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Faces of Leadership

Chanda Smith Baker

Faces of Leadership, a collaborative project with Minneapolis' KeyStone Search, is a monthly feature in which we ask prominent corporate and nonprofit executives to share some of their ideals, tips, goals, and guidelines for dynamic leadership in changing times.

President and CEO of Minneapolis-based nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities, Chanda Smith Baker has been in training for her role throughout a lifetime of community work. Growing up in a family that was committed to racial and social justice, she learned about the value of giving back, and always striving forward.
Now, she shares her top tips on how to become an effective leader:
If possible, start young (or young at heart): Smith Baker showed an early aptitude for leadership by running for student council in middle school, and then doing extensive volunteer work in high school. That combination gave her a sense of the engagement needed for connecting with peers and others in the community. She says, "It's important for young people in particular to understand and recognize that you can contribute, that their ideas matter. You have the ability to influence outcomes."
Seek affirmation: Growing up, Smith Baker feels that she was given constant affirmation by her parents and teachers that he had the ability to be a leader. This type of encouragement is all around us, and we just need to tap into it, she believes. Whether it's through coaching or mentorship, there are many opportunities to be groomed for leadership and to find a voice in local schools, at home, or in the larger community.
Be open-minded: One of the best attributes of a leader is the ability to listen and provide feedback, Smith Baker notes. She says, "Certainly, a leader should have integrity, commitment, and passion. Those things matter. But it's most valuable to have an open mind, so you can really hear other ideas and perspectives." She adds that she stays conscious of how she enters a conversation, so she doesn't appear to have all the answers: "I have some experiences and a level of understanding because of the role and context that I'm in, but it doesn't mean I have the answer."
Don't underestimate the work/life challenge: For Smith Baker, balancing family time with her work can be tough. A good deal of community work happens in the evenings and on weekends, so she attempts to build in family downtime in order to strike a healthy balance.
Give yourself a time out: Another challenge for Smith Baker is finding time for strategic thinking, which tends to happen when she's not rushing into meetings or answering emails. That level of thinking is akin to daydreaming, when the mind can let ideas unspool and creative thoughts emerge as a result. To facilitate these moments, Smith Baker creates space on her calendar and tries to resist the urge to fill that "free time" with meetings or events.
Be patient: Leadership is a journey, Smith Baker believes, and it involves understanding and developing one's skills through the adventure. "People want to be leaders right now, and that impatience can detract from the process," she says. "Everything you experience really does prepare you for the next steps of leadership. When you're ready for the next step, it almost always presents itself."
Go deep: Leadership requires responsibility, commitment, and connection. Those type of attributes can be strengthened through resume-building activities, but they also require a level of introspection that might be a bit uncomfortable. Smith Baker says, "How do you relate to people? What makes you frustrated? Social intelligence is just as important as the work you do, and you need to look at yourself to really see how you're building that intelligence." She points out that more and more companies are exploring the benefits of mindfulness and emotional intelligence, and are looking at how building those can benefit a workplace and productivity.
Find a mentor: It's standard advice, but that's because it works. A good mentor will challenge a leader, and give ideas for improvement. On her career path, Smith Baker has had several mentors who've informed how she communicates with people, and how she deals with issues when she's frustrated.
Expect rapids, not mountain streams: Leadership doesn't always flow nicely, Smith Baker notes. There are numerous challenges, and it's up to the leader to see these choppy waters as opportunities to re-energize and re-prioritize.  She says, "From those difficult situations, some wonderful things can emerge, like new partnerships. It's all a matter of perspective."
For the future, Smith Baker notes that she's excited to continue her leadership in the community, especially Pillsbury United, since she's been connected to the organization since she was a child. She's continually surprised and amazed at the quality of programs the organization provides, and she's proud to be using her leadership skills to advance them.
"What I love most as a leader is the example that it sets for my children, and for other young people coming up in the community," she says. "I'm loving the journey."

Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.

Photo of Chanda Smith Baker by Bill Kelley
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