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Guest Voices: Lily Yap on Leading Upside Down

July 24, 2022, Lily Yap

The Division Manager at Grand Prairie Animal Services shares her leadership origin story—and explains that sometimes the best way to support your team is to take a step back.

Like many of my colleagues in public service would say, money was never a top motivator for working towards a leadership position in animal welfare. I stumbled upon this career by accident while getting my undergraduate degree in business in Baton Rouge, LA.  I went to volunteer at the local shelter when it was in a time of major transition. A nonprofit organization had recently taken over the sheltering side of the parish’s animal control, and were hiring folks at a rapid-fire pace. It wasn’t long before I realized I had left behind my intentions to become an investment banker. From adoption counseling and foster programming to community outreach and animal care, I fell in love with the work—and was split on which path to take in order to have my hands in ALL the pots. The natural solution was leadership, right? Wrong.

After working with three different southern municipal shelters and over a decade in the field, my biggest ‘aha’ moment came from an unexpected place—a re-org that placed our Animal Services Division under the Police Department. Soon after, our senior team participated in a mandatory leadership training. I have seized many learning opportunities focus on leading teams and organizations, and I expected this would be more of the same. But what I ended up taking away from this course shifted my entire mindset.

Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen if I don’t do or say anything?” And then, pending no irreparable damage, let your team work it out.

A large aspect of this training was the idea of an inverted triangle representation of an organization, emphasizing that the key purpose of leaders is to support their teams and remove barriers whenever possible. “Got that down,” I thought! I was always there to solve problems for my team and felt that my extensive experience positioned me to give the best insight to the spectrum of issues that presented themselves.

But then we delved into a different type of problem-solving, empowering the folks actively doing the work instead of constantly directing or coddling from the supervisory level. The challenge was to ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen if I don’t do/say anything?” And then, pending no irreparable damage, let your team work it out. I asked myself this question often and, at the beginning, had to remind myself that just because solutions were different, it didn’t make them worse. The more I did this, the more I was able to see how extraordinary our team truly is. The decision-making was not only equitable, it was better.

One of the most recent examples of this was a shift in our kennel designations. Gillian Flebbe, currently our Foster and Rescue Coordinator, proposed an adjustment to the area where we held large dogs who came in and were unhandleable. Previously, they were held in the same area where quarantine pets were held; not only were they isolated, the Shelter Team had to make a concerted effort to go back and work with them. The reason this is one of my favorite examples is because when I first heard the idea to move them closer to the general population, I did not like it. I had a big concern about reducing the number of gen pop kennels for behavior cases, but my job was to support her vision for her team and operations. Turns out, the new kennel placement drastically expedited the rate at which these kiddos came out of their shells due to the ease with which they could see the kennel staff working, observe more social dogs being walked, and receive treats in passing. It also gave the team more opportunity to help with these special cases, something that multiple individuals note is the best part of their job.

Ultimately, I don’t feel my story is unique. Many folks leading teams got there due to technical skill and, for our industry, there is an added layer of passion and dedication to the work. I am fortunate in that I work within a larger organization that places immense value on leadership development, acknowledging that the technical skill doesn’t necessarily give you the tools to support and grow your team. By no means is loving the work a bad thing, and my knowledge base does allow me to lead by example and jump in for guidance when I’m truly needed. But ultimately, I implore my fellow leaders, particularly ones with which my leadership ‘origin story’ resonates, to take a step back into that supportive role. With your vision to provide the tracks, you may be surprised to see how far your team can go.

About Lily Yap
In her role as Division Manager at Grand Prairie Animal Services, Lily Yap brings a strong background in municipal shelter operations and lifesaving programs, deep knowledge of business management, and an MBA from McCombs School of Business. “By combining passion with the structure of a strong, corporate business,” she says, “I believe we can make huge strides in supporting the animals and people in our community.”

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