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Learning to Be True to Yourself

One Leader’s Journey in a highly structured, hierarchical environment

This post is one of a series of powerful, eye-opening interviews from Jensen’s ongoing research on Leadership into the Future of Work, as well as from the study by Ultimate Software/Jensen Group: Reimagining HR for the Augmented Era

Tracie Keesee is Deputy Commisioner of Equity and Inclusion, New York City Police Department. Here she shares how she learned to be comfortable in her own skin, and how she helps others do the same.

What Makes You, You?

“I was taught to not only always do the right thing, but that I should also always watch out for other people. 

“Education was absolutely a priority in our household. And making sure that you treated all people respectfully. Especially for your elders and those who couldn’t watch out for themselves.

“Looking back now as a grandmother on how much emphasis I received in taking care of others, I’ve come to realize that, when I was growing up, there wasn’t that much focus on self-care. My parents and grandparents always looked so exhausted. There was no staycations or downtime. 

“My biggest dream was to leave Colorado and come to New York to be a fashion designer. But there was a want ad in the newspaper for the Denver Police Department. I took a test in this hall filled with two thousand applicants for only 30 positions. Not really taking it seriously. I get the call that I had been accepted to go to the academy, and all I’m thinking about is a job with benefits, not really about a career. 

“I came to learn that all different kinds of people with different experiences enter into law enforcement careers for completely different reasons, with completely different kinds of perspectives. And I found this applies to all jobs in any industry. The challenge for all organizations is how to get people aligned and focused on a common purpose with common values heading in a common direction.

“It comes down to who we are as human beings. How we treat people, how we support them, and how we let them be their individual selves, and merge their individuality with common purpose. As well as understanding how jobs and career choices change people. How many of us look back and think, ‘Oh my god, if I only knew then what I know now’?” 

What Would You Tell Your
25-Year-Old Self, Now?

“Don’t change anything, don’t wish things were different. And: Trust yourself, trust your gut, you were right.”

How Do You Get People to Be Comfortable in Their Own Skin
in a Hierarchical Environment? 

“A lot of getting comfortable in your own skin, beyond just basic maturing over the years, is who you surround yourself with — who’s guiding and coaching you along the way. It’s also the environment, the culture — where it’s OK for you to have your own voice, and to have that voice be respected.

“During your journey through all that, it takes self-reflection, a lot of preparation to be truly comfortable with who you are, and finding the best ways to do that. There are ways to interject, ways to pull people aside, and ways to send multiple messages to different people at once. 

“It’s learning by making mistakes. Trying to be true to who I am, I have done some things that have gone horribly wrong. Cringeworthy moments. Several times I thought I’d better start packing up my desk! Most of us think we’re the only person who makes really bad mistakes. Everybody does. 

“Being comfortable with yourself is also about how people help you through those mistakes, and help you be comfortable with your identity in different situations. For example, in a police department, you’re in a command and control situation. You absolutely have to do what you’re told. But successful police structures also mean making sure that your voice is heard. To talk out loud and express what’s within you, without fear of it coming back to hurt you or your career. Working out how being true to oneself can fit within structured situations.” 

[Example: Summer 2018’s police department lip sync challenge. New heights of having fun and true to oneself within a very disciplined structure. Uptown Funk tops them all!]

“Where we often fail as leaders, managers, and as individual contributors is when we assume everyone has to shed who they are in order to conform to what the organization needs. That approach is extremely unhealthy. Staying true to oneself is the responsibility of each individual.

“The responsibility of the organization is to understand the stressors in people’s lives. To know them as people, and know more about what’s going on with them. It’s unbelievable that we can see someone who looks like they haven’t slept, and looks stressed, and we can’t bring ourselves to ask, ‘What’s going on?’ We must honor the people we pay to work for us by understanding more about who they are individually. Too often: We spend so much money to be sure we bring the right people into our organizations, and then we treat them as if we have no investment in who they are as human beings.”

Preparing Ourselves for Transitions

“When I retired from the Denver PD to come to New York, the Personnel person says to me, ‘Ya know, 45% of the people who retire from the police become alcoholics.’ (Fortunately for me, I was going from one job to take another. Not really ‘retirement.’ ) 

“Wow! What a downer! When she said that to me, I started thinking: For all we know about retirement and money management and financial planning, what we don’t do is mentally prepare our workforce and ourselves for that kind of big career change. We don’t have the kind of transitional conversation with ourselves and those we manage. Or prepare or support ourselves for those kinds of changes. I decided to change that as part of my role at the NYPD.

“This is super important for everyone now. Because major transitions are no longer just at retirement. For most of us, they’ll happen every few years. At the NYPD, I’m having conversations with people from 23 years old to 80 years old about how to make personal transitions.”

It All Comes Down to
Relationships and Community

“No matter what happens in our future technologically, I don’t think we’ll ever get away from two or more people talking, sharing, learning, and creating together. We may become more efficient through technology, but there will always be someone behind the machine. Even with machinery, you still have to know what the needs of the people are. People, communities, and individuals will be the ones dictating what kind of technologies they will want. To do that, we’ll always have communities co-producing each new advancement alongside the tech companies.”

You can see Tracie’s recent TED talk on how police and neighborhoods can work together, here.

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