When Sirmara was visiting LaSalle Network’s headquarters to collect her last paycheck, she met our CEO, Tom Gimbel. He hired her on the spot as LaSalle Network’s Office Assistant in 1999, and the rest is history.
Having grown up on the West Side of Chicago, advancing her career as a black woman in corporate America, Sirmara has used a combination of life and work lessons to attain her career achievements. We sat down with her to talk about these lessons that have been a catalyst for her career and have made her a stronger leader.
How can you learn to be a good leader before you're in a leadership role?
Being a leader doesn’t just start at the office. There are so many ways you can be a leader in life that can translate into the office well before you have a leadership title. I am the eldest child and was a leader at home, whether it was helping to keep my siblings on schedule or giving them advice on how to do something or how to have a certain conversation. I was also a leader at school, where I was in ROTC. When there were team-based projects, I would take the lead on organizing meetings and building out the assignments, ensuring everyone got everything done on time. Throughout life, you retain these experiences and can apply them to situations in the workplace.
How do you learn to be a successful leader?
It’s important to reflect on the leaders you’ve had in order to know what kind of leader you want to be. Everyone has had a leader in some form, whether it was a teacher, coach, parents or a former manager. Draw on the experiences dealing with these different types of leaders and make a list of the qualities you really liked and responded well to, and the qualities you didn’t. For instance, my father impacted my leadership style and work ethic. He was a blue-collar worker who woke up before sunrise and came home after sunset every night to provide for my family. I had teachers, coaches and mentors who have shaped my leadership style.
Surround yourself with successful people and top performers to learn from, not only learning from their successes, but their failures and mistakes, as well.
What do you think makes a leader effective?
First, you have to be yourself. There is no persona I put on when I walk into the office or speak to my team virtually. I am the same person at home as I am I at work. I developed this sense of who I am very early on in my career, and I don’t apologize for who I am. In order to be effective, your team needs to trust you. Trust is built on genuine connections and genuine conversations. Your employees will read right through it.
What was an important lesson you learned early on in your career that helped shape your work ethic?
After being fired from my temporary assignment right before starting at LaSalle, it humbled me. This experience taught me to get the chip off my shoulder and helped reshape my work ethic and overall mentality around work. After getting a second chance as a receptionist for LaSalle Network, I became more focused and learned what it really meant to work hard.
What is some advice on getting your voice heard?
First, produce. Understand that in order to get your opinions heard, you first need to start with doing your job well. Too often, employees under one year come with a list of recommended changes, when their production isn’t anywhere near where it should be. Also, be prepared to have honest and direct conversations when you do bring your ideas to the table.
What are big lessons you have learned the hard way?
- Understand that no matter how much you prepare, you will fail sometimes, but failing is important for growth. It is easier said than done, but the sooner you learn, the better.
- Read as much as you can. It is important to read a wide range of subjects and genres in order to understand many different perspectives, even if you only take away two or three things. A few of my recommendations include Harvard Business Review, ‘A Ride of a Lifetime’ by Robert Iger, ‘Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success’ by Hugh Delehanty and Phil Jackson, and ‘Untamed’ by Glennon Doyle.
- Honest and transparent communication is key to getting things done.
- Get to know the individuals who turn heads. Learn from them and pick their brains to find out what makes them successful.
Sirmara has become a thought leader to follow, contributing her expertise to Harvard Business Review, HRO Today magazine, Training Journal, SHRM, Workforce magazine, CNBC, and speaking at conferences across the country. She was named an honoree of Crain's Chicago Business' 2020 most "Notable Leaders in HR," The Daily Herald Business Ledger’s "Influential Women in Business," Workforce Magazine’s "Game Changers," and Diversity Journal’s "Women Worth Watching."
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