Julie Lawson on Embracing Leadership at Every Level

Julie Lawson’s move to vice president of programs at FOCUS St. Louis this past summer was a natural transition when you consider her career-long interest in leadership development. After starting a career in media after college graduation, Julie switched to the nonprofit industry and set about learning the administrative and business side of the nonprofit world. With her passion for learning about leadership development, Julie is sure to find new ways to empower women in St. Louis in her role at FOCUS.

What did you learn from joining FOCUS St. Louis as its vice president of programs?
When you change jobs after working somewhere for so long, you quickly realize how much you are a product of your environment. My first few weeks at FOCUS felt like a test of my flexibility. It was a good reminder for me that leadership styles have to be adaptable to many different environments, expectations and cultures.

What’s been your most challenging career obstacle? How did you overcome it?
It was probably when I became the CEO at the Crime Victim Advocacy Center. I had worked several years in nonprofit management and had personally experienced a violent crime, but I did not have experience in victim services. In other words, I knew nothing about the criminal justice system or had subject matter expertise on victimization. In the beginning, I struggled to lead a team of people in an area that was very much new to me. I worked to overcome my knowledge gap by being quick to admit that I needed their help and by really listening to those who worked for me to guide me through their expertise.

You’ve been in a lot of different leadership roles. What do you believe are the three most important attributes a great leader possesses?
Across the board, honesty is number one. There are a lot studies to prove that when someone trusts their leader, they will do anything.

Transparency is important, as well. Most people say they feel empowered to do their jobs when they have all the information necessary to do their jobs. Even when there are high-level, strategic decisions being made, it’s important to communicate these decisions to all levels of an organization to help create alignment around a solution. Transparency helps people feel that they are part of the solution as well.

Finally, flexibility. We’re never done developing and life is never done changing, so flexibility is key to helping others adapt to what is never a stagnant world.

How have you changed yourself to achieve success?
When I was in the beginning stages of my career, I found myself taking on projects that aligned with how other people viewed me. I never stopped to ask if a skill I had or role I was in was something I enjoyed or wanted to continue to develop. My biggest career change came when I started asking myself if I was fulfilled in what I was doing.

In terms of overall success, the other thing I’ve adapted is keeping an open mind to multiple perspectives. I’ve learned that it is OK to change your mind about something – success comes with maintaining a perspective where you can forgive yourself if you change your mind.

What advice do you have for women who are determining their career goals?
Define your career goals on open, healthy choices, not from outside expectations of what you should or are able to do. My generation was the first one that really felt the pressure to be something significant in the workplace, and I’m thankful for the opportunities that pressure facilitated.

What are you doing when you’re not working?
I sing – I have a degree in vocal music and theater, so I love to sing when I can. I like crafts and I tend to be artistic whenever I have the time. I really enjoy being outdoors, kayaking, hiking or doing anything that gets me out enjoying nature.

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Emily Knippa

Emily Knippa is a St. Louis-based marketer and writer who focuses on content marketing, career development, and personal finance. She enjoys meeting people pursuing inspiring career paths. She’d love to meet you at the next United Way event. Say hello to Emily on Twitter at @emilyknippa.