Leadership Reflections: Lessons Learned

Elizabeth P. Cipolla

Editor’s note: Each month, Cipolla’s business column will feature a respected leader in our region who has been in their career long enough to have learned a lesson or two worth sharing. Featured this week is Tory Irgang, executive director of United Way of Southern Chautauqua County.

You will have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the featured leader’s journey that led them to their current role. Most importantly, you will gain valuable insight from helpful “real life” lessons they’ve learned along the way. It is my hope that these life lessons will help to inspire a spirit of continued personal development for everyone who reads it. Enjoy.

Cipolla: Can you tell us about your organization?

Irgang: The United Way mobilizes the community to help people improve their lives. We do this by focusing in the four areas: academic success; work readiness; self-sufficiency; and health and independence.

Cipolla: What is your educational background?

Irgang: I earned a bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Mount Union.

Cipolla: What are the most important decisions you make?

Irgang: I believe a leader’s primary responsibility is to establish a culture for success within their organization. They don’t do this alone, but they are ultimately responsible for it. I have some specific ideas about the type of workplace environment I enjoy and I do everything I can to maintain that. It requires the right team members, clear vision and appropriate resources. Once the culture is established, it is easier to maintain as you bring on new team members.

Cipolla: How do you encourage creative thinking?

Irgang: In my experience, creative thinking comes from working on ideas and projects as a team. In smaller organizations, this can be accomplished with all team members around a table. One person shares their idea or vision and other team members add to it. The final product is jointly owned by the entire team and is better because it incorporates multiple perspectives.

Cipolla: What career “mistakes” have helped to mold you?

Irgang: I don’t have any mistakes or regrets. Each job and career opportunity has helped me to acquire necessary skills and build important relationships. I think it is critical to do your best in all situations. You never know who or what might lay ahead and having a reputation for hard work always serves you well. I often tell younger people not to be disappointed if they don’t find themselves on a career ladder that climbs upward. My career has been more like a series of ice flows. I had to jump from one to another at the right time to avoid being stranded or falling into the water altogether.

Cipolla: What is one characteristic you believe every leader should possess?

Irgang: I think integrity is the essential component of strong leadership. Staff will not respect or follow a leader they don’t trust. They must see your actions reflect your words. They must see you behave consistently regardless of the audience or environment.

Cipolla: What is one mistake you witness leaders making?

Irgang: Some leaders avoid hiring and empowering younger employees. They worry about lack of experience and overlook tremendous skills and innovation in the process. The youngest generation in the workplace looks at the world differently. They can help a team be more dynamic and creative. The key is to hire the right people and then position them for success within the team structure. Those with less experience may need more mentoring but they definitely enhance the overall team.

Cipolla: What is one behavior you have seen derail a leader’s career?

Irgang: Leaders who don’t ask for help or advice often find themselves alone on an ice floe that is melting. I have never regretted admitting my deficits and finding someone to help me. In fact, it is refreshing for the person being approached for advice. In my experience it usually cements an open, honest relationship that opens more doors and opportunities. In addition, most people love being asked for advice or help!

Elizabeth P. Cipolla SPHR, SHRM-SCP is a leadership communications professional specializing in the areas of leadership training, creative recruitment strategies, employment branding, professional development and executive coaching for over 15 years. Her leadership experience comes from various industries including marketing, mass media, apparel, education, manufacturing, aerospace, nonprofit agencies and insurance. To contact Elizabeth, email her at elizabeth@catapultsuccess.com.