Kristin Walker, founder of the Arkansas chapter of UrbanPromise, isn’t just in the business of helping kids and teens thrive. She’s in the business of helping them transform. UrbanPromise is a nonprofit that supports at-risk kids and teens through afterschool programs and summer camps. The UrbanPromise model is built upon individuals who have given their lives to equip and empower young people who come from challenging experiences and environments. “There are so many amazing teens in our inner-city neighborhoods,” says Kristin. “Many just lack the opportunities to use their talents and grow as leaders.”

But it’s not their incredible mission that makes Kristin and UrbanPromise stand out. It’s how they empower teens: a steady job, responsibility, and a paycheck. Through its Street Leader program, UrbanPromise hires local teens as counselors who run summer classes and programs for younger kids, where they can “set a good example and be a role model for their communities.” And, for many of these teens, it’s the first job they’ve ever had. The result is that these kids transform: They embody the leadership they’ve been asked to take on.

9 best practices for building leaders

Managers of any team can learn a lot from Kristin and UrbanPromise. First and foremost, with the right training and support, any employee at any experience level can become a leader and peak performer. So how, exactly, does Kristin motivate and support these teens to become standouts?

Here are nine tips from Kristin to build healthy, motivated employees who take ownership in their roles and lives.

1. Have regular offsites.

Offsites are great for changing contexts. It doesn’t have to be an all-day thing at an expensive conference center. Just get outside. Away from your usual stimulants or restrictions, you can more easily shift your mindset. It’s also a direct way to foster a sense of community because everyone there is experiencing the same thing you are.

For example, Kristin holds a staff retreat before each summer, which serves several purposes: “We do team building and vision casting, so we are unified in our vision for the summer. We want people to know: ‘You’re here for a reason. We’re here for you, and we want you to grow.’” The following week of training functions as onboarding. They teach things like “strategies for discipline, dealing with conflict, and generally getting them ready for their role at summer camp.”

A retreat or offsite can do wonders in terms of bringing people together, motivating for a purpose, and getting people prepared for, say, a busy season or new strategic direction.

best practices for building leaders 2

2. Get vulnerable.

Sometimes a professional setting can require keeping your guard up and acting the part. But in Kristin’s book, being vulnerable means that you set the stage for actually helping each other. The focus shifts to creating a supportive environment where everyone wants to improve — collectively. It also sets the stage for giving and receiving feedback.

For example, during Kristin’s annual retreat, each team member shares their personal story and challenges they have faced. The result is that people have a “shared vulnerability,” making the team feel even closer and connected. 

3. Make people feel supported, beyond their roles.

A core part of UrbanPromise’s philosophy is that if you give people leadership roles, they’ll step into them. With an encouraging support base, people embody the role they’ve been asked to become. Support is key: if your employees feel threatened or unsafe at work, they undoubtedly will not be at their top performance—they’ll be focused on self-preservation.

For example, Kristin empowers kids not only through a paycheck, but also through a meaningful focus on developing life skills, and emotional and spiritual growth. Kristin’s dad, a volunteer, provides life skills and personal finance lessons for students: “He talks about interest rates, and shows if you set some money aside you can save to buy meaningful things like a car.” The result is that kids feel like the whole team is rooting for them to succeed and achieve life goals, beyond the scope of their summer jobs.

Think about how you can help your employees grow in ways they want to succeed: sponsor a financial planner to meet with each employee, invest in learning and development initiatives that proactive employees want to learn. There are lots of ways to show you care about employees and their personal goals, and in return, they’ll feel more committed to your business.

4. Compliment people on what makes people special and unique.

People often don’t hear enough about what makes them special — what are they especially good at? What are their superpowers? At each offsite, Kristin asks everyone to write their name on a paper bag. Then, people place compliments in that bag about what makes that person so unique. Everyone appreciates words of affirmation,” says Kristin. “And it causes you to think, ‘What do I really appreciate about this person?’ It’s a great exercise.”

5. Keep energy up and laugh!

Personal growth disguised as fun can be really impactful. As part of workshops or offsites, incorporate skits, improv games, or visits to parks where some free time is allowed to keep people feeling relaxed but connected.

Sometimes, when the team needs a break during an intense time in training, Kristin will ask her team to just run outside for a quick round of kickball. Now, that might not be realistic for a desk job, but if you run a little less structured business such as a design agency or an education firm, the best way to inspire the creative juices may be to do a quick round of improv games. Try it! For more inspiration, check out more ideas for having fun from other small business owners.

6. Keep people accountable, and check in… a lot.

Now, it’s not entirely fun and games at UrbanPromise (though much of it is!). These teens have to learn new skills around accountability, like showing up on time and modeling leadership behavior.  Kristin uses the structure of performance reviews to take regular temperature checks of her team and how they’re tracking along the expectations she’s set for their growth — but this isn’t just an annual thing, or even quarterly; instead, she meets monthly with her employees and weekly during the summer. She regularly evaluates them on the following measures: Punctuality, Leadership, Cooperation, Responsibility, Appearance, Initiative, (Keeping of the) Contract, Crowd Control, Dependability, Participation, and Professionalism.

To acknowledge that growth is a continual process, meet as regularly as you can with your employees (and check out this method for structuring the most effective one-on-ones). This signals to them that you understand that growth is an ongoing effort to develop and choose the right things. And when it comes to evaluation, frequent feedback can help people become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and continue trending upward.

7. Listen. Like, really listen.

As a leader, you’re responsible for defining goals and expectations for the people who are executing on those goals. It’s important to be conscious about your biases and expectations or the limitations of your insight. Checking in at regular intervals helps combat unfair or unrealistic expectations by giving you empathy for your employee. As Kristin notes, “If kids are struggling with an expectation we have, we want the message to be: ‘We’re rooting for you and we want you to keep this job.’”

best practices for building a team of leaders

8. Be intentional.

As a meeting kick-off, Kristin does something called “vision casting” with her team, where they set intentions for an upcoming project or busy season. Especially in Kristin’s case, the kids need to have something clear to work toward, to strive to achieve. Whether it’s finding someone you admire to committing to a certain practice or hobby, set a goal to work towards, and examine what that might look like from all angles. Get visual, get physical by acting it out, and talk about it or pitch it to others.

9. Ask, don’t answer.

According to Kristin, “taking the time to really listen and ask a lot of questions” is irreplaceable. When someone doesn’t know the answer and needs guidance, one option is to just tell them what to do. But the other more meaningful option is to “ask them through it,” rather than to walk them through it. Ask helpful questions until they start to form their own idea or answer, empowering them to problem-solve and evaluate their own opinions, rather than just dictating the answer. Asking questions makes people feel both cared for and helps them “come to their own understanding,” which ultimately helps them builds ownership into their own lives.

A culture of change

The key to UrbanPromise’s success lies in changing a mindset, altering the underlying biases and behaviors these kids bring with them at the start of the program — commonly, a mistrust of society or institutions like schools and banks — and helping them find ways to positively contribute to and gain from their community.

Changing someone’s inherent mindset and expectations can be emotionally tiring, but the lessons Kristin’s learned through her undertaking can be applied to any kind of business — especially if what you want to accomplish is motivating a team to improve themselves as citizens of the world and have real impact through their jobs.

Whatever kind of business you have, it’s important to work toward ownership, helping your team to recognize the value of their own work and take pride in continuing to improve.

Krystal Barghelame Krystal was an integrated marketing specialist at Gusto. She was also a former writer on the Gusto content team and loves terrible pens. Er... puns.
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