Executive and Author Ashleigh Walters Offers Advice for Servant Leadership
The Women’s Engagement Council at Penn State Behrend debuted its new “Blue Chair Chats” discussion series in April of 2023 with a program featuring Ashleigh Walters, the former president of Onex Inc. and the author of “Leading with Grit and Grace: A Journey of Organizational Culture Change.”
Walters was first guest in the “Blue Chair Chats” series, which features intimate, interview-style discussions about unique paths to leadership. Walters was interviewed by Melanie Ford, president of the WEC board and director of Youth Education Outreach at the college.
As president of Onex, an Erie-based company that designs, builds and services industrial furnaces, Walters managed the transition from private ownership to an employee stock-ownership plan. The company is now 100% employee-owned.
During that transition, and through the COVID-19 pandemic, Walters published a series of management-theory essays on LinkedIn. That writing led to her first book, “Leading with Grit and Grace,” which detailed her “coach approach” to management.
“The first thing I had to learn was that I didn’t know everything,” she said. “When I graduated from engineering school my dad said, ‘You need to go onto the plant floor and be there with the people who are doing the work. They already know the solution to the problem that you have. Just go and talk with them, and be with them, and ask their opinions.’ And that’s what I did.”
The program, held in McGarvey Commons, was free and open to the public. Attendees received a signed copy of Walters’ book.
A few takeaways from the evening:
- Walters advocates for “servant leadership.” In her book, she illustrates this with a Nelson Mandela quote: “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
- Walters’ three steps for servant leadership:
- Admit your mistakes, give yourself the freedom to fail, and stay humble;
- Keep a positive attitude. Emotions are contagious.
- Don’t place blame on people. It’s a failure in the process, not the person.
- When goal setting, don’t make employees a road map. Give them some autonomy in finding the best way for them to reach that shared goal.
- Play to peoples’ strengths. Forcing people to do things they don’t like to do or are not good at is a waste of resources and a source of frustration.
- When it comes to priorities, pick one. Priority is singular and literally means the most important thing. Focus on that. You can’t do everything well.
- Don’t be afraid to say no. You have a finite amount of time and energy. “I say ‘yes’ only when it aligns with my core values and beliefs,” Walters said.
- Strive for work-life integration, rather than balance. “Any working mother can tell you there is no such thing as work-life balance,” she said.
See news coverage of the event at Erie News Now.com.