Notes From the Field: What I Have Learned About Being Effective and Happy at Work

Earlier this year, Shayna Kreisler left a top position at the 14th Street Y for a leadership role at Jewish Federations of North America. She reflects on best practices – applicable in the non- and for-profit world – for being an effective manager and leader.

1. Brevity is the soul of witand email.

I used to write emails that were longer than Joyce Carol Oates novels. No one read them – they were simply too dense. Then, over time, I learned to be more strategic in my emails and get to get to the point as quickly as possible.

How? Put the news at the top. The subject line is your headline. Need your manager to review something by a certain deadline? Note it in your subject line. (i.e. Please read/review and reply by COB Wednesday). And like the email, keep the subject brief.

If you exchange more than three emails to move something forward, step away from your keyboard. Instead, either talk in person or pick up the phone – that is how you develop relationships at work, which help you accomplish your goals.

2. The trick to success is to really listen to one another.

Truly listening to coworkers and peers takes a LOT of practice, and is hardly about words. In fact, listening has little to do with what someone says and everything to do with attending how they say it. What does their tone tell you? What about their facial expressions? How are they sitting? Are they fidgeting? Tense? You cannot get answers to these questions from email, where we often wrongly infer negative tones.

Email may abet quick communication, but it prohibits critical active listening, as research from Sara Stibitz and Vanessa K. Bohns in Harvard Business Review point out. Listening is about being present and focused on another person, which makes that individual feel supported, recognized and safe.

3. Be multilingual.

You think you and your co-workers speak the same language? Think again. Each of us has our own way of expressing ourselves, and you have to learn someone else’s language so that you – and they – do not get frustrated by miscommunication and misunderstanding.

How do you learn their language? It is like listening: pay attention and be patient. In so doing, you will soon catch on that when your super nice colleague’s eyebrows rise and she agrees to everything you say, she is really saying that she is stressed out. Tuning in to other people’s vernaculars will create more trusting relationships, which leads to greater productivity.

4. Never forget, you are playing a team sport.

I was never a fan of team sports growing up. I was always worried that I would run the bases the wrong way or score a goal for the other team. That is why for the first part of my life, I worked on solo endeavors – drawing, photography, reading and writing.

In my first job, though, I started to understand that work is a team sport. It is a theater production, a symphony, not a one-person undertaking. Everyone brings something unique and valuable to an organization moving ever more closely toward fulfilling its mission. You cannot do what you do without the help of others and they cannot do their work without you. On the best teams, the focus is on the combination of skills and talents that each player brings to bear, not on any one individual.

I struggled a lot earlier in my career with feeling that I was giving up on my ideas because they were not what others wanted. I eventually came to learn that it is NEVER about one person’s idea – it is about what is best for the organization. Yes, some of your teammates might enjoy the spotlight more than you, but only because you hold that light on them.

5. Identify obstacles to progress

GRPI – Goals, Roles, Processes and Interpersonal Relationships – is a formula that helps you figure out what is going on when a project is stymied. As a diagnostic tool, it has never failed me. Any time even one of these four elements is awry, your whole project hits an impasse. If, for example, goals are well-defined, each person understands their role, and everyone gets along but a project is stalling out, you deduce that there are kinks in your process. Then home in, with the team, on figuring out how to fix it. It is that simple.

6. Step back from the painting to understand the picture

In college, my art professors would drill into us the need to step back from our canvas every 15 minutes to gain a new perspective. It is easy to get swept up, to hyper-focus, painting the perfect highlight. You either never step away, or do so too late, realizing that now, instead of the realistic glass of water you wanted to create, you have made the opposite – an abstraction. This example applies perfectly to work.

We can get so hyper-focused on a particular program aspect or one thorny community member that we lose sight of the reason why we are here. Details are important, but we must also develop the ability to step back and consider the whole picture so that we do not fall short of our overall goals.

7. Do not confuse vulnerability and weakness

As leaders, we try to project the image, however unrealistic, that we are super human. We have received and want to embody the message that strength equals success. That equation is dead wrong because it implies that vulnerability means being weak. False. Vulnerability does not mean crying in public or confessing your frailty to your boss. It means not pretending to be someone you are not.

I learned that the hard way. When I first took on supervisory tasks, I thought it was an imperative to success that I not seem weak. To me, weakness meant admitting that I did not know how to do something that as a supervisor I “should” know how to do. So, I postured and pretended to know everything, and tried to position myself as an expert so everyone listened to me and did what I told them (haha). That did not work, and I decided I needed to open up to colleagues about my challenges.

Forget “fake it til you make it” as a guiding principle. As a general rule, it is better to be honest with yourself and others. Vulnerability is “emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty,” says the writer and professor Brené Brown. “It’s the most accurate measurement of courage we have … [it] is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide how you want to be perceived by the people for and with whom you work. Think carefully about how you present yourself, about what kind of leader you want to be, and then act, with authenticity and love from that place of self-knowledge. You will not go wrong.

8. Manage in 360 degrees

For a long time, I thought that the manager manages and the employee does the work. I thought I was powerless and toiling at the whim of superiors. I closed in on myself and stopped feeling creative. A recurring dialogue took place in my head: “I am not good at my job, because I don’t get the support that I need. They do not understand me. They need to tell me what to do … this is their fault…” A wise friend pointed out my victim complex. Her observation was a wake up call.

I wanted to be my own hero, not a victim, so I tried to change my perspective, which can take a while. What I grew to realize, with patience and practice, is that I am in control and I get to decide, with my manager, the kind of partnership we want and make. I am responsible for my trajectory, not my manager. What is more, managers need managing! Employees need to tell us what is going on, where things are working, and where they are not. Want to know more? Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself and Managing Your Boss by John Gabarro and John Kotter have loads of insight.

9. Find your person/people or develop your own board of directors

You need to develop our own advisory boards full of people with whom you have collegial relations, whom you respect, and who can help you see things about yourself that elude you. I am not talking about your boss, your co-worker or your best friend. I am talking about another person, a somewhat removed set of eyes. Start looking around you and listening carefully and you will figure out who these people are. Spend time cultivating relationships with them, building trust and social capital. It will be worth the effort.

10. Check your ego

The work we do is about striving toward the mission, and while you – a part of the overall story – are a contributor to that mission, the work is not about you. Leave your ego at the door and remember that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. When you let go of personal attachment to what you create and do in your work, you accomplish much more for the betterment of the entire community.

Do you have other thoughts you want to add? I would love to hear them.

Shayna Kreisler is a Schusterman Fellow and the Senior Director of the National Young Leadership Cabinet for the Jewish Federations of North America. To find out more, email Shayna at: