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Perspective | Your dream can only go as far as your team

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The following is part of my monthly column, One Day and One Goal: Expanding opportunity in N.C. I invite you to follow along as I share stories from classrooms and explore critical issues facing education in our state. Go here for past columns.

In my last column, I began to share about my experience as a multi-industry change leader, expounding on advice I shared in conversation with Dr. Patton McDowell on his podcast Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership. Bottom line: being a leader requires us to have confidence in our experience and the fortitude to continue investing in ourselves with time spent looking, listening, and learning. 

Now, I want to focus on a few examples of relational experiences I had over the course of my career that added to my leadership toolkit. 

Foundation of relationships

I can’t emphasize enough the simple truth that leadership does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. No matter what industry you find yourself in, as a leader you are still a building block in a structure much larger than yourself. As you build your network, you are sure to find that there are just as many people you can learn from as there are people who wish to learn from you.

One of my favorite authors and faith leaders, Dr. Dharius Daniels, highlights that in leadership your dream can only go as far as your team. I’d encourage you to think of your team as individuals from a variety of directions, dynamics, and contexts, all of whom are shareholders in your degree of impact. In other words, their success is your success, and vice versa. 

When I reflect upon several roles where I was selected to lead a large team through change, I always had a foundation of relationships that provided counsel and support. I relied on peers and mentors in similar roles outside of my organization, like Dr. Walt Tobin, President of Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College (OC Tech).

Like me, Dr. Tobin came from a family with high standards when it came to his and his siblings’ education. As educators themselves, his parents worked hard to provide ample opportunity for their children to thrive personally and professionally. For Dr. Tobin, that involved an early career in K-12 education, leading as an assistant principal, then principal, before rising in responsibility and tenure at OC Tech. All along the way he too had mentors who guided him in his career; and he was set on paying forward that encouragement to other leaders, me among them. 

What listeners of the podcast will already know is that, a few years ago, I reached a point in my career where I was ready for a change. I desired to make a greater impact, though I wasn’t sure where or how just yet. I’d received calls and inquiries about positions across the country, but I hesitated, unsure if they aligned with my personal values or my strategic vision for my career—or if I was ready to take on the challenges that came with that vision.

When talking to Dr. Tobin about the tensions I was experiencing, he pushed me to consider some risks and to think outside the box. He reassured me that I was ready, which is admittedly something that was helpful to hear from someone outside of my immediate purview. His encouragement helped put me in confident headspace so that, when the opportunity to lead Teach For America’s move to a statewide model came my way, I could see myself at its helm.

Having someone like Dr. Tobin “on my team,” has been incredible, and has been an example to me of how to invest in those working under my leadership. I recently shared more about Dr. Tobin as a local pillar of Black excellence in a LinkedIn post, if you’d like to learn more about him!

Feeding the cycle of talent development

Building my team in the more literal sense has come to involve looking for a few key components: strong character, a growth mindset, and oftentimes, depending on the scope of their responsibilities, an ability to coach others. With these in mind, I know that the team assembled will be adaptive to challenges and changes when they arise and that they will work toward a shared vision along the way. 

Developing talent, however, is not only about a hiring philosophy, but also about maximizing the potential of every person already sitting on your team. I have been fortunate enough to inherit incredible talent within the teams I’ve led over the years, including a brilliant woman named Lydia Hall.

When we met at York Technical College, Lydia was an admissions counselor whom I only occasionally crossed paths with and only began working together once I assumed directorship of the Strategic Communications and Marketing department. It was the first time someone in my role made an effort to meet regularly with student-facing staff like Lydia, and they were wowed when I asked more about their efforts and what they needed. 

When I assumed responsibility for Lydia’s division, I quickly saw firsthand how much of a heavyweight she was for our team and the college more broadly — and how all she needed was more fuel for her leadership tank in order to accelerate her impact. It made it easy to support her growth as a leader, and by creating pathways for her to gain skills and experience in and beyond York — aligned with the goals she held for herself — she then had a template for developing those that worked on her team.

That’s what leadership is all about, really. Now, Lydia leads  an even larger team that sets the pace and attracts thousands of annually enrolled students as Associate Dean of Admissions and Enrollment Management. We are still connected and I am proud to cheer her on even though we no longer work together, as Dr. Tobin has done for me. 


Transformative leaders understand that a necessary superpower is building and navigating relationships across multiple contexts: whether it’s fundraising, engaging with boards, coaching staff, interacting with stakeholders, etc. Regardless of where we are in our professional journeys, there will be people whose experience can guide us, as well as people who can benefit from the lessons of our experience. Continue to expand your notion of who makes up your team, and think critically about how to recruit brilliance to it: peers, mentors, advisees, and everyone in between. 

I have learned that in order to reach my goals — whether it’s a personal goal, like making an impact in my community by my work, or it’s a mission, like working to ensure that all North Carolina students receive an excellent and equitable education — I must do so shoulder-to-shoulder with many others.

Monique Perry-Graves

Monique Perry-Graves is an award-winning leader, educator, speaker, and author. As of June 2021, she is the first statewide executive director for Teach for America (TFA), North Carolina. In this role, Perry-Graves is serving as the chief executive for the state in support of TFA’s mission to find, develop, and support a diverse network of leaders working together to end educational inequity and leading over 50 TFA staff across the state. She is a proud graduate of North Carolina Central University where she earned her undergraduate degree in English. Perry-Graves continued her educational pursuits by earning a master’s degree in strategic communications and leadership from Seton Hall University. She then earned a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Florida.