Leadership: You dont get to the top by fluke - Christina Lewellen

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Christina Lewellen (pictured centre) receiving a D Christina Lewellen (pictured centre) receiving a D

Christina Lewellen, executive director of the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools (ATLIS), chats with Holly Patrick about her intentional career path to CEO level, managing sustainable growth and dealing with loneliness at the top...

HP: Tell me about your professional journey 

CL: This is my first executive director position, and it was a very intentional journey. I was on a 10-year plan to move from a vice president role into my first CEO role, and it turned out really well. It was a cool and fun journey.

 

I started my career in journalism, primarily print journalism, newspapers, city government reporter stuff, and then I landed at an association after I had my young children, because I wanted to stay in the realm of writing and there was a trade magazine that was owned by an association called Window and Door magazine and it primarily is for manufacturers of windows and doors. on the residential side.

I was unaware of the association community up until that point. I got hired as a writer and then an editor of that magazine and really got to know the association world. I started designing some lines of business for that association specific to the dealer market. They needed support and because of some of these ideas that I was generating, my leadership at the time, was incredibly kind and they suggested that I pursued my MBA. They knew that I had a strong writing and industry background but didn't have the business acumen that would serve me long term.

I was incredibly fortunate to receive my MBA from the Rochester Institute of Technology and then after that, I moved into leadership roles. Once I had the business background, I oversaw the magazine team, I was in charge of the membership team, and that extended into events in education in a variety of different roles.

I served at the VP level for about a decade, and it was all very intentional to prepare me to become a CEO. I really feel like I came to my first CEO role as prepared as I probably could have been.

The association team right now is all made up of women, there are five of us, and it makes me proud.

HP: What does a typical day in your role involve?

CL: It's hard to nail it down, but I love that about it. It could be that we're working on internal strategies in terms of growing our organisation, which is important, but it could easily be that I am speaking with a technology, CIO (Chief information officer) team leader at one moment and then giving a keynote to heads of school about how they can demonstrate technology leadership. Then the very next moment, I'm collaborating with other associations and organisations in our independent school world to say how can we partner up or form a healthy coalition so that we can deliver content that our folks need.

 

It's a whirlwind kind of a day on most days but I love it and I really believe in the work that we're doing, so it makes it in my head, all the puzzle pieces fit. To the outside world, it might seem completely chaotic. But for me, it makes a lot of sense.

HP: Anyone can lead, right? But in your opinion, what makes a good leader?

CL: Humility and commitment to the mission. I think it's important to have skills and I worked very hard to prepare myself for this role. But I also think that I learn every single day and I also know that I could not accomplish anything without my team.

HP: What drives you to keep going on the more stressful days?

CL: Seeing my members, knowing that they can do their jobs easier is incredibly rewarding to me. So supporting a profession means a lot to me because I'm helping them help their students and their communities.

 

I also love supporting my team. The association team right now is all made up of women, there are five of us, and it makes me proud. I had a lot of great mentors; I had a lot of support coming through my career and I take that very seriously and I carry that as an opportunity to pay it forward.

It's important to me that my younger staff or less experienced staff members are developing their careers. I want them to go out and be amazing after they work for me.

I think it's important for staff leaders to understand that it is lonely at the top.

HP: What do you find most challenging about your role and how do you deal with it?

CL: This sounds like a trite thing to say, but I think managing growth is tough. You must be careful because you can't leave your core members in the dust. We're growing fast and that is to be managed carefully. It's a happy challenge and it's one that I take on with energy but it's tough. I want to make sure that we're still providing the same level of service and the same responsiveness to the market as we grow.

 

I also take it seriously when we hire staff, I don't want to hire too quickly or hire the wrong person which has been challenging in this market.

HP: Looking back, what would have been handy to know when you started the role?

CL: I think it's important for staff leaders to understand that it is lonely at the top. You are that bridge between the board and the staff and so to transition into the CEO role, it's like “where's my therapist? Where's my sounding board?” And so what I wasn't prepared for was the extent to which I would need my CEO community, other executive directors.

 

I wish I had known the degree to which your network, your personal network, is really important when you take a role like this because it can a lonely existence and you need support from others who are in your shoes.

Holly Patrick
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Holly Patrick
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A desire to travel led Holly Patrick to the business meetings and events world and she’s never looked back. Holly takes a particular interest in event sustainability and creating a diverse and inclusive industry. When she’s not working, she can be found rolling skating along Brighton seafront listening to an eclectic playlist, featuring the likes of Patti Smith, Sean Paul, and Arooj Aftab.

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