stories

You Have To Be Willing To Get Uncomfortable

Julia Dale shares what she’s learned about leading an organization through times of crisis.

Julia Dale has spent 20+ years serving Michigan residents in leadership and management roles across multiple state agencies. In 2021, amidst the pandemic, she was appointed director of the Unemployment Insurance Agency.

At the UIA, Julia leads a staff of 700 who are working to improve the unemployment insurance experience—a system that many Michiganders have struggled with over the last few years as they sought support in an unprecedented time. We wanted to hear from Julia on what it’s like to lead this type of change.

What brought you down the path of public service? How did you end up sitting in this chair at this moment in time?

When I started working for the state of Michigan I was with the Department of Civil Rights. I was really committed to some of the questions of social justice that they were addressing. I thought I’d become a staff attorney there or, if that didn’t play out, then I'd go on and be an attorney somewhere else.

I loved my time serving there and had great mentors who shape my leadership style today. I remember one moment in particular: I was moving through my caseloads quickly and getting more cases transferred to me as a result. At that moment, I thought this was unfair. I was doing good work and getting more work as a result. What I see now is that this was a recognition by my mentor of what I was capable of doing. As leaders, it’s our job to lift up the strengths and capabilities and talents of our teams. Even if they don’t see them at first.

Oftentimes, we can only see what’s immediately around us. I’ve found that when I'm willing to stretch outside of that—or when someone else encourages me to—those have been pivotal moments of growth and opportunity.

How do your experiences help you mentor or coach others?

Well, I’ve made a lot of shifts within my career, which helps in navigating others through that cycle. When you’re trying something new or coming into a new role, I tell people that in that first month you’re going to feel doubt. ‘Did I make the wrong choice?’ ‘Is this something I’m even capable of’—you’ll feel all of those things and it's normal.

You have to be willing to get uncomfortable. You have to be willing to not be the smartest person in the room. You have to be willing to learn something new and ask for help. And when someone asks you a question, you have to be willing to answer, ‘I don't know’.

In your own words, how would you describe what you do at the UIA?

I see myself as a leader, a coach, a facilitator, and a problem solver. And all these are in the context of a team. I also see myself as a partner—to my staff and to the overall department leadership and the Governor’s administration.

I see myself as the person that at the end of the day is accountable for the work that we do. It's my responsibility to steward the influence and the authority I have to make sure that that work is done and that we're serving the people of Michigan.

When you came into this role, the organization was overworked and in crisis due to the pandemic. What did you know you needed in order to lead effectively?

I knew that it was going to take courage and a lot of wisdom. And that there was going to be a tremendous amount of scrutiny.

There were claims that needed to be paid and cases that needed to be looked at. Staff was feeling weary and even a little beaten up. There’d been a lot of turnover with leadership and it felt like everybody needed something.

Coming in, I knew that I was going to have to work hard to level-set expectations and build trust with the team. I needed them to really have a sense of who I was as a leader, because if you can get someone to trust and understand your intentions, then you’ve got greater potential to lead them successfully. If they doubt your intentions coming in, that’s a bigger challenge.

How do you help others get a sense of who you are as a leader and build that trust?

I always have 1:1s with my staff and use them as an opportunity to get to know people. As important as it is for me to understand the workings of the organization, I believe it’s equally important for me to understand the people that I'm working with. And for them to get to know me too.

Who are they? What’s their life like? What do they value? What makes them tick? They’re not just your colleague—they have a whole life outside of work and experiences you might not know about. You work with the whole person. I think you have to really appreciate and make space for that. In doing so, you build a little bit of community. A little bit of understanding of what's going on in each other's worlds. Then, when it comes to working together, I think we're able to be more gracious with one another. We get a sense of where people's strengths and weaknesses are, and it allows us to show up in ways that support each other.

How do you hope to see the unemployment insurance system in Michigan evolve?

First, I want to see us get out of this crisis cycle. Even now that unemployment has dropped and the number of claims being filed with us is down, we’re still very much dealing with the significant impact from the pandemic.

You make decisions differently when you’re in crisis mode. I want to ease us out of that and into a more focused decision-making process. Yes, we want to be able to make decisions expediently, but we also want to make sure they're informed and thoughtful. We want to make sure we’re considering the long-term implications. That’s the first evolution we need to make.

I think it's also about changing the way staff and the public sees the organization. You’d have to live in a hole to not have read or heard about the criticism against the agency in the last couple of years. For staff who’ve been here through the pandemic, I can’t imagine how that might make them feel. So the other thing that’s on my mind is having some quick wins—things we're able to share that we can all feel good about and can help improve how the public feels about us too.

If you could give one piece of advice to give to other leaders out there, what would you leave them with?

Make sure that you leave plenty of space for grace for both yourself and your team. You’re not going to be able to do it all and everybody will want something from you. You have to be able to set reasonable expectations about what you can deliver as a leader and on what your team can deliver. Grace also means embracing mistakes and building a safe environment for your team to work in too


  • Photo: Nick Assendelft