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Distance Learning: 5 Leadership Lessons From The Next Room Over

By Scarlet Sherr

Flexible pragmatist, or fickle 17-year-old? About a week into lockdown it became clear that I was not content.

Distance learning, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was not going to be complicated – no grades would be given; there were no exams. You were expected to maintain regular attendance in the virtual classrooms and put forth minimal engagement.

I realized three days into my junior spring term that I already knew what was necessary to survive a pass/fail life – show up, pajamas are optional.

Asynchronous assignments, what we would now call homework, would be substantial; yet, only demonstrated effort factored into a pass. Extra credit and enthusiasm were an unnecessary waste of time.

The sardonic teenager in me embraced the simple rules and pointlessness.

Retreating to my bedroom-turned-classroom-for-one, I logged on to school submissively. A technologically savvy troglodyte.

These were unprecedented times.

Dad on quarantine work-from-home, moved his office into the previously vacant room next to my bedroom. He was uncomfortable with his transition. Dad works, he does not work-from-home.

My father does not necessarily have a commanding voice, but on Tuesday, April 7, as I was logged in to Honors US History contemplating the lecture topic – the responses of organized labor in the 19th century – I had to press mute on my Zoom class so Dad’s animated speech making its way through his office wall to my room would not disrupt my teacher’s own crescendo of “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!”

As I listened, I leaned back against my headboard so I could hear Dad’s voice more clearly. I was greeted with what I felt was missing from my uninspired online schooling – curiosity.

It was then I realized I had been presented a unique opportunity to “enroll” in an audio course on a different topic. The subject was Leadership. I would be his only student.

He did not know I was listening.

Course Prelude

My father is the Chief Revenue Officer of the United States Tennis Association, an organization that promotes the sport of tennis nationally and stages the US Open in New York annually. Although his playing ability peaked in summer camp as a child, his more competitive business acumen was honed at Duke University and implemented leading sales teams with Madison Square Garden, Time Warner, and Clear Channel (now iHeart Media).

Today, Dad oversees the commercial activities of the USTA, which include global broadcast partnerships, corporate sponsorships, and ticket/hospitality sales largely for the US Open Championships. He leads a department of approximately 35 full-time staff that expands leading up to and during the Tournament.

Until COVID-19, weekday breakfast with Dad was a rarity. We live in Princeton, NJ, and on good days, he has a nearly two-hour commute to his office in White Plains, NY. When Dad began his employment with the USTA more than a decade ago, my oldest brother was beginning both middle school and a challenging future of multiple surgeries and limb lengthenings due to a progressive bone tumor disorder. My parents decided then that changing homes, schools, and friends at that moment would be detrimental to my brother’s mental health – he had enough to focus on. So, we stayed in our childhood home and Dad made the sacrifice to “be the daily early bird” on the road at 5:30 AM.

With his day interrupted in large blocks by commuting long-distance, Dad became more motivated and productive. He also learned to excel in mobile-business conversation. Critical time spent in the car extended his communication efforts as he tended to calls, freeing up his office time to be the resource and support for his team and clients.

The commutes also forced his brain to slow down and think; he accomplished a lot of mental prep along the NJ Turnpike. Rather than concentrate on the drudgery of driving up to five hours a day, Dad turned problems over and over until fresh solutions surfaced or creative problem-solving came to mind.

Time, he will tell you, no matter how it is delivered, is a blessing.

Lesson #1: The Importance of Togetherness Cannot Be Understated

There is not much solitude in a house during lockdown; there is even less silence.

“Janine and Angie! Canadian Tuxedos! Awesome!” Dad’s energetic voice sounded different from the more subdued sounds of the department head working in the next room over.

This was an inauspicious commencement to my education in business leadership.

The New York metropolitan area was the epicenter of the coronavirus in the United States. Fear and anxiety were widespread and understandable as the USTA offices moved to work-from-home.

Dad had already worked through his initial panic: having to learn how to manage Zoom and Google hangout as an admitted technophobe. I gave him a crash course and was named the in-house IT specialist.

Immediately, with new skills mastered, Dad started a daily video conference with his entire department and an online lunch group where no business would be conducted, but rather, teammates would have an opportunity to connect socially. This action was accompanied by the appointing of a de facto morale committee to design department-wide events, like Spirit Week, with theme days that could easily be displayed on video calls.

On Twin Day team members were randomly paired to coordinate a festive look. Guess Who’s Pet Day saw animals take over their owners’ live feed. Children’s Story Time involved gathering small children at home on quarantine around the screen to be read to by a team member who had also published a children’s book – bringing home and work together.

And then there were pranks: on Red Day, Dad logged on proudly in scarlet and was greeted by a full screen of colleagues dressed in white. Thankfully, they had spared him from being told to dress for Kentucky Derby Day.

Eavesdropping through the wall, it became clear that the USTA staff were unified and engaged via video conference in a way that most of my peers on Zoom were not. This was surprising to me considering my generation was born digital. Quickly, through their bonding initiatives and morale-boosting program, the older generation was laughing together during this difficult time while wearing their old wedding gowns and tuxedos to work on Formal Friday; conversely, my friends and I were wearing days-old sweats and dodging the laptop camera due to unbrushed hair. Only the mounting ticker-tape backings of Fruit Roll-Ups littering the floor gave the illusion we were attempting to find joy in our predicament.

Dad saw the value in having his team see everyone’s face every day, sharing the new reality of isolation as a group in order to foster a sense of belonging. Themed days, game days, and group lunches were about keeping sane by feeling secure. If they were going to be successful working through this lockdown and emerging as a workforce after coronavirus, then a series of small things would be the glue holding the big things together.

“Yes, Sweetness! From way back in college!” Learned that about Dad on Match the Nickname Day.

Lesson #2: You Can’t Hide In A Crisis

By this point in my accidental education, I was captivated by what I was hearing and chose to email in sick to French class. I could now listen in uninterrupted.

I was aware that Dad had daily calls and video meetings with his entire department, not just the small group of people who report to him. Information within the group was free-flowing. Dad certainly was always talking to someone.

I was a little disappointed that, unlike reruns of The Office on Netflix, there were no comedic miscommunications nor wacky speculations in the break room. Why was there no drama?

I gathered from the endless and competing press conferences on news outlets by politicians over the state of the pandemic that during stressful times people crave communication and information. In a more honest and less maniacal fashion, Dad was doing this for his colleagues, making himself accessible to instill confidence that the organization was looking after everyone. He was sharing information even when there was no new information so that no one would feel the need to speculate. His constant visibility and willingness to interact with not just people but information enabled others to remain focused and functioning.

The US Open is the largest annually attended sporting event in the world and a $400 million business that enables the USTA to invest in growing the game of tennis at the grassroots level.

During the scenario planning stage of the US Open – could there be a tournament, would it be safe, would they have fans onsite – “outside sources” reported that the event was postponed, moved to California, or other false claims. Dad recognized that while so much remained out of the USTA’s control with COVID-19 and the tournament’s planning, how the USTA managed their relationships with their business partners was not one of them.

I found it extraordinary when he tasked his team at the close of a week early on in the pandemic to begin thinking of ways to care for their clients just as they were caring for each other – to extrapolate the value of personal accessibility as a way to create opportunity.

Was there a way to strengthen the relationships with their business partners during this period of adversity by implementing meaningful communication and consistent openness? Could they prioritize the support their clients needed, being mindful that everyone’s business was equally disrupted?

I thought about Dad’s challenge over the weekend along with his team. While I blanked on a solution, the department meeting was abuzz with eager chatter on Monday.

The “Ask Us Anything” weekly call was simple and obvious, and the idea would have a major impact on the business. This weekly video conference call was held with all global business partners, both sponsors and broadcast partners from as far away as Dubai and Tokyo, to provide live updates on the status of the US Open planning. The calls featured special guests from other areas of the organization and did not end until every partner’s question was addressed.

While listening to the news unfold during “Ask Us Anything” on Thursday mornings was always interesting, the countless calls of appreciation indicating that no one else was being so forthcoming, transparent, and communicative was more telling. Other sports properties soon began calling to inquire about what Dad’s group was doing based on feedback they were getting from shared sponsors and broadcasters.

I saw how accountability is a strength. How an abundance of truth blunts drama. No team member wasted time and energy on trying to parry or evade inquiries, and no partner was hampered in accomplishing their goals from a lack of information or trust in the USTA’s responses. What became clear to me is that you cannot hide from people you have a responsibility to and share a space with.

Je suis désolée, Mme Leach. Je ne suis pas malade.

Lesson #3: Relationships Start And End With Trust

The Leadership course inadvertently being taught in my home was an educational experience I could not ignore. Dad’s actions and conversations were resonating, and not simply because it was encroaching in my personal space via some surprisingly poor carpentry and insulation. At this point in time, the truth that “I know that I know nothing” had set in, and not just because my online learning was falling flat.

Before the pandemic, I was fairly secure with my predicted future – grades, test scores, college plans, career goal. COVID-19 blindsided me with life’s complete randomness on a grand scale.

Personal challenges to date were revealed to be small and self-manufactured; this organically occurring global life blow was a shock.

I needed direction, not just instruction. I needed to know there was a reality where human beings would emerge from collective anxiety unscathed; where group and individual achievement was still possible and harmonious.

If I would have asked Dad directly: Are we going to be OK? Is everyone going to be alright? He would have escorted me to a safe place, sat me down, looked me in the eye, and told me the bad news in straight talk.

Firmly, the truth would be there; yet delivered gently, without unnecessary despair.

When not relegated to online learning, I am a student at an elite prep school. I understand that access is privilege. I also know that this applies to information. Overhearing Dad share information about an upcoming re-organization and restructuring plan, which would be highly confidential, caught me off guard. I know he struggled with the ramifications on friends and colleagues as the development spilled out of the office next door and he sought comfort in conversations with Mom.

Without giving plan specifics, Dad kept his entire staff informed on the progress and timing of any restructuring and layoffs so that anxiety and surprises would not create more suffering. He understood honesty as a necessity, and after consultation with the head of legal, maintained confidentiality while balancing his ethical duty to focus on the needs of his team members.

By making transparency the norm, the commercial division did not panic nor did they misuse the information they were given. The group appreciated the candor and honesty.

The default should always be to respect and trust people, and to respect and trust people with information. Companies ask a great deal of their employees; it is critical to give a great deal in return.

At this moment I realized I had a choice when it came to transparency. I could alert Dad to my well-intentioned educational voyeurism, even though this action came with consequences. Dad might feel uncomfortable with my confession that I have been freely entering his “circle of trust” uninvited and taking notes; or worse, what if he actually looked at my interest as a teachable moment and decided we could hold regular one-on-one lectures?

Lesson #4: Lead From The Front, And Know When There Is Value In Stepping Aside

On May 25, George Floyd was murdered.

By Friday of that week, protests were mounting across the country. The anguish of the black community was palpable and heartbreaking. Dad’s black and brown colleagues were hurting.

The USTA leadership had yet to issue an official statement or acknowledge the moment.

Despite this, Dad had been in constant contact with his team, listening. This moment called for education, understanding, and empathy.

It also called for action. I found him in his office late on Friday evening crafting an email that he would revise several times over the weekend before sending on Sunday. He shared the note with me as well.

Dad’s Commercial Division was demonstrating leadership by not sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the organization to get the messaging exactly right. Dad did not ask of team members what he himself would not do. The diversity work suggested by team members (and later from consultants the organization hired) was not looked on as an option – he attended, read, asked questions of his team, and engaged with every suggestion because it mattered greatly to him.

Equally important, Dad moved out of the way where appropriate and let the team, itself, direct a large portion of this period of growth with his full support. He sought input from team members of color before each daily meeting. He reached out to industry contacts to understand how other organizations were reacting.

Acknowledging that staff might not want to display their emotions during the daily Department calls, Dad gave them the flexibility to abstain or join in a limited capacity. He authorized managers to allow a day off for all team members so they could attend a protest related to Black Lives Matter or engage in other service or simply reflect.

As Dad’s department was learning to navigate difficult conversations surrounding racism, new leaders in his group emerged, offering ideas and demonstrating a commitment and willingness to take on a larger, important role within the USTA.

At this time, my Dad remained a leader by the very act of following.

Lesson #5: Be Defined Not Only By What You Do But Also How You Do It

Difficult economic times in the country meant a massive downsizing at the USTA. Over 20% of the staff – one in every five employees – was laid off.

I overheard Dad delivering the news to members of his department. First, those directly impacted were told, and later, the remaining members of the team.

When I sat beside him at breakfast one morning, I could see the pain and feel his tension. This was personal. Through the wall, I heard his vulnerability – or maybe I just knew it was there. What was conveyed fully was his support. This day was not about him, and it was only in part going to be about the long-term health of the USTA as an organization.

While expressing his regret, Dad took full responsibility for the layoff decisions he made and did not place blame on others or the organization at large. I know he believes authenticity matters.

Speaking to one long-time member of his team, he carefully explained the thinking that drove his decision: meaningful salary, diminished responsibilities with a new strategy, ability to preserve more jobs, and the potential to promote from within in the future. The impact must have been great, but it was the real picture. Only by honoring the truth would Dad be able to give him that.

Then Dad said something I did not expect, “You are a colleague and a friend. My responsibility to you doesn’t change today or when you leave the office. I, and all of your colleagues, want to support you as best we can. Take this in and then we will get to work on finding your next opportunity.”

Course Summary

My slide into academic boredom with a virtual education was self-imposed. The synchronous/asynchronous experience felt like a hastily implemented bad experiment, and in many ways it was, but my reaction to it was irresponsible.

Without an honest attempt to integrate information presented in the pass/fail class format into my existing body of knowledge, I ultimately failed in maximizing the opportunities. I ran away from, not toward the challenge presented.

My father should be disappointed in me; however, as my unintentional professor in Leadership, I know he would rather I focus on the outcome.

In the end, I was not static during this period; I learned that the idea of “normal” continuously changes as you are trying to deal with it. I learned that adapting to these changes means using uncertainty as an opportunity.

I learned there is a monumental difference between complaining and correcting – one limits options while the other expands them. I learned that the best results come from a combination of discipline and humility.

I learned that personal effectiveness is measured in the empowerment of others.

The ultimate lesson that I learned is that leadership can, in fact, be learned. And I have the best teacher.

Thank you, Dad.

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