what did you learn through that experience?

Mo Wright:

Yeah, you know, it was a I actually was tapped to participate in the second class. So I was that was probably, you know, 18 years ago, or so very early in my entrepreneurial journey. But it's so funny that I remember some of the sessions and some of the things I said and see those things actually have come true in terms of what I want from my own leadership and service in the community is actually pretty awesome. For me, though, you know, the biggest piece was, I think, learning that leadership challenges are not unique, that many of us are experiencing the same things. When you look when you're able to share a learning experience alongside other African American individuals who are in similar roles. You understand the kindred spirit that starts to emerge from that you develop a network and support systems to make sure individuals are able to lean on one another when they're when needed. But it's also just the network, right? I think, you know, being able to have and pick up the phone and call some of our community's most influential leaders, and they understand and know who we are, and are able to assist them to be of service, I think is a huge thing. Other things, you know, I get a chance to sit in on the classes as the executive director now. And so I learn along again, along with all the other graduates, our curriculum has changed quite a bit over the years. But the same basic tenets are how do we take black leaders who are already super, super bad, we use that in a good way, but super bad leaders. And they can make them even better. And so that is the really the work we're doing. And I'm just honored to be a part of it.

Trevor Brown:

Thank you for that service. And thank you also, as someone in the higher ed community for highlighting how we're always students, even when we're even when we're in leadership roles, I appreciate you saying that one of your pleasures is sitting in on the classes, even though you're a graduate, simply been involved in the design and delivery of what came after. And yet you still learn things, I feel that same way here and being in higher ed. Every day is an opportunity to learn something and I try to apply it as a leader. One thing you said when you were describing the curriculum was, you know, one of the things you try to encourage people to do is learn how to get out of their own way. Will you just describe to us what that means. And if you're be willing, could you give an example of where you've witnessed somebody have to get out of their way or, or your own personal experience getting out of your own way.

Mo Wright:

You know, in the academy, we do quite a bit of strength based kind of leadership assessment, right, which really gets folks to understand who they are, from, what you know, what their style is, from a leadership perspective, what kinds of strengths they innately have. And I think in doing that, one of the things you know, we talk about, though, is that any strength overuse is a weakness. And so it's great that you know, Mo, for example, if you look at the disc, program in terms of behaviors, I am a high D and a high C, which means I am super detail oriented. And I also am very results oriented, meaning I always want to get to an outcome. What does that mean, for me, that means that in leading my team, I tend to push for results. And I tend to want things done yesterday, whether it's possible or not. And there's nothing wrong with being a driver until you come off as the overbearing boss, or you're burning your people out and they don't get the breaks they need. Or you're seeing that because I'm so directing my style, it comes off as a little aggressive for folks around me. And I had to learn that in leading my own company that the what my strengths are great into the drive their business, but how do I nuance them, and massage them in a way that they actually work for my people with a learning opportunity for me. And that's really the journey we're on. And I think the only way you do that is getting the laboratory where one you understand how am I showing up? So good. asking and seeking feedback is a huge thing. And from folks who will tell you the truth, not what you want to hear is the other part of that, you know, if I'm facilitating the meeting, how do I show up? I want to get some real life critique on, how am I doing? How's this curriculum going over things like that, and the people won't tell me the truth, and it's not valuable. And so I think really, I tell people all the time, that part of your circle has to be the folks that you have a healthy respect for, will absolutely be brutally honest with you. I'm going back to my Glenn college days, it'd be going back to Jim Collins and confronting the brutal facts is one of the things we have to do for ourselves as well, along the way. And so I think that's a huge piece. For me, it's been that self awareness constantly asking myself, How am I showing up how the other people see me getting that validation from others outside of myself, and then actually doing the work, figuring out if there's a gap between how I want to be perceived and what's showing up, what the inner strength is to be able to move that needle. That's intentional work that we all stay focused on.

Trevor Brown:

Great. So one of the other lessons of leadership is there's no one pathway. There are multiple types of leaders and it's often contingent on context. And everybody's journey is their own own journey. But there's this sort of debate about whether to be focused in on a single endeavor as a leader, that's where you can make the most difference is really burrow in and say, This is my pathway, and here's the organization or the mission I'm going to serve, or you pursue an array of, of opportunities that are potentially related and but they're distinct, you know, I'm going to start this business then I'm going to go work in this community, organization, etc. You seem to have pursued as I look at your dazzling resume and the the latter, which is you've pursued a remarkable array of different endeavors. I'd be curious what's driven you to be so, not differentiated, there's a clear connection between All the thing, but where do you get the energy and where we're just sort of strategically in your mind and you say, I'm not going to just do this thing, I'm not just going to start Rama consulting, and that's my thing. I'm gonna do all this stuff, what? What was the strategy and the thinking?

Mo Wright:

You know, Trevor, I think it's evolved, right? I think when I started, it was, you know, everything goes back to me today and then to what do you want us an outcome. And if you start with what I want as an outcome, it gives you a level of clarity, I think, for everything that you do. And it gives you some rationale about why you're doing the work when you don't want to do it in the middle of it anymore. So that what do you want to the outcome was huge. And so for me, it was never about getting to do one thing it was much more about, I want to be what I call opportunity ready. So that means that if I start a business, I want to be in a position that if there is a cool project, I want to take on, I want to work on, I have a covenant infrastructure to be able to do that. Or financially as an entrepreneur, it's, I want to be in a position that if there were other opportunities for me to develop revenue streams, or diversify what we're doing from a revenue perspective, I'm opportunity ready. And so that's really, I think, been my goal is to make sure that I'm always in a position to if a good idea or a good opportunity comes across my desk, I'm able to seize that opportunity as quickly as possible. So that's really, I think, the game I'm playing, it's about, you know, somebody who could just be I get bored easily that might be different. That's a piece of the equation as well. So I won't discount that. But I do think, you know, having I say that in jest, but at the same time, I do think we are seeing a new new generations of students, particularly and younger workers, who are, you know, very much bored in traditional settings in the way they have been designed. So we talked earlier about, you know, what organizations and leaders have to do, part of that, I believe, is tooling the organization where you can keep the variety that individuals are looking for in this generation, so they want to stay a part of the team. And so I'm having to do that as well. You know, how do you really maximize special assignments and stretch kinds of projects so individuals get a different level of their skill set developed, those things have to be intentional, but I think we're going to need to do more of that if we're really going to keep this generation engaged. And let's face it, because of where the workforce is, we need folks at work working within all kinds of organizations. And so those organizations have gotta be tool to be able to actually be attracted to that same talent.

Trevor Brown:

So I'm thrilled that we're going in this direction, because here's another area of overlap you you shared with me when we talked before this, that you had the privilege of being able to take a break, you got to take a sabbatical, and I'm going to speak with the two sides of my mouth here. One is I think, I'm of the generation that that was sort of, of the mind that you just work, you just keep grinding, you just keep going. But then the other side of my mouth is I have the great privilege of being in higher ed where sabbaticals time away is very much a part of the sort of journey of re energizing and introducing you to new ideas and starting new lines of work. So I've gotten the privilege of having it both ways. But just to your same point about, you know, this generation isn't necessarily going to want to be focused on one thing talk a little bit about taking a break and its value.

Mo Wright:

Oh man, I can't underscore the importance of it, there was a point we'll be 20 years as a company this year. And there was a point in about nine years in where I was completely burned out. And it was because the same message that I had received and bought into it as you did, which was you grind, you work hard, you keep grinding until you can get to a point where you can take a break, when the reality is the work never stops and needs never go away. And so you find yourself for sometimes decades, on the grind. Yeah, taking an occasional trip here there and having, you know, some some joy along the way, but never really, truly unplugging. And, you know, one of the things I do is, you know, I love to travel the world. And so we do that, and we spend more time in Europe and other continents, what we see is a much more appreciation for downtime. And we see folks that actually take you know, most of the most of the world they call holiday, but truly take time. And so it's funny every time I'm in Europe, and I'm talking to the folks that we meet, and they're like, how long have you here we say, oh, five days, six days, they're like, oh, so short. And we're like, Hey, that's a whole week. Exactly. Because the mentality is so different where you know, American values and culture. I think it says that you have to grind and for that grind, you get a little bit of time to yourself, right well I think other cultures have embraced you know, I don't like work life balance thing. That's a myth, but you know, work life integration in a much different way. Yeah. And they've learned to do that with a level of intentionality that wish would really permeate American culture. Case in point. You know, my last team meeting of the year, I was meeting with my team and I asked the question, we were talking about PTO policy, because quite frankly, what I was looking at was going to an unlimited PTO policy paid time off. Yeah. So in doing that, I looked at some of the research and the research basically says is that people love the idea of working at a company where there is unlimited time off. They rarely really take advantage of it. Yep. And so it's, but it's more about the mentality, the message is sent to your people, right. And they also talked about ways to tier it for different levels of your organization and make it makes it so I asked the question in the meeting, I asked, you know, how many of you have have taken your max time, this was December. So you know, we're on an annual basis. And nobody had taken the time off in the year now here I am fresh back from sabbatical, five, six weeks off, from asking all these new questions, but it would remind me of is, I said to everybody, right now, I don't want you to have another year where you're not right up to the max it at PTO, I'd much rather you be having to ask us about special considerations of being off longer than we do. And we have structure policies for it based on tenure. But I just don't like the idea of folks grinding and burning because I know what that can do to you. And over time, it actually be motivation and makes you less clear and makes you less productive. And it's not good for anybody organization or use. I'm a big proponent of take the time you need sometimes that's not just a week, sometimes that's a whole different immersive experience in a different culture to get away from everything, you know, to be work and it's valuable.

Trevor Brown:

Well, that's a that's a good place to wrap up our conversation. And thank you for taking time from your busy life to talk with me and to reflect on what makes for effective leadership in this dynamic and uncertain environment that we're in today. And fundamentally, thank you for your continued service to the public sector to the nonprofit sector and Central Ohio and it's in its Leadership Corps, particularly its leadership core of color. Thank you so much.

Mo Wright:

Thank you. Thanks for having me.