Leadership Coach and Executive Director, Tanya Koshowski

Leadership – a simple word, not so simple a concept. It takes self-awareness, vision, determination, and strength, but there’s often one key aspect missing: people. The people who build a business. If we’re not leading a team with real people, who the heck are we leading?

This thought – what about the people – became the basis for how People Centered Leadership (PCL) helped transform a Calgary non-profit.

Leading with People Centered Leadership

16 years ago, I had one of those pivotal life moments when I began volunteering with Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids (BB4CK). This organization instantly captured my heart as I could use my background in early childhood development to support my personal why of encouraging kids, so they feel empowered to be the best they can be!

After six years of volunteering, I joined their staff as the Community Coordinator where I continued honed my leadership skills and learnings, receiving certificates in Authentic & Strategic Leadership from the world-renowned Banff Leadership Center, and a scholarship to the Barry Wehmiller Leadership Institute in St. Louis, Missouri. Throughout my development, it became clear that leadership isn’t just about leading. It’s about getting to know your true authentic self to build relationships that inspire others towards a vision. BB4CK was where I found my voice and courage to practice leading by focusing on the value of people to connect them to a new vision.

When I became Executive Director in 2012, I knew I had to find a way to further connect, encourage, and empower my small staff and volunteer team. Intuitively, I recognized the need to speak to their humanity in order to grow the organization. Focusing on results wasn’t where I could start as we are human beings first, not computers. It was also clear that something had to change if we were going to have more impact as, at the time, we were essentially a 23-year old start up. If we didn’t work better together, then we wouldn’t be able to reach our defined mission: that no child in Calgary goes hungry.

It was here that my innate and intuitive way of leading – being better together – help move this non-profit forward. By connecting the dots between our humanity and work, we became engaged and acted with greater purpose. While always learing and growing myself and recognizing my imperfections; my team knew they were cared for and, as such, took better care of the non-profit.

The Core of People Centered Leadership

PCL works as it draws on the empathy work of Dr. Brené Brown, emotional intelligence of Daniel Goleman, purpose-driven work of Simon Sinek, and relationship research of John Gottman, along with many more personal experiences, education and live leadership practice. Specifically, this action-focused leadership style uses three guiding principles.

Listen to yourself with empathy and care.

And then listen to others with the same empathy and care.

The practice here is keeping your ego in check (trust me – I’ve failed at this plenty). It relies on being vulnerable and trusting yourself.

BB4CK has created a culture that encourages people to ask questions, be curious, and be patient with each other when the answer is “I don’t know.” Because we’ve built a culture where we can be vulnerable, we’re able to tap into each other’s ideas, strengths and insights, resulting in a more engaged and committed staff because they feel heard.

Knowing your purpose.

If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to inspire your team to get there?

As the new Executive Director, I lead the process for gaining true clarity on what our purpose would be under my direction. This was crucial to properly communicate this to the everyday superheroes who worked and volunteered there. For me, our purpose went beyond feeding hungry kids. It was to inspire change in the community and feeding kids a healthy lunch would act as the catalyst for doing this. As we defined this purpose together, we were better equipped to communicate it to our whole team, volunteers and partners, connecting them to their own purpose in support of this vision. This clarity helped us know where we were going and why we were each connected to our purpose.

Caring for others.

Identified in John Gottman’s research on long-term couples is that kindness is the one thing that creates positive, connected, and impactful relationships. Taking the time to show that you care for your team, even a simple, “how are you,” will connect you to your people. As culture and purpose, not compensation, become bigger priorities for employee satisfaction, demonstrating care has the trickle effect of making people care more about their work. Care for your people, they care for your purpose, which (typically) results in better work.   

Using this leadership model, BB4CK adapted our resources and mindset through a fairly volatile economic climate. In the last six years, we’ve built a high functioning team of community leaders that work with 1,000 volunteers per week to feed over 4,400 hungry kids every day. We’ve shifted making lunches to the community and lead over 60% of lunches being made by people all across our city. We’ve more than doubled our operating budget and needed to triple our staff team as a result! All this because we created a culture focused on PCL.

At the end of the day, PCL didn’t come from any one theory. It came from recognizing that “people” were missing in current models. I firmly believe that when we build into our people, they will simply be better humans, resulting in better business and a fulfilling environment. BB4CK is just the beginning.

If you are curious to learn more about People Centered Leadership, visit tanyak.ca. To see some of the super cool things we’re doing at BB4CK for Calgary’s kids, visit bb4ck.org.