As part of our “As the Leader” series, David Ehrenberg met with students for a wide-ranging discussion that included the key leadership lessons he’s learned over his career as well as in his current role as CEO at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation. Here are some highlights, edited for space, from the conversation, which was moderated by Michael Zabar ‘21, MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School.
Finding Your Leadership Style
“Leadership is hard because you have to be different things to different people at different times. That puts a strain on you as an individual to stay true to who you are. Also be nimble enough to adjust and compensate for your weaknesses or your areas where you may not be as naturally inclined to one element of leadership. Taking honest stock of that is important as you hone your leadership ability. Leadership is like any other skill that has to become muscle memory.
I've had my leadership style described as humble confidence. That is the kind of approach I try to bring. I never want to be the smartest person in the room. If I am, I probably have not done the right job or had the right team around me.”
Leading with Humility
“On the events of the summer and Black Lives Matter, I’ve had to revert back to that humbleness and just be totally frank about it as a white man. I can't understand what our employees are going through. I can't have the answers. As a leader, you want to have answers in moments of crisis and in moments where your employees need something from you. I can't have these answers. All I can do is listen and try to align the work of the organization in new ways that answer the challenges of our moment. I need others to show me the way. I think that humbleness is something I have tried to be honest about.”
Pivoting During the Pandemic
“We pivoted five or six employees to start working with our small businesses to find alternative lenders who would help our tenants get PPP, and we were able to get 100% of our eligible tenants PPP. That focus has been extraordinarily important. I think it has been a wake-up call to launch programs on management training because business practices that worked pre-pandemic are not working now, and they realize that to be stronger companies they need to have better management.”
Cultivating Corporate Culture
“Tending to the corporate culture is a big part of what I do. I have fiduciary and strategy responsibilities, but setting the organizational culture is where it all starts.
The team was not as strong as I wanted it to be. We had to undergo a very significant—at times painful—corporate culture change. That is still ongoing. Culture change never ends. You constantly have to evolve. It starts with getting the right team members on the bus and in the right seats. A big part of what I have been trying to do is move us from a culture that was very siloed. There were issues and problems at the yard, which were kept under the surface.
Moving to a culture where you could disagree, and it didn’t get personal has been a big part of what I do. I see my role as helping the other senior leaders in the organization get comfortable with that tension and with that trust, so they can solve the problems themselves.”
Career Advice and Mentorship
“My experience is that nobody is going to care about your career as much as you do. You have to take full ownership over that. Everybody hopes to find a mentor, but very few find one. More people find sponsors—people who advocate for you and think of you if a job opportunity comes up. But, getting yourself into a position where you can flourish, is nobody's responsibility but yours.
I see a lot of young people grow frustrated and disillusioned when their employer doesn't do everything they feel is appropriate. That is a legitimate feeling, but the next feeling has to be, ‘I have to solve this problem. I have to have honest conversations and put myself in a position where I can succeed.”