Inspiring And Teaching Leadership With Catherine Rymsha
Leadership is not just a title. It's not about tenure or position. It's about how you treat the people you work with. It can be surprising how many people are so optimistic about leadership but are not educated enough to be good leaders. Today's guest, Catherine Rymsha, is a TEDx speaker, leadership expert and lecturer at the University of Massachusetts. She shares her own experiences with leaders that drove her from marketing to a teacher of leadership. She also talks about her book, The Leadership Decision: Decide To Lead Today, which showcases leadership's good and bad sides as we experience it in today's corporate culture and discusses areas where leaders can improve.
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Inspiring And Teaching Leadership With Catherine Rymsha
It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Catherine Rymsha. She knows what makes a leader a leader. Based on her years of training, research and consulting, she's determined how a person becomes one. They make the decision to lead. She is a Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Lowell campus, where she teaches courses on leadership. She has taught for Merrimack College and several adult education community programs.
Catherine spent several years in marketing communications, leadership roles ranging from marketing, healthcare, conferences to writing speeches on payment card security. She now leads learning and development for a software company. Between her academic and professional experience, she has taught thousands of courses on leadership feedback and career to global leaders across an array of industries.
Her TEDx Talk, Want to Become a Better Leader? Here's How. Just Listen, focused on the importance of listening to leadership. She holds a Master of Science in Leadership and a Doctorate of Education with a focus in Organizational Leadership from Northeastern University in Boston. That's where I went to school. She lives North of Boston with her dog, Mia. It's my honor and pleasure to welcome you to the show.
Thank you, Tony. I am thrilled to be here.
I love reading your bio because it's such a great intro. You've done a lot of great things in the world. I love having someone local to where I'm located in Boston and a fellow of Northeastern grad.
I'm representing that Northeastern in this episode, I suppose.
In this show, we try to create this ambiance of the fireplace and the campfire because that's where stories get told. We're going to create a space for you to tell your story of how you got to where you are now. We're going to do it through what's called flashpoints, points in your story that have ignited your gifts into the world. Along the way, we'll pause and see what shows up. With that, Catherine, I'm going to turn the mic over to you and let you get started.
I'm going to go back as far as college. I went to college out in Western Massachusetts. It used to be North Adams State for folks who are from the Massachusetts area but now it's the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. What's funny is that I went to college for a very noble purpose. I wanted to be a journalist and I took all sorts of journalism courses. I started to get a Minor in Business to round out my education.
When I was getting the Minor in Business, I thought, “I don't know if business is for me. I don't know if that's quite my jam.” I specifically took a Marketing course. No offense to any of your readers who might be in marketing but I took the Marketing course and I thought, “No, absolutely not. I will never ever be in marketing once I graduate college.” That fateful day came and I needed to get a job. I learned what journalists made and then I learned what marketing managers and marketing associates made.
My first job and jobs following that for about 10 or 12 years were all in marketing and communications. Granted, I had a lot of great experiences in my marketing career but my heart wasn't in it. I cried my way through my marketing career. It was not a great fit. Once I graduated college, I was anxious to get a Master's degree. I had applied to Northeastern for a Master's in Corporate Communications because I felt like that was a nice mix of Journalism and a Minor in Business.
They called me up one day and they're like, “We know you applied for this Corporate Communications Program but we don't have enough people to run it,” because it was a cohort and they were trying to test out some new formats. They're like, “We've got this cool program in leadership. Do you want to try that?” At first, I thought, “No. Why on earth would I ever take a program in leadership?” I started looking at the courses and reading the descriptions. Many of the courses were still in communications, which is what I was crazy about, what the journalism background and so on.
I'm like, “I'll give this a whirl.” I got into the Leadership Program and I absolutely loved it. I loved it so much so that probably after I finished in Northeastern had announced that they were doing Doctorate of Education and they were going to have a leadership feel to it. I thought, “Sign me up.” It was like back-to-back finishing that Master's and hopping right into the Doctorate degree.
Over time, I began to transition out of marketing full-time. I cried my way through my marketing career. I'm like, “I can't do this for the rest of my life or I'm going to die.” No offense to your marketing readers because I know some people who are in marketing love it. It wasn't quite for me and then started teaching it at Merrimack College. I'm at UMass now.
I have a corporate role in learning and development. In 2020, I released my first book on leadership development and how leadership has a decision. The name of the book is The Leadership Decision. It’s thinking about ways people can lead within their own lives and not getting so hung up on leadership being a title, which still happens. I did the TED Talk along the way. The path started out noble with journalism, still trying to write and encompass that passion but made a couple of turns and now here I am.
You’re going to experience things from leaders and with leaders that nobody ever prepared you for.
There's something about this. The common thread is communication and communication at the core. What is leadership but communicating well and listening, which I know that's a big part of this? Listening is 80% of the communication process. I know a lot of people who start with this passion thinking, “I'll be a journalist, get out there, start telling the stories,” and bringing together what the news is.
It starts to lead these breadcrumbs for other things. I think a lot of people need to start somewhere. You got to start with some feeling of like, “What do I want?” and then be open to what that can evolve to. Even if the thing you get to next is not the right thing, it sometimes will evolve to that next thing. Being so open to what shows up next is a cool thing when you think about it because look where you’ve ended up.
My marketing career gave me a lot of skill sets that have been incredibly valuable to being in leadership development full-time and teaching within that industry. You look back and you think like, “At the time, some of this may not have made sense,” but hindsight's 20/20 and you can begin to see where there were links and commonalities in the path to get where you are now.
That word commonalities and the underlying what's at the core of all of this. Marketing is made up of a lot of different aspects but ultimately at the core of it is communicating and getting a message out there and that led you down this path of leadership. I’m amazed that you got into this new leadership program and then that opened up so many doors.
It started to get you thinking bigger and to ultimately writing a book that got you to see that there is this element of leadership is a decision. Tell me what happened next as you started to get into this world of leadership and especially teaching because sometimes people think teaching leadership, how do you make the decision to become a teacher?
I don't quite know how I fell into teaching to be totally honest. I thought it would be interesting to do. I thought for a long-term goal, getting into teaching in my career full-time would be something because there is a nobility to teaching and trying to help educate the next generation to do whatever the next generation decides that they want to do. Specifically talking about leadership because, as a professional, it was always such an interesting balance in terms of going to school, learning about leadership theory, what makes a leader a leader and going through all of the blogs, the podcasts, the research and the books.
There's so much out there as you and your readers know on the topic of leadership but yet in my own career, within marketing, I experienced so many bad leaders and I was finding myself struggling with the fact of like, “Here I am researching this topic, starting to teach on it, to write and research it and yet people within the leadership world are so optimistic about the power that good leadership has,” which it does. We all know that and we can't debate that but yet in my professional career, I was facing many bad and toxic leaders.
It was such an interesting thing to experience because I thought there are people out there who can lead, were not giving “permission” from that corporate standpoint. Getting so ingrained in all of the BS and the corporate politics that dictate the type of person that can lead and lead well based on whether they give leadership as a reward for somebody that has a long tenure in an organization or that person is liked by the manager. Yet they can have some disastrous impacts on the people than the organization, what their intent is and what they're trying to achieve.
I struggled with that for a long time, which is where I think I'd wanted to get into teaching to try to be more real compared to what I had experienced from the student's standpoint of you might want to be a leader you might be in business or the corporate world. I'm using that as my example because that's what I know but you're going to experience things from leaders and with leaders that nobody ever prepared you for. I had one leader or manager several years ago in marketing. She was incredibly toxic and tough working for.
I think back about how much of an impact on my self-esteem, work ethic and productivity. That's where I started to think about leadership is more of a decision. It's not a title. It's not something you do from 9:00 to 5:00 or 8:00 to 6:00 or whatever hours people are working these days. I think being in this position where I saw the beauty of the academic standpoint of how wonderful leadership could be but yet having the practicality and some of the suckiness of reporting and working for bad leaders was interesting in order to be very much more real with my students compared to what I had in my academic career.
I'm glad that I asked this question because I think there's some element of tapping into your why for getting into this is so important. A lot of people look at the teaching profession and they say, “People who can't do, they teach.” I hate that because it feels so like icky when I hear it but in reality, I think it's quite the opposite. When you see the effect of things not working well in the world, some of the best things you can do is do the opposite.
Think about how you can go upstream and fix the problem from where it stems, which is how can we educate people to the place where they can understand what it is they need before they have to be in that seat where they're having to solve that problem to be that leader. In some ways, you went upstream and decided that you wanted to make that impact at the right place.
I have tried to. I like the way that you positioned that. That's where I think teachers can make the most impact is being honest with their students about their own experiences. Some educators do a very good job at trying to relate their own personal experiences to the classroom. I think some instructors struggle with that because they don't want to look vulnerable. Within leadership within itself is such an asset both in the corporate and the academic sense.
I think students relate to that. Sometimes, even after the class, a student will reach out to me and say, “I've reached a fork in the road in terms of my career and what I want to do,” or, “I'm reporting to somebody and these are some of the toxic behaviors and traits that I'm starting to see them exemplify. I'm starting to feel some physical and emotional stress because of that. What types of decisions should I make about my own leadership that is going to help me make the best choice for me in the long-term of my life and my career?”
I always love having those conversations because it's like Spidey sense, as soon as you work for somebody and you start to feel like something's a little bit off with their behaviors or their leadership style, that's when you have to start thinking about making a change. We want to have patience with our leaders but it always strikes me that people become in tune with what's going to make or break them in their careers.
It's also interesting because sometimes we get so trapped in the cultures that we are in from a corporate standpoint that we become fearful of leaving or making a change. It’s why I'm glad that I'm able to bring some of that awareness to the folks that I teach and work with so they can be more proactive about their own careers, leadership and being able to make the decision on when to leave, advance, speak up or whatever that might look like to them.
You said a word that often triggers me not in a bad way but in a good way is these environments that we find ourselves in. Sometimes they shape us but they could be positive or negative impacts on us. When you are in an environment that you feel fearful of being able to speak up and say what's on your mind or feel as though if you leave this environment, you're not going to be able to create a world outside of that environment, it can feel it make you feel stuck. There are no options.
When you give people the sense that you're the author of your story. You’re the person who's in control. You're the one who's leading your life. You have to decide to take that choice of being the person who's in charge of your destiny and not allow other people in your environment to control your destiny.
When I was writing the book and reflecting on some of my past horror stories of experiences that I've had, I can't write a book that's going to paint leadership in this beautiful picture when it can be tough and toxic. You could find yourself in some tough situations that might do some harm to your self-esteem, your productivity and overall feeling of self-worth. When I was writing the book, I wanted to incorporate an angle to that. I called it TOLL. It was for Timing, Opportunity, Looks, Likes and have so many times within the corporate world, that's what holds us back from leadership.
Either we're told the timing's not right for us to lead. We're waiting for the boss to say, “It's okay for you to lead now.” We failed and create our own opportunities. Even when it got into the L’s of TOLL in terms of Looks and Likes, those are sensitive subjects and ones that I've had to learn the hard way. I had a manager at one point and I share this story a lot because I hope it helps others who might have experienced similar situations, know that they're not alone.
She flat out told me. She's like, “People don't like you. We're not going to promote you because people don't like you.” I was horrified. I was so shocked that somebody would be that abrasive. I would think back and I'm like, “That was a sign.” I should have walked out of that company that day. It's things like the looks and the likes that can hold us back from being leaders or feeling empowered to be leaders because we work for and with people who are toxic and have an inability to lead themselves.
That's the story that I highlight a lot but even being in meetings where people would say, “This one looks too schlubby to lead,” and all these horrible things. I'm like, “Here I am spending thousands and thousands of dollars on a Doctorate degree, thinking about all the nobility that goes into leadership and being a good communicator and here, this person is highly strategic, communicates well, people like them.” Now you're going to turn around and say, “They're not a leader because I don't like the way that they dress.”
I feel so dated in saying that like we're in the 1950s. The Mad Men all looking like Don Draper or whatever but then I'm like, “Some of the stuff is still happening in this day and age when people are making decisions on who can lead regardless of their true leadership ability but more based on the superficial reality of what they think a leader looks like.” Yet, that still plagues corporate culture.
Leadership is more of a decision. It’s not a title.
I love that you bring this up because those few different words you brought into this room like schlubby or people don't like you, what do you do with that? That's insane. I think what it has me feeling is this element of this is why toxicity persists because when it's allowed that a person can say things like that and it allows them to stay in control of the situation. When someone says something like and I've heard this too, “We can replace that person. There's plenty of people out there who will take this role and they're in high demand.”
Treating people like cogs in the wheel and not real people frustrates me. That frustrates me because of this element of like, “You’re keeping the system in check.” It’s almost like we're in a prison that allows the system to stay on track. That's not how you lead. You lead by seeing the positives in other people.
At least, this is my opinion. I'd love to hear your thoughts about this. It’s about seeing how do you lift people up? If someone's not right for a job or if they're not ready for that next step, how do you get them there? If they're not going to get there in this particular company then this thing that's been coming up for me is if you love somebody, set them free.
I get to tell you that the thing that I've been thinking about and this relates to a lot of your points, is we've seen DE&I become such a hot topic. DE&I has always been around but now people are talking about it more and they're hiring the director of DE&I in order to come in and transform our culture to make it more inclusive. I was talking to somebody and was asking me, “What do you think about the future of DE&I?”
I said to them and I'm going to say it to you. I hope I don't offend anybody but I said, “I hope it's not going to be a fad because so many times we see diversity, inequality and inclusivity issues come up. We talk about it and know it's there but we still have leaders regardless of the organization who are toxic and making people feel ostracized within their roles because of bad behavior.
Yet we're not examining that from a core standpoint as much as what we should be from the leadership development aspects. HR departments are thrown together, let's have an event. Let's talk about it. Take the project implicit bias assessment and see what your level of biases towards one particular group, race, sex or another then nothing changes.” I hope that I'm wrong. I say fad. I hope it's not a fad but you think about everything going on now in this mainstream corporate and culture environment.
Yet we talk about the changes that we're going to make but even the examples that I've given about reporting to somebody who was that narrow-minded happened probably only maybe a few years ago, which bad behavior like that should not be happening regardless of the highlights on DE&I now. We're going to look at this and talk about it as a hot topic but my fear is that it's going to fade away.
I think that concern reverberates through a lot of people. There's an element of feeling that hopefully, it sticks and that there are enough people who become champions of this, to the point where they're not going to turn a blind eye to the issues and allow them to persist.
I think we will see changes because of the awareness being put on these topics. I don't think that unconscious bias and bad managers are going to go away overnight just because we're starting to have these conversations. I do think that there is more ownership on leaders to self-assess their own behaviors that can make people feel excluded from groups. Even where they get stuck in their own biases in terms of what leadership or a good employee looks like or how they're being perceived by those that they lead and interact with.
I think that leaders still have blinders in terms of having true self-reflection and self-awareness on where they can get more specific or feedback on how and where they can make changes that are going to make them more influential. I think a lot of leaders avoid that because they don't want to do the work.
Something about this conversation, which I think is interesting, is it makes me think about how systemic change can happen at many different places. There's the leader at the top but there's also more awareness you bring into the organization at different points. It helps raise the issue to the point where people won't tolerate as much as they used to in the past because they weren't aware.
When they're not aware of what's possible, where there are opportunities to have a voice then there's no chance to make a change. When you start to change the system, one part at a time, before you know it there's no chance for the unhealthy part of the organization to persist. That's what I hope the systemic change of all the things happening in the world starts to change the tide. We start to inform, educate and create better leaders from different levels of the organization. Before you know it, the people who don't fit into that model are going to go away. Maybe I'm a bit optimistic but I’m hoping that's what we'll move.
I'm right there with you. That's my hope too.
I want to get you back into your story. Were there any other moments that as you moved from academia, from teaching to what you're doing now, tell me about any other transition points that you felt you had to go through in your journey?
It's a bit of a transition from being in marketing roles to being more in the HR world. No offense to the HR readers too but sometimes HR can have a bad rap. When I started working in HR, it was a much different culture than what I was used to being from a marketing standpoint and being a bit more creative but trying to be kind of aware of what's going on in the business from a different standpoint than what I was from a marketing perspective.
I think that's been a transition for me is trying to change my own mindset of how do I think like a marketer, being analytical, creative and strategic to being in leadership roles, which do require a lot of the same skill sets but yet you have to come at it from a different standpoint. These are all like Catherine's horror stories but I have no shame anymore. I talk about many embarrassing things in my book and even in my TED Talk too.
When I first started doing leadership development, you have to get up in front of a classroom and speak. I still had a bit of that marketer in me that I was a bit flattened to the point. This is what our messaging points are going to be. This is the target audience. This is the deployment date and these are going to be the KPIs that we look at. This is the amount of revenue that we're trying to attract and this particular conference and so.
When I started to speak from the leadership standpoint, I was probably a couple of months into it and I had to get up and go to Houston and do this presentation. I got up there and I was still acting like marketing Catherine, very flattened to the point and a little bit cold in my delivery. I wasn't the warmest and fuzzy gal at that point. I got feedback after the fact and somebody called me out. They're like, “I cannot connect with this woman whatsoever.”
I was horrified because I thought, “I left a job in marketing where my manager told me that nobody liked me. Now I'm in this new job in leadership development. That is what I've been dying to do for the last several years. I got this doctorate in this thing, I get to know what I'm doing. I got to be approachable. What am I going to do?” It took some time to warm up to the idea of being able to be a bit more of myself when I got up in front of a classroom.
A lot of times, people would think like, “Here is the woman from HR to train us on a particular performance topic.” I got up there and I thought this is going to sound so cheesy, “I’m going to be myself as much as I can be.” I would start some of my lame jokes and asking people where to go to restaurants. I would start being honest about like, “Our culture isn't great. In HR, we've screwed some things up.”
Once I became more honest and I think I’m funny, you may not or your readers may not but once I became more myself, the people's reactions to me changed incredibly. I started to have more folks come to me when they were facing issues within the workplace or their own career challenges or wanted somebody to listen to them. I feel like a teenager on the outside but people started to come.
People like you. They respect you. They feel like they can trust you and I was like, “Thank God, I've done it.” It took some time and it did not happen overnight. I went from being a cold fish up there presenting like, “Leadership is the practice and performance is this,” and then it was like, “Hard no, this is not going to work long-term.” I think that was a big eye-opening moment. I had to do a lot of work to get more comfortable in being myself, honest and also trying to bring in the elements that make me, me.
Once I was able to do that and show some of that vulnerability, that was a big change but that was a hard change. I got pretty scared there for a while. What if I'm always going to be like that girl sitting alone in the corner that nobody likes at work? Like, “There she is. Don't talk to her. She's a weirdo,” but I got over it. I'm still a little weird. That goes without saying. That was another big transition point into making the switch from marketing to HR, specifically to leadership development, teaching and wanting to form relationships and connections that were going to help people understand, digest and act on what I was telling them that would help them be better leaders.
It's modeling what you want people to hear. I love this story. It's real. I think that oftentimes people get so wound up in the fact that like, “What do I have to share? What is the lesson? What are my credentials? What are all the things?” Your life is the credential. The journey you've been on and all the things you've learned in this process. That's why I love this show because I look back at your journey to getting here. All the things you've learned, the toxicity of the leadership, the wrong turns but ultimately, they are all formed where you are now. I think that ultimately is what the beauty of becoming human is all about.
I couldn't agree with you more.
As you look back and reflect on your journey, what is it beyond what we've already talked about because we've touched on a lot of things? What are 1 or 2, maybe 3 things that you've learned about yourself that you wanted to share?
There are people out there who can lead who are not given permission on a corporate standpoint.
One thing has been my work ethic. I will work and work until I'm blue in the face, which is probably not the best trait in the world especially now when we talk about balance with COVID. I have a full-time job. I teach on the side. I'm writing all the time. I'm writing a textbook now. All these things keep me busy and motivated. I am surprised myself sometimes with my work ethic because when I was growing up, my parents were like, “Is she going to go to college? What is she going to do?”
I was not a good student so making this transition has been surprising for both my parents and me. That's one thing that I've learned about myself. I think some of my resiliency, too because to work for a bad manager, to have some of these not-so-great experiences, be able to bounce back and to try to use that in a positive way in educating others has been one thing that I've tried to work hard on. I will say that now, as I'm getting more tenure in my career, trying to find more meaning in the work that I do.
When I started, I was in marketing and very extrinsically motivated because I wanted to buy a house and travel. That was part of the appeal, starting to teach and get into leadership development full-time. I wanted to have more of a sense of meaning. I was helping people. I wasn't simply working for a paycheck but yet what I was doing was going to make a difference whether I realized it or not. That might be stroking my own impact but I wanted to help people. I wasn't helping people in marketing. I was making money in marketing.
I love that reflection. That reflection back is a nice reflection. My book is called Climbing The Right Mountain. At some point, when you're climbing the right mountain, you realize that it's not about the financial incentives alone. If you're driven by that or if you're driven just by the title, you're going to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is what is it that I want for me. How do I want to be remembered?
What is the impact that I want to have? When you find that meaning, it drives you. Even the working hard, which you said earlier, it's like you work hard but you realize that the work ethic you have is driven by the fact that you see that the work is something you love doing or enjoy doing. You find value in it. You're not just doing it because you're like, “When I get this done then I'll be happy when I'm done.”
That's the mindset some get stuck in but there's much more of a greater thing there.
As we’re coming to a close here, I wanted to ask is there anything else that you want to share that's top of mind at this period that's been challenging for everyone back into work and dealing with reintroducing themselves to other people. Any thoughts?
The return to the office because we've all been working incredibly hard. I always need to catch myself and that it's not been a vacation for anybody. I do think that there's an opportunity and a lot of folks have done that is re-evaluating their lives with the pandemic that's happened over the last several years and months now.
That one thing is to encourage people to think about where their priorities are now and how they can use that self-awareness and this new perception to make better decisions that are going to serve them in their lives and moving forward. Maybe trying to take a step back for whatever may look like to you, your readers or them and trying to figure out where they can make better decisions that are going to be more impactful and long-lasting than what they might've done prior to COVID.
Thank you. One last question, what are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you?
The first book that I will mention I'm going to stick with because it was the first book that I ever read on leadership was The Leadership Challenge. When I first read it, I was like, “This is okay.” I read it a couple of years later and I was like, “This is a lot better than what I initially thought it was when I read it at like 22.” I have my MBA students read it too and they always give me a lot of positive feedback on how that's something they feel like they can be actionable with both from completing the course and all the activities that I make them do.
They feel like that's been a book that they can apply to their life outside of the classroom. A book that I read was called Three Women. I found that book was powerful and talked about the experiences that women have in their personal lives and as they move through different chapters of their lives. That was one that I read a couple of years ago and has always stuck with me. When people ask about a book to read, I always say, “Three Women.”
Do you know who the author is by any chance?
It's on Amazon. It was a New York Times bestseller. It’s Lisa Taddeo. It came out in 2019.
I love the dichotomy of the choices you've made. The Leadership Challenge, I remember reading that many moons ago. I also love how you said that you read it first and it was like, “Okay, whatever,” and then you read it again and it's like, “That makes sense.” Sometimes the book has to be at the right time when you know where you are in the world. Thank you so much for sharing your story, journey and all your insights.
Thank you. I've appreciated your time. It's been so much fun.
Thank you. I also want to let the audience know where they can find out more about you. What's the best place to find you?
I love to connect with people on LinkedIn. I always welcome notes, feedback or connections there. I have a website, TheLeadershipDecision.com, which you can learn a bit more about me and my book. I love the LinkedIn connection. I hope your readers aren't shy about sending me a note there.
I can't thank you enough for coming to the show. I want to thank the readers for coming on the journey with us. I know you're leading with so many great insights. Go pick up her book. It's fantastic. We're going to have a lot of people going out and buying this book. Thank you.
Thank you, Tony.