Deborah Hamlin is chief executive officer of the Irrigation Association (IA) and executive director of the Irrigation Foundation. She has more than 25 years of experience in working with professional and trade organizations.
At the IA, Hamlin was instrumental in shifting the organization’s focus to “promoting efficient irrigation.” Under her guidance, the association focuses on education and advocacy – ensuring competent professionals are designing, installing and maintaining irrigation systems and sharing the economic and environmental benefits of both agricultural and residential or commercial irrigation.
When Hamlin accepted the position as the head of the IA a decade ago, she was thrown into a leadership position for an industry she knew little about. With a background in association management, she worked with volunteer boards to ensure organizations fulfilled their visions.
“I had many previous volunteer leadership positions within the association community,” says Hamlin. “What gives me pride is when the industry I joined started looking at me as a credible industry leader. I am now often asked to speak at conferences and serve on industry boards. That’s important because it means I am doing my job for the association and helping to further the interests of this industry.”
Find out all about how Hamlin advocates being a business bookworm, knowing how to communicate (which includes both verbal and written) and how to pair communication with technology to ensure leadership success in today’s world.
Q. How would you describe your style of leadership and why does this work for you?
A. I think folks would tell you that I set clear expectations and don’t sugar coat much. I try to provide the tools and resources they need to be successful and then empower them to run with it. I share my vision in the hope that others also embrace the goal at the end of the path, or the reason we do the work we do. I have very high benchmarks for my employees, but I want to ensure that we also have fun along the way. I expect folks to continually learn and improve. I tell them that if they remain the same as the day I hired them, I can’t rationalize giving out raises every year. I want everyone to grow not only for the sake of the organization but also for themselves.
Q. How do you work at becoming better at leadership?
A. I believe in lifelong learning. Though topics might not be specifically on leadership, I strive to stay on top of technology and all of the innovative things going on in the world. I attend conferences when my schedule allows and read about the latest issues and trends in reports like the Smith Brain Trust. I also ask for candid feedback from my staff and volunteer board.
Q. Who are your leadership role models and why?
A. I should say Eleanor Roosevelt or Jack Welch or something really heady here, but I can’t define one or two people whom I truly follow. I have picked up skills from so many people – from mom and dad to bosses to volunteer leaders and to successful people whom I have just read about. Some of my volunteer leaders have been the best mentors. There’s always something new to learn about like how to do things better, or sometimes what not to do. Either one is a great lesson.
Q. What leadership books inspire you and why?
A. While in Kansas City, I started a quarterly book club with other association executives in the area, and we read business books. Though I might prefer a fast-paced mystery, I have learned a lot from authors like Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell and Patrick Lencioni. I have even forced my volunteer boards to read a book or two to help them see new perspectives and be better contributors in the end.
Q. What, as a leader, have you done that gives you pride and why?
A. I feel equal pride in the creation of new, successful programs, as I do in helping employees and volunteers reach their potential. There is nothing better than giving folks the tools and encouragement to get something done and watching them bloom.
Q. What leadership words or quotes inspire you most and why?
A. I think these two favorites are self-explanatory:
“The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he or she wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” – Theodore Roosevelt
“Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
Q. If you were to give young leaders one piece of advice, what would that be?
A. Today, you need to excel in two areas: communication (written and verbal, which, yes, means proper grammar) and technology. For example, we found it difficult to find a writer who also knew how to get information out of a database, upload it into an email marketing program, make it look pretty on a page and then analyze the results. You can’t just be a writer any more.