Ancella Livers is not one to sit still or repeat the past. Her current role as a senior faculty member of CCL’s design and delivery team is one of many she’s sought out in a lifelong journey of learning and leading.
Ancella was a journalist and journalism professor before her interest in leadership development led to work at CCL. She worked directly with leaders from business, education and nonprofit sectors; managed people and programs; and co-authored the book Leading in Black and White: Working Across the Racial Divide in Corporate America. She then became executive director of the Institute for Leadership Development and Research at the Executive Leadership Council, before returning to CCL last year.
What is the focus of your work these days and how is it different than when you were with CCL before?
AL: I’m in the design and delivery role, working with clients to understand their needs and find solutions. I maintain my interest in diversity work, management and coaching. I have all the same interests I had before — I’ve just added some new ones!
I have been learning more about the organizational leadership work and strategic leadership work that CCL is doing. I am really struck by this notion of leadership within and across four levels: society, organization, group and individual. It seems to me that in order to have the most value to clients, I need to understand things up and down that line. So, I’m learning and growing in that area.
You’re modeling a theme that runs through all CCL work: the ability to learn, grow and change over time.
AL: I hope so. It’s hard for me to stay still. My favorite thing is learning; it always has been. One of my personal missions, a personal value, is to continue to grow and to be open and willing to change — which is not always easy. I want to keep putting more tools in the tool chest and finding ways to use them.
Is there a particular experience that stands out for you as an important learning moment, a time when you sought out a change?
AL: Coming back to CCL was one of those times. I knew I didn’t want to do exactly what I had done before. I didn’t want to recreate yesterday. Running the Institute has given me a different vantage point and I was in a different place.
Coming back made me think about a lot of things. What have I learned? What do I want to learn? How is it that I can be more effective in helping the leaders that we work with? With all that stirring around, I do know I love leadership work, and it’s really important work.
What are you seeing as the big challenges for leaders and organizations today?
AL: Speed and burnout. Everywhere I go people are stressed out to the max. They are working too hard, overwhelmed, getting sick. They are uncertain of what their leadership wants from them. They are working with less and working longer hours. And so many people feel like they are not doing their best work — they’re just shoveling the work through.
And the need to deal with ambiguity and complexity hasn’t changed — people just have to do it faster. People know it’s taking a toll, and they’re stressed about that, too. They are grateful to have work, but the pain is real. They are really struggling with this stuff. A lot of people are coming close to the breaking point.
Obviously, there isn’t a simple fix, or we wouldn’t be at this point. But do you have any clues of what might help?
AL: One thing we are doing in the Leadership Development Program is to talk about being resilient and giving people some coping mechanisms. We get them to think about how they take care of themselves and cope, how they can work their own energy. Things like getting up and walking around, finding support — what are the small things that can make a big difference in getting though the day?
Part of what’s happening is that people become so overwhelmed and they feel like they don’t have any power, any authority to take control of anything. It helps to see that there are some things you can control. When you focus on that — even if it’s a small thing — it gives you some measure of sanity back.
What about at the organizational level?
AL: We need to help each other prioritize. Everything can’t always be most important. It just can’t be. You may think it is, but it’s not possible to do everything first. If we are going to continue to work in this short-handed way, until organizations get to a place where they’re hiring more folks, then we have to have the conversations about how we manage all this stuff.
Managing up is important — a lot of people we work with are frustrated, thinking that their boss just doesn’t get it. But when we talk to their direct reports, they are thinking that their boss doesn’t get it either. So, recognizing that many of us are both reporting to someone and have someone reporting to us, what kinds of conversations are we having? Are we doing to somebody else what we wish our boss wouldn’t do to us? Or do we listen to our direct reports the way we wish our bosses would listen to us?