Jen Rayworth, True Leadership In Action

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Jen Rayworth is one of the co-owners of Smith’s Funeral Homes.She signed the papers to become a shareholder less than a week after giving birth to her son five years ago. We wanted to talk to Jen about what the idea of leadership means to her and how that idea has evolved over the last couple of years. Primarily, Covid exposed that leaders must be prepared to wear many hats and great leaders must grow and evolve with their teams.

Jen is a role model for great leadership, particularly for women in a field traditionally dominated by men. Her servant leadership is something that has always inspired us. Here is what she has to share on leadership in the funeral care profession.

How did your leadership shift during Covid?

Our key focus became letting our team know we cared about them and that they were our top priority. Without our team members, we have nothing. Truly, the health and safety of our people had to be our #1 priority, and we needed them to trust that we would put their safety first. One of the things we also did mid-pandemic was to send out custom-made thank you cards to everyone along with a small bonus to show them how appreciative we were for their dedication and commitment, and we hope it also showed them that we are here to support them. We try to do more small gestures of appreciation these days (treating them to lunch, special treats, etc.) while trying to foster an open and accommodating environment and atmosphere. I’m proud of the way we’ve evolved after a very difficult few years for everyone.

What kind of leadership is required as we transition out of the pandemic?

I believe it still resides in putting our team first as they are the backbone of our business. People are looking for stability, balance and enjoyment in their lives and their work. They want to feel heard and appreciated. I hope to shift some of my time to focus more on innovation, and envisioning the future landscape of funeral service and how the pandemic has impacted people and our profession as a whole. Many people aren’t the same as they were pre-pandemic. We are dealing with families that seem to be more emotional, interact with more intensity, and have higher expectations - of everything and everyone. That’s a lot of pressure to put on your team when there is already little to no margin for error. What we are looking for as we continue to build our team is resiliency, flexibility and the ability to work together to manage these extreme ups and downs, all of which have certainly intensified since pre-Covid.

How do you leverage your team?

As a leader, I think it is important that we know what each team member’s strengths are and that we nurture those, versus trying to change them or focusing on a weakness (which we all have!). We try to put our team in roles that play to their strengths - we try to do this even within our management team. And when we do this, everyone wins. Team members feel happier and more empowered and in turn, our service delivery gets elevated.

Who has been an influential leader in your life?

I guess the most obvious answer is Don! His leadership style has evolved and changed over the years, and he’s been a great example of this leadership evolution, and continual learning and growing. One of his most consistent traits has been his passion and commitment to serving others and our community. I have worked at Smith’s since I was 16, and have watched his management style progress and transform over time. I think that his life experiences, as well as changes in the profession and the trust he has in us (our staff and our management team) have helped to shape this. His vision for Smith’s, his community involvement, his belief in helping those in need, and how he runs the business philosophically have been very influential to me.

How has becoming a parent changed your leadership?

When I returned to work I gained a clearer understanding of women’s roles and progression (or lack thereof) within the profession (including the barriers we have traditionally faced). I remember that years ago when returning from a maternity leave, the option was to either return to work full time or not at all. There was little flexibility, understanding or acceptance of blending motherhood and funeral service. I’m proud that we have grown from that rigid mindset and have learned that it’s important to make space for family, personal lives and individual situations. These days, we try to work with our colleagues to facilitate a working relationship that benefits both parties - it’s not always easy or perfect, but if you have someone who is good at what they do and believes in our organization, we want to try and accommodate them as best we can. This increased flexibility in our work schedules can certainly be challenging (especially considering the nature of our business and the demands of the consumer), but our priority as management is to hire great people and then figure out how we can make it work for everyone involved.

Are there any unique challenges given you are a female leader?

I think many people make the assumption that I’m a personal assistant to others on our management team, which really just speaks to the long-standing reality that in our profession predominantly men have held the leadership positions. There just hasn’t been enough female representation in these roles within funeral service, but I hope and see that this is slowly changing. It’s helpful to see others with whom you can relate going through the same situations, experiences and challenges that you are facing - and I feel like as a woman, I haven’t had as much opportunity to be mentored by other women who have come before me. Although the profession is changing with more directors being female, my hope is to see some of these women wanting to move into management roles, as we bring unique traits and perspectives to the profession.

What does leadership mean to you?

If I had to pick a word, I would say leadership is action. As leaders, we need to walk the talk. I believe that passion, trust, vulnerability and authenticity are all very important leadership qualities, but your team must see you living each of these things out. It's about service to others, in all facets, even when people are not looking. As leaders we must role model what we want to see in others, even when it’s hard. Becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable is how we will grow and learn.

Do you believe people are drawn to leadership roles in our profession?

I think it’s been hard for businesses (especially in our profession) to find people who want to be leaders, firstly because our schedules are more demanding than many other professions, and as more people have decided they want a clear separation between their work and their lives outside of work. I understand that, but I also believe in ‘life’s work’ and finding deeper meaning and fulfilment from what I do. We can find incredible meaning, worth and inspiration in our workplaces. Those things don't have to exist only outside of work. Part of who I am is what I do. Part of what I do is who I am. This is what makes me so passionate and inspired for what I do and I feel that it makes me a better person.

Jen is an innovative leader in the industry and she is working everyday to lead with action and compassion for her team and the families they serve.

Rapid fire with Jen…

What do you love most about your profession?

We are caring.

What is your proudest moment?

Having a baby and signing paperwork for Smith’s in the same week.

It is 2032, what will we see?

I hope we see a bigger vision for the facility at Smith’s. Modern, fresh, and inviting; not as formal or traditional. That would be a fun project to envision!

If you could educate families on one thing, what would it be?

The value of ritual, ceremony, togetherness and honouring a life. And it doesn’t have to be done in a traditional, homogenous way.

Quote you love?

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou

Leadership is... Passion in action.

What one word describes leadership to you? Leave us a comment!

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