Leadership Journey: A Reflection

Grab a cup of coffee and jump in as we reflect back on how leaders became leaders and why they continue in this role.


Cynthia Rojas 0:03
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. Today is a very special show, we have Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan with us, and not only is she a leader who’s going to tell us about her leadership journey, but she is my best friend. My other co-hosts, Rebecca Tuttle and Pieta Blakely are on vacation, so Mayra and I, get to chat it up. Two girlfriends reflecting back on how they became leaders and why they continue in this role. So, grab a cup of coffee and join us for what’s going to be an exciting 30-minute conversation about where it all began.

CTMM jingle: 0:47

Cynthia Rojas 1:14
Hi, yay! That worked smoothly for those of you who don’t know this. I’ll give you a little insight. I never press that button to have the jingle play and this is the first time and it worked. Mayra, how are you?

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 1:30
I’m good. You did a great job because you didn’t ask me to do it. I told you I’m not techy at all. I could barely do this.

Cynthia Rojas 1:41
I’m techy. But Mayra, you put that background behind you and then inspired me to put the same background. One, it feels like we’re together in the same room, but two, you figure that out all by yourself.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 1:57
There are certain things I can do. There are certain things I cannot do. This was easy for me. How are you? Thank you for having me on your show. This is my third time on your show. I love it.

Cynthia Rojas 2:12
Oh, my god. Yes, we are moving toward having consistent guests and you are definitely one of them. One of our most loyal viewers, we have a handful of them who come and watch us every week. We say, hi, to our listeners in Australia, who are listening to us via radio stations. And if, you are joining us, please put your name in the comments and tell us where you’re from because we’d love to hear. We get listeners and viewers from everywhere across the world.

So, it’s really always nice and exciting, but let me introduce you to the topic of the show because I am excited. So, Coffee Time with Masterminds is intended to be a 30-minute conversation for and by and of leaders of mission-based organizations. What we want to do is have conversations about leading through complexity and we do that every week and we have loads of material. Sometimes, we have to stretch out the material because there’s so much to talk about. Then, we invite guests to come and join us. But what we have not done is a reflection show on how one becomes a leader, right. For some of us, it just happens on us and for others, we work toward leadership.

And so, I thought it would be a good show to have, since our co-hosts are both on vacation. Rebecca and Pieta, I’m sure you’re watching. I am hoping you’re having a wonderful time off and I thought it’d be great for us to talk about what drove us to where we are today. Because another unique thing, is that you and I, have known each other since before we were leaders. Isn’t that great.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 4:08
19 and 21.

Cynthia Rojas 4:10
Yes, we were both 19 and 21 years old. So, we’ve only known each other for about six years.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 4:18
That’s right because I’m not a day past 25. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 25. I could repeat and repeat.

Cynthia Rojas 4:27
Listen to it, but I’ll tell you, when I met you, I think you were beginning in the schools. You served some of your time in the private sector, and then you were starting your career in the schools. Correct me if I’m wrong, but today, you are the director of student services for Queen South in New York City with the Department of Education or the Board of Education. So, we’re going to talk about that journey, but when you and I met. I was also not a leader. I was just entering the corporate world, and we were young. I was 19 and starting my first office job and I fell in love. I knew, whatever I wanted to do, it had to be in an office. So, let’s talk about you, Mayra. Tell us how you started in the educational system, or did your leadership start in the private sector. Where would you name the beginning of that.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 5:24
So, when we met, I was working for the corporate world, and I was a customer service rep, and then I became a customer service manager. So, the leadership started there; never planned. It just fell into my hand, and they promoted me to different management. They promoted me to customer service manager and then, of course, the company went belly up and I had to find another job, right. Like, I’m sure most people did, back in the early 90s. So, I got a job at the DOE. I was very young for Department of Education.

 I was 23 starting out as a teacher, and just went up the channels. Education was not my first career choice, but it sort of fell in my lap. I fell in love with the kids and just watching them learn and grow. We all know science was not my forte, and one of the things that Cindy taught me, in college was how to study for science tests, right. I knew, I wasn’t going to use science forever because I wasn’t going to become a doctor, but I needed to pass biology to graduate college. And you taught me that. I remember you, being so happy whenever I would learn something. So, when I was teaching kids and they were learning, that was the pivotal moment for a teacher.

You know, when kids are learning something. They’re like, wow. I was like, oh, God, they got it; they understood it. Like, that’s the major part, and then, I just went through the channels. I became a dean, great advisor, coordinator, assistant principal. Which led me to this position now that I have as a director of Student Services for the city. But that was planned, in other words. For me, to become a leader was planned within the Department of Education because I went through the proper channels. You have to get a specific license for that, so you had to go to get another master’s for that, and so you got to go through the channel. I did the whole thing. I finished everything like 2003-2004. I didn’t become a leader until 2006. I wanted that whole licensing, the fact that I had accomplished that to really marinate, right. Is this really what I want.

Do I really want to stay in the classroom. Do I want to leave the classroom and then, after 18 years of teaching, I decided that I’m ready to leave the classroom, and just do something else. And that’s what I did. So, as of 2006, I’ve been a leader.

Cynthia Rojas 8:18
So, what was it like in the very beginning. So, you’re in the private sector and you said, it came upon your lap. Which to me translates into, you probably didn’t have any training and now you’re leading. What was that like?

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 8:36
Well, no training for the customer service manager part because they know you, and then it’s like, with a little bit of everything. Because it happens in the Department of Education, too. It’s not what you know; it’s who you know. I shouldn’t be saying that, we’re living. I said it anyway, but that’s what happens in the corporate world, you know. Sometimes it’s who you know and so it fell into my lap, and I knew that I liked it. I knew I liked to make the decisions. I knew that I liked it when someone said to me, can I do this. I wasn’t arrogant about it, but I knew the answer. To me, it was teaching also, and I didn’t know that was going to be my calling, the teaching part. But it was teaching someone something to do it correctly, you know.

Cynthia Rojas 9:30
Yeah, so, the teaching. I’m going to write this in the comments because I love this. The teaching is what inspired your leadership.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 9:40

Cynthia Rojas 9:44
Yeah, I am producer, co-host, and also a guest on the show. So, I’m doing it all. I’m going to make Rebecca, so proud, I swear.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 9:50
I’m sure they’re very proud of you.

Cynthia Rojas 9:56
Thank you. So, your desire and your enthusiasm to teach others and help them learn is what inspires your leadership. Is that a fair assessment?

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 10:10
It is a fair assessment. Even until today, when I’m teaching teachers how to de-escalate students in behavioral crisis, or when I’m teaching teachers to really take a look at themselves. That emotional competence piece that many of us don’t have or many of us don’t practice every day, so, we get into trouble. That piece when teachers, at the end of my training, it’s a four-day training all day. At the end of that training, when someone comes up to me and says, this has changed my life. I knew that what I was doing, I knew that when I got to them. I always tell them that what I train is not a magic pill because you have to be coachable. You have to want to learn, and you have to want to receive something. But those who receive it and those who are coachable are so successful after my trainings, and that makes me proud.

Cynthia Rojas 11:13
That’s amazing. So, although your progression in the Department of Education was planned, did you receive any leadership training or management training or coaching or mentoring before you became responsible for people’s lives.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 11:30
I did. So, I like to think that I’ve had a lot of directors who have had an impact on my leadership style, on how I make decisions. I mean, we all have our own individual personalities, and God knows I have a really strong personality. You know this from me, but one of my principles. I think the last principle that I worked for, he really inspired me because even though he was really eccentric and I loved him. He really loved the kids and I knew that I wanted to take that piece from him. That empathy that he had for children and even the empathy that he had for staff. It was funny because a couple of co-workers, and we always had a joke like he would say, “the consequences are going to be horrific.”

And then, you go and you butter him up and he’ll be like, okay, go, go, go, you’re right, so that pc would never really give you any consequences. But that piece I knew I wanted to take from him. But I also learned what I didn’t want to take from him. And that’s the piece that you have to really be prepared to not just follow someone who’s mentoring you, but really take both pieces. What you don’t want it to look like and what you want to take. So, I think that I had a combination of both, that I was able to make myself my own leader like, have my own leadership style. That’s not to say that people now who either work under me or people who I train don’t may not like some of my leadership styles. But I think 30 years within the system I’ve earned the right to keep my leadership style. Unfortunately, my personality says, if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. If you like it, use it.

Cynthia Rojas 13:30
Yes, and so we do get to that point. Definitely, I can identify with that. You have so many wonderful nuggets here. One, you also mentioned enjoying decision-making. And so, tell us a little bit about how you make decisions. Do you have tools. Do you have a framework that you follow. How do you make decisions, as a leader. You may be different from your previous.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 13:59
Yeah. Well, within the Department of Education, there are certain, you know regulations that we have to follow, and I base my decisions on certain regulations. Do we kind of curve it a little bit sometimes. Listen, I always tell people that it’s always about building relationships. I have 151 principals. I know all of them, but I’m really close to 30 principals. I have relationships with 75 of them. And then, the other 50 fall into the category, where I’m going to be here for you. I’m going to support it. You may not like my recommendation.

I can’t tell you what to do because you’re your own leader of your own school, but here’s what I recommend you do. Because I think this would be the best outcome. You don’t have to try it my way; first, try it your way, and then if it doesn’t work your way. You can say, well, you know what, maybe Miss Kaplan is on to something. Let me try it her way, and if it works; it works. That’s not to say that it’s not going to work. It may not work, but try it. And I think that’s the piece that I try to get them to see that, you know, it’s okay to say, I don’t know something. A lot of times, when we become leaders, we don’t want to say that.

Cynthia Rojas 15:21

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 15:22
We don’t want to say, I don’t know this. I don’t know that. We don’t dare to ask questions because we think that asking questions is a weakness. It really isn’t a weakness. If you don’t know the answer to something, ask the question. Because then, when you know the answer, you’re going to get it right. And I always tell people, it’s okay to say, I don’t know this. Feel comfortable in that piece because if you’re not comfortable in that piece, you’re never going to allow yourself the opportunity for good experiences, for bad experience because all the experiences are learning experiences.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 16:00
Learning experiences. I love that. I’ll type that in when I have a second. I love that sentence. So, your decision-making framework starts with following protocol and regulations because you are also part of a larger institution, which is why we’ve always loved your voice, right. So, this show is targeted more toward community-based non-profit organizations. Schools are definitely non-profit organizations, but they’re also institutions, and they’re highly regulated, thankfully. Because our children are in the building. And so, tell us a little bit about the human aspect of leadership and how you had to understand and bring that into your leadership, because that’s the bigger part. There are rules you have to follow, but you’re also leading human beings. Tell us a little bit about that.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 17:00
So, I think that that is different and that looks different for everyone. I have a really big piece of empathy. I know how to empathize with people, and it’s different than sympathizing, right. Because sympathy comes from loss; empathy comes from understanding or trying to understand someone’s pain; that’s very different. I think that I’m very big on just helping calm people down. I walk into a school principal, maybe very upset.

Quick example, I had two drownings, principal and all I did was grab the principal’s hand and hug her. She didn’t have to tell me anything; that’s all she had to do. So, I told everybody that she needed to leave her office because what happens is her office gets bombarded. I said, okay, everybody out. I needed to speak to her by myself and I didn’t speak to her. Just held a hand and hugged her, let her get it out. And I think that says a lot about me, in terms of being able to get that human side, right. Again, it comes down to building relationships. I couldn’t have done that, had I not had a relationship with her. She’s fairly a new principal, but like I said, she’s coachable. So, because she’s coachable and because she’s willing to learn. She’s new, she doesn’t know everything.

So, she’s got to get it from every single angle, and there are many things that people are telling her. You got the NYPD telling her what to do, and their mentality is completely different than our mentality. Not that they don’t empathize; not that they don’t have good people in the NYPD but it’s still a different lens. They’re looking at it through a different lens and so, just being able to touch someone and that we miss for two years, right. But that piece of touching someone. Just letting them know that you’re there with them, just really brings that human touch. I personally think, once you have that, you can pretty much tell anybody what to do and they’ll do it. Once they feel that aura from, you know.

Cynthia Rojas 19:35
I love that. Just to backtrack a little bit about what you do as a director of student services. You manage crises, so when you talk about drowning when a school has a crisis such as a death. You and your team are on site to manage that. And so, I just want to let our viewers and our listeners understand that and put that into context. So, what you have there is a leader, you with your team going into a place that already has a leader. And so, negotiating that authority and power can get complicated, but what I hear you saying is that, through empathy and respect and understanding that this principle is very human. That you are able to come in and gain some authority and take over as you start to settle down, all the moving parts that are happening. Am incorporating that correctly?

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 20:39
Absolutely, because my job is a little logistical right, my job is about, you know, what you have to do, what you have to set. You have to do this; you have to do that. And I can’t come in guns blazing saying that, well, you need a room for this; you need a room for that. I need to come in and say, how are you. I need to come in and say, take a moment. I’m in no rush. I’m not going anywhere, right. I’m here all day for you. So those are the things that really help them, I think as leaders.

Because they also have to proceed and she has to tell, or he has to tell their constituents what they have to do, and their staff, what they have to do. Now, every principle is like that. No, I had another principal who was doing it her way, and it was. It was a debacle only because she didn’t want feedback. That has a lot to do with really being in her own feelings and processing her own grief. And the sadness of what just had happened in her building, people reacted to it differently. I always tell people, grief is different. Like when my team came in, they were like, well, what are we supposed to do.

Are we supposed, to just be here. I said, yeah, for now, you’re just going to be here because she doesn’t want you right now. We’re going to get her to want us. Once she sees what we know, how to do, she’s going to want us, right. But I need to be able to do that. You can’t do that because you don’t know her, and I know her. So, I have to go in very slowly, right. I had to go in little by little just to push myself through so that she could see that there’s another lens that’s there, that there’s support. We’re not there to tell her what to do; we’re there to support her, and sometimes people confuse that. Sometimes people get involved in power struggles, right. This is my building. I’m going to do it my way, hey, that’s cool.

Cynthia Rojas 22:52
And we see that in leaders everywhere, right. This is my department; this is my team.
So, let’s move this forward. You didn’t stop at your first promotion. You have continuously sought to move your way up. What have been some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way that you didn’t know maybe in the previous role, that you’ve learned. One, you said, is being able to admit that you don’t know something. That’s huge. Let me tell you something, that tells me the difference between a new leader and an experienced leader. An experienced leader would be the first to tell you, I don’t know. A new leader would try to fumble their way through. What are some other lessons?

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 23:43
Just being able to take a step back. Just being able to recognize this particular thing is not my forte. I don’t think I can take leadership in that. I think I have to assign that to somebody. I think I have to look at my team and say, you know what, he has the gift of gab, he’s going to be able to do that. And just say, hey, you know what, he’s taking a point on this, not me. I said I’ll be here if you need me, but he’s going to take a point on it.

So, communication is going to be between you and him. And you have to recognize that that doesn’t come easy because I remember being an AP and i would say to myself AP is an assistant principal. And I say to myself, you know what, I’m going to do it all. I’m going to do it all because no one’s going to do it like me. Again, if they do it wrong, I’m going to get in trouble. But by year three, I remember one of my deans. She entered something into the system, and she entered it incorrectly. And year one, I would have said, oh, my god, catastrophe. What am I going to do. Year three, I was like, it’s okay. I’ll take the fall for it. No problem. I said, you know what, now you know how to do it right, you won’t make that big mistake twice. And she was like, she was like, oh, my god, you’re not upset. I said, no. I said, here’s another good line for you, we have to accept the things we cannot change.

Cynthia Rojas 25:28
Yeah, let me write that down.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 25:30
We have to accept the things we cannot change. And she was just so surprised. I like to think that they all learned a little bit from me, not all. You know, I had a really strong dean who was a nurturer. I had a new dean who was trying to be like a little tough and a little nurturing, and you have to sort of start to see what side you’re going to lean on. You’re either going to be a disciplinarian, or you’re either going to be a nurturer. You can’t be both

Cynthia Rojas 26:05
Yeah, here, let me put this up. I think I could figure that out. We got a message from Rebecca, who’s on the road. Thank you so much, Rebecca. Mayra, you are a leader. Thank you for sharing your insight into leadership. You’ve left us with some great takeaways.”

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 26:27
Thank you.

Cynthia Rojas 26:29
So, when you meet new leaders, which you do all the time because you’re training and they’re already exhausted. You’ve been on this journey for 30 years because you started when you were five.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 26:47
Basically, I love it.

Cynthia Rojas 26:53
Years ago, our problems were a lot simpler and now they’re complex. My audio is slowing down, so I’m going to stop moving. What do you tell new leaders today?

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 27:10
I tell new leaders to don’t just do something to do it; do something to make a difference.

Cynthia Rojas 27:34
I love that, Mayra.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 27:36
You’re going to make a difference in what you do. You have to do something to make a difference, even if it’s a difference in your life. You’d be surprised how many people come back to you and say, you know what you said that day, in that room, back in march of 2021. I never forgot that. Those are the things that continue to inspire me to continue to do what I do because I know, I’m making a difference. You know before I was making a difference in student lives, and now I am trying to make a difference in teacher lives. Here’s how I can also say really quickly. I learned how to replicate myself; not everybody could do that, right. You want to be able to replicate yourself because there’s not a hundred of you. And so, if you get it right, replicate it yourself, share it, teach it.

Don’t hold on to it. Share it with the world because you want to hear that you want people to continue to do good by students, by staff, by everyone. This has worked for me. You can do this work at home, you know. I mean, you can do this with your significant other. When I look at my husband and I know that he’s a little angry. I just stay quiet or I do whatever I have to do. He’ll say, you kind of doing that training on me, huh. He knows exactly what I’m doing, right. Cynthia Rojas 29:22

Yeah, I love it. Mayra, we have 45 seconds left. This is crazy. Doesn’t it go so fast?

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 29:32
I know.

Cynthia Rojas 29:33
What’s in the future for you. Do you continue to look toward leadership growth like, does this have a destination or are you still well into your journey?

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 29:48
I am into my journey. A little sneak peek. I did complete a survey for principalship. Just a different angle of leaders going from leading 151 schools to just leading one. How does that feel. I’ve never done that. I don’t know if that’ll happen. If it does, and if it doesn’t, I am happy doing what I’m doing because I’m teaching people.

Cynthia Rojas 30:14
Yeah, and you’re making a huge difference. Well, we are at the end of our show and like, as it happens in most of our shows, we could continue talking. And so, we will definitely have you back. You will continue to be our guest throughout our time here, but I want to wish you and our viewers a wonderful weekend. Thank you, Mayra, so much for your nuggets of wisdom.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 30:42
You’re welcome always.

Cynthia Rojas 30:43
Take care always.

Mayra LaSalle-Kaplan 30:45

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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