We have all questioned the impact of the past 20 months on our team members’ sense of belonging.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a leader who cares about building meaningful connections with those she serves in her organization and in her community. Deena Ware has worked as an officer for several communities throughout Polk County. For the past two years, she has served as the CRA and neighborhood program manager for Winter Haven.
Prior to this, Ware was City Manager of Dundee, the first minority woman to serve as City Manager in Polk County. She holds a bachelor’s degree in urban affairs and a master’s degree in public administration from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where she graduated magna cum laude.
Ware is also an associate professor at Polk State College, teaching online and hybrid courses in fundamental public administration and human resources. She is a board member of the Central Florida Development Council and chair of the Community Stakeholders Committee.
Ware has three daughters and in her free time enjoys writing poetry, travelling, skating (she describes herself as a “former roller derby wannabe”) and yoga.
Q. What are the most valuable leadership lessons you’ve learned in your first two years as the Municipal Redevelopment Agency and Neighborhood Program Manager for the City of Winter Haven?
A I have learned many leadership lessons over the past two years. The most important lessons are to cultivate emotional intelligence, to be my authentic self, to allow myself to be vulnerable and to become an active listener. A true connection is the key to successful outcomes. My role must be to actively listen to each stakeholder, whether that stakeholder is an employee, another agency, or a community leader, and view their issues with empathy and concern. The relationship is strengthened when I am my authentic self and can be vulnerable when we talk about difficult issues. When we’ve made a meaningful connection, stakeholders trust me to get their issues to the right audience so progress can be made.
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Q. In what way would you most like to contribute to the future growth and development of Winter Haven?
A Winter Haven is fortunate to have outstanding leadership. Our city manager is top notch and, along with our city commission, is committed to creating effective change and protecting what makes our city great. Our current leadership has set a high standard for collaboration and innovation. We work closely with other groups like Main Street, the Economic Development Council and the Chamber of Commerce who are passionate about the future of our city. I want to strengthen and support this commitment as I continue to connect with new groups that share our vision. I want employees and the community to feel included. We can achieve this by continuing on the path of finding new ways to appreciate and celebrate diversity. The desire to connect with others in meaningful ways is ingrained in all of us, and I want to continue to build on our progress.
Q. What are the most notable life and work experiences that have shaped you as a leader?
A Becoming a mother has had a tremendous impact on my leadership journey. The empathy and humility required, combined with the multiple roles you must play – listener, nurturer, advocate – have greatly contributed to how I perform as a leader. Being adopted into a multiracial family has also shaped my leadership style. Although I didn’t look like others in my family, I always felt loved and supported. I knew people were in my corner and cheering me on no matter what. My goal as a leader is to provide that kind of support to every team member. I want them to feel connected to something bigger and see how their work is changing the world.
Q. What advice do you have for women who want to make a career change?
A Don’t doubt yourself. Believe in your abilities and remind yourself that you are capable of more than you think. Women tend to question their ability to do more because of their many roles: wife, mother, friend, and daughter. We spill into others and neglect ourselves. There is a time and a place to nurture and put energy into relationships, but we also have the capacity to do more, expand our skills and grow into roles that we never thought possible.
Before I was called to my first managerial position, I questioned whether I was smart enough or worthy of the role. I let negative thoughts creep in and raise doubts about my abilities. I forced myself to process those feelings and allowed my talents and passion for the job to take over. My success as Polk County’s first black woman city manager led me to my current position at City of Winter Haven.
Q. What purpose guides you in your life and work?
A Being a positive role model for my girls guides my life and work. Regardless of the situation, they watch me and see how I react. I strive to humbly admit when I make mistakes at work or at home and to be responsible for my actions. I want them to understand that circumstances don’t define success and that with dedication and hard work anything is possible. My girls have witnessed the ups and downs of my career, moving to different cities to support my various roles in city management and even cheering me on when I wanted to be a badass and join the roller derby team. I hope that everything they have experienced with my career and family life has made them feel loved, supported and empowered to achieve anything.
Emily Rogers, Founder and CEO of Emily Rogers Consulting + Coaching, is an executive coach, team coach and keynote speaker. She provides strategic advice and support to individuals and organizations to grow and reach their full potential in a purposeful and balanced way. You can get in touch with her at emilyrogers.com.