Dana Toppel | Crain's San Diego

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Dana Toppel


Jewish Family Service of San Diego has been a community resource for individuals and families since 1918. Services include programs that address financial, social, emotional, physical and spiritual health.

The Mistake:

I needed to learn to slow down in order to speed up.

I had the good fortune of holding executive and senior-level jobs when I was very young, just out of college, but I could’ve used a little more life experience before I was leading hundreds of people. I’m still learning what leadership is and isn’t. You think leadership is making decisions quickly and knowing it all, and having a vision and bringing everyone to that vision. But I’ve learned it is really about slowing down to speed up. It’s about asking questions, listening and publicly owning mistakes.

When I was in my 20s, I would have said, “I just don’t like process.” Often I would come in to talk with a colleague, having thought about something the night before or maybe for weeks. And even before saying hello I’d start talking about the ideas and the direction we should go and how we were going to get there. That doesn’t get you very far. Now that I’ve been in leadership for about 20 years, I’ve seen the power of taking ownership whether it’s my mistake or not.

The higher up you are in an organization, the more important it is to be curious and ask questions. Even if my mind goes quickly to what the answer could be or should be, I take the time to sit with staff and make sure that they feel heard. I may say, “Here’s what I think the outcome should be, but tell me why you would or wouldn’t do it that way.”

I needed to be more committed to process than I was to the outcome.

The Lesson:

I cared too much about credit and how things looked but not necessarily how things worked. I didn’t recognize this at the time, but in my previous job, I was in a meeting with my staff to set annual goals. Everyone had time to prepare. They sat down and presented the list of goals for us to work on as a team. At the top of the list was a historic quote: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I realized that this was about me. While I always had good relationships with my staff, I wasn’t a good leader. I didn’t take into consideration relationships but was very much leading from my head.

As you can imagine, especially in the not-for-profit space, people are here because of the people and the relationships and to be part of an organization that works for social justice and change. I was operating from the perspective that people were here to hit some bottom-line goal. I needed to slow down in order to gain momentum, ask questions, own mistakes, and not care who gets the credit. I didn’t stop to celebrate our accomplishments. I believed that everyone felt the same way that I did, but I realized that nothing gets done without all of us.

My style has shifted and allowed me to be more impactful. It takes more work to lead that way, but now I spend time on the front end, asking critical questions and not caring where the credit goes.

I wouldn’t have become a better leader if I hadn’t been called out on it. I’m not going to get it right all the time but that’s my leadership philosophy and I encourage my staff to call me out on it whenever I’m not living it.

JFS San Diego is on Twitter at @JFSSD.

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