Dr. Wanda Smith
“Stop the madness! This is not rocket science. Let’s just do the right thing, find the right people, and we can get there.”
That is what Dr. Wanda Smith’s leadership philosophy is all about. After many years serving in the military, starting (and failing) at several entrepreneurial ventures, serving as director of the Business Leadership Center, and now finally giving back as a leadership coach and organizational development consultant, Dr. Smith says that is what she’s learned. She explains:
“When driving change, you want to drive to a better future; but many leaders are carriers of pain that lead to no improvement. So my desire is to shorten that period of pain, or potentially avoid it. With the right coaching, any leader can do it.”
She stresses first and foremost that you need to lead with compassion:
“When I look for leaders, or leadership skills, I’m looking for people who can inspire through empathy, caring, compassion because quite honestly people don’t care what you’re caring about – taking the organization to the next level – until they are pretty confident that you care about them. In my opinion, the most successful leaders are those who inspire through the heart.”
Dr. Smith also emphasizes clarity of purpose or direction. Some leaders “might inspire someone to take the next step in their growth and development, but they may not end up where they want them to be.” Leaders help others see where your team and organization needs to go.
Beyond leading with the heart and clarity of purpose, Dr. Smith describes basic foundational skills that all leaders need – communication, ability to motivate and inspire others, delegate, empower others, and willingness to have difficult conversations. Purpose and compassion are the next level of skills that will propel leaders to success.
When asked how she overcame challenges that she faced in her distinguished career, she said that having a sense of humor and being future focused are key:
“I can tell you that I’ve had too many challenges to count… How did I get past those challenges? Number one, a sense of humor. There are some situations that are so heart wrenching that you must find the humor in them to get through them. The other is having a future focus. What you’re going through now, this too shall pass. It equips you to hang in there longer knowing that you just need to get through the next moment, and then the next moment, and then the next.”
Since it’s the Business Leadership Center’s 20th anniversary, we wanted to know more about her time as director and what her vision was for the center. Dr. Smith served as the second director of the center from 2011 to 2015. Arriving at Virginia Tech in 1995, she overlapped with the center’s first director, Dr. James Lang, for many years, teaching leadership courses, co-advising the Pamplin Leadership Development Team, and mentoring students. She also overlapped with the current director, Dr. Kimberly Carlson, for two years to coach, mentor, and set her up for success. When first taking over the center’s directorship, Dr. Smith says:
“It was an opportunity for me to step in to some pretty big shoes. While it was challenging, it was also invigorating. It was an opportunity to grow it. Luckily, Dr. Lang who was the first director was around to coach me through some of the growth pains. It was an awesome ride.”
Her vision for the center was survival…
“Quite honestly I was in survival mode most of the time because I think at that point I was doing the teaching and the administrative side of it and everything that you can envision – getting more money, trying to distribute the money differently through various scholarships – so what I remember is being a spinning top. That’s what I remember. Just trying to do it all.”
But beyond surviving, Dr. Smith was instrumental in helping the center grow and become a more sustainable entity. Creating processes, policies, and marketing strategies helped the center not only grow in student numbers but also in fiscal terms.
“It was well established by the time I got it, for which I’m very thankful… I was fortunate enough to turn it over to Dr. Carlson. After that I have watched it blossom into someone I would never have envisioned. So I’m just so happy because longevity and sustainability is important. In academia, we start a lot of things, but to have one that really remains and is even stronger is just an exciting thing to be a part of.”
Her favorite part of the experience was watching the students grow from learning leadership basics in the first class, to interacting with corporate sponsors, to putting it altogether in their final internships. She is excited to hear from former students. She says with a smile, that she loves ”seeing just how much they’ve learned through practice as opposed to theory. I can’t tell you how many of them I’m still in contact with and their careers are blossoming. And many of them go back to the pain they went through in that program.”
To round out our interview, we asked Dr. Smith if she had any specific advice that she would like to share with students entering the BLC’s programs. She says:
“First, do it damn it! Second, step outside of your comfort zone. A lot of times students will enroll in a minor hoping that they will leverage what they’re already good at. And there’s nothing wrong with that strategy. But this is the last opportunity they’ll have to make a mistake and it not cost them a job. And so, why not do it?”
We want to thank Dr. Wanda Smith for her words of wisdom, her laughter, and for all the amazing sweat equity that she put in to the Business Leadership Center to make it a success. We appreciate all that you did, and continue to do, to help leaders become the best that they can be!
Post written by: Dr. Kimberly Carlson, Business Leadership Center Director