Picture this: You’ve spent more than a decade honing your skills as one of Canada’s international trade policy leaders. You played a pivotal role in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as in getting the agreement between Canada and the European Union across the final finish line. You’ve represented your country with distinction at the World Trade Organization as well as the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
Now, you are being asked to become Consul General for the US Southeast in Atlanta, Georgia, just as our two countries embark on tumultuous negotiations to modernize the more than two decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement.
The first challenge of your new assignment arrives on Day One, and her name is Irma. Hurricane Irma. The Category 5 hurricane that tore through the Caribbean, smashed into the southeast US, caused dozens of deaths, and did over $70 billion in damages.
This scenario was Nadia Theodore’s reality in the fall of 2017. “I could barely find my way to the bathrooms and I had to lead a new team in dealing with the hurricane and assisting any Canadian citizens affected.”
1. Be yourself, and be careful who you give your energy to. Not everybody wants you to succeed.
This lesson was actually something Nadia’s mother had first told her back in high school.
That first year in Atlanta was a very difficult time in my leadership journey, I was giving way too much energy to people who were in no way invested in my success. And my confidence took a hit.
In that first year of her first experience heading a diplomatic mission abroad, Nadia put a huge amount of energy into “playing the role” that she had been told was expected of her.
But it didn’t work. Pretending to be “3-piece skirt suit Nadia” was exhausting. Worst of all, she couldn’t deploy the sense of fun and approachability that had helped her build strong relationships throughout her career and had provided her the success as an executive over the past previous years.
So she reminded herself that she had been chosen because of the myriad of unique leadership qualities she brought to being the head of a mission. When she “let herself be herself”, and consciously shifted her energy to people who shared her vision and who were interested in seeing the overall mission succeed, things started to improve dramatically.
2. Clear boundaries are the mark of strong leadership.
For Nadia, learning that establishing boundaries didn’t make her less of a human-centered leader, was a difficult but necessary lesson.
She recalls that at one point, she had a meeting with someone who was looking for help for a project they were working on. She gracefully accepted the meeting and welcomed them in her Atlanta office. At the time, she would attend these types of exploratory meetings herself, thinking that asking someone from the team to take the meeting would be more trouble than it was worth.
Once the person came in, they couldn’t stop praising her workspace. Nadia was surprised by the number of compliments she was getting and thought it might have been because of the way she decorated it. When her assistant came back with a coffee for the guest, the person sat down and finally expressed exactly what they meant. “They said ‘Isn’t it something? You know, not too long ago, this would have been my office and you would have been getting me coffee.’ I looked at my colleague. We were both wondering if we just heard what we thought we heard?”
At this moment, Nadia knew she had to establish a clear boundary between herself and this person. They had lacked respect towards her and her role, even if it might not have been meant as an insult. She finished the meeting, but didn’t accept follow-up meeting requests and challenged her team to be courageous in providing her advice on which meetings rose to the level of Consul General and Head of Mission and which would be more appropriately dealt with by the Consuls or other team members in the office.
“I do think that when setting boundaries, as you move up the executive ranks, you can find the best way to do it for you while honoring who you are as a person, who you want to be as a leader and recognizing that it’s not going to be perfect every time.”
3. “Excellence with authenticity”
Nadia’s motto is clear, ethical, and aspirational. But the same thing that makes it great is what makes it so difficult to live up to.
Top performers are expected to be “team players” as well as innovators, to conform to a company’s culture while paradoxically bringing the best of their unique creativity to the table. Putting your head down, working hard, and getting the job done will always have its place. But there is a hidden cost to going along with the way things have always been done, especially if you see a way that your unique talents could help your organization reach new heights of success. Finding that right balance doesn’t end when you hit the executive ranks and arguably becomes even more important.
“The advice that I give to young executives is that the fastest way to lose your self-confidence is to try and please everybody all the time, at the expense of being comfortable with yourself. When you think about moving forward in your career, make certain that you are moving from your own ‘constellation of authenticity’. Are there things that you are not “supposed” to want or go for? Have the courage of wanting and going for it – and still being YOU.”
Nadia recognizes that she isn’t perfect, but she confidently expresses that the entirety of your authentic self isn’t something you decide to do one day, and then coast for the rest of your life. It’s a set of behaviours that you need to practice and strengthen over and over again, at different stages of your career. Most recently, she has embarked on a brand new challenge in the private sector as a Senior Vice President at Maple Leaf Foods.
As a Leader with The A Effect, she hopes that her journey can inspire a generation of women in business to believe that they truly belong in these spaces, not only as individuals but as a steadily growing group of global leaders.