Anyone can learn to be a better leader

Anyone Can Learn to Be a Better Leader

When you’re an individual contributor, your ability to use your technical expertise to deliver results is paramount. Once you’ve advanced into a leadership role, however, the toolkit that you relied on to deliver individual results rarely equips you to succeed through others. Beware of falling into the logical trap of “if I can do this work well, I should be able to lead a team of people who do this work.” This would be true if leading others were akin to operating a more powerful version of the same machinery you operated previously. But it’s not; machinery doesn’t perform better or worse based on what it thinks about you and how you make it feel, while humans do.

Occupying a leadership position is not the same thing as leading. To lead, you must be able to connect, motivate, and inspire a sense of ownership of shared objectives. Heightening your capacity to lead others requires being able to see how you think and act, and how your behavior affects others. Leading well requires a continuous journey of personal development. Yet people in leadership roles often eschew the long and challenging work of deepening self-insight in favor of chasing after management “tools”— preferably the “quick ’n’ easy” kind, such as personality type assessments that reduce employees to a few simplistic behavioral tendencies, or, for example, implicit bias workshops that are used as a band-aid solution for systemic discrimination, or stack ranking systems that purport to identify the best talent by requiring managers to compare employees to each other. Instead of being a short cut to effective leadership, this mechanistic approach is more often a dead end that misdirects leaders’ attention away from the linkage between their own behavior and employee outcomes.

As an example, I worked with an organization that had disengaged employees and frustrated managers who wanted to instill greater commitment and accountability in their teams. A few years earlier, the firm had overhauled its performance management system. The centerpiece of the new solution was a system that prompted managers to enter performance goals and ratings for their direct reports, schedule performance review meetings, and complete the annual performance appraisal process within a specified time period. When managers completed performance appraisals on time and the ratings they gave fit the target distribution,  its sponsors claimed that the system had increased precision and accountability in performance management. What the system’s dashboard didn’t show — and its sponsors failed to appreciate — was that implementation had accompanied a downward spiral of employee morale and engagement. Employees reported that their managers didn’t appreciate their value and were uninterested in their development. Many were on the lookout for new opportunities elsewhere. For their part, managers felt that the organization made performance management cumbersome. They were also blind to their own contributions to a workplace climate that weakened commitment and accountability.

Tools can be handy aids to good leadership. But none of them can take the place of fearless introspection, feedback seeking, and committed efforts to behavioral change for greater effectiveness and increased positive impact on others. In my work with the organization above, I helped leaders learn that their greatest leverage to improve the commitment and accountability of their employees lay not in tracking their goal completion, but in creating and sustaining a motivating interpersonal environment. While we did use tools such as frameworks and checklists, their function was to help leaders note the quality of their own and their employees’ experience of work and shift it in a more collaborative direction; they weren’t to be used as replacements for this essential work. Leaders learned to recognize how their assumptions shaped their behavior and learned to consciously adopt mindsets and behaviors that produced better leadership outcomes.

Instead of hoping in vain for a magic tool to come along to help you manage your team, think of creating practices to increase your leadership proficiency. This involves taking an idea or research finding and translating it into behaviors that you can repeat systematically to create the desired result. You can use the following steps to design a learning practice for any developmental challenge you’d like to take on:

Start with a problem you’d like to solve or a future result you’d like to achieve. What outcome would make a meaningful difference for you? As an example, let’s say that you’d like to see your team members become more proactive in identifying and solving problems.

Articulate why it’s important to you now. Getting clear on your purpose and motivation increases the creativity and persistence you apply to designing and sustaining your practice. Perhaps you care deeply about being a wise steward of your organization’s human resources and about bringing out the best in your team members. You believe that more fully harnessing each person’s creativity will benefit the company and your team members. You’ve been feeling overloaded and believe that recapturing some of the time you currently spend overseeing team members’ work will help you be more effective. You also want to reduce the frustration you feel at having to generate all the ideas and plans for your team.

Seek quality information to base your approach on. You don’t know the best ways to encourage proactive problem solving, so you check in with your coach or mentor or search for some relevant books and articles. If I were coaching you, I might point you toward practical, research-based articles on encouraging proactivitydeveloping learning agility, and facilitating learning on your team.

Identify measures of success. What would increased proactivity in identifying and solving problems look like in practice? How will you know if you’re making progress? Based on your thinking about what you want to achieve and the reading you’ve done, you decide that you’ll keep track of how frequently team members make suggestions, offer additional ideas to help refine a course of action, and take ownership over implementing a decision. You’ll also monitor your own internal state and how you interact with team members, looking for reduced frustration in yourself and greater enthusiasm and ownership from team members. Finally, you’ll seek feedback from your direct reports.

Ground yourself with an intention. You commit to learning to support proactive behaviors. You place a sticky note with this intention on your computer where you’ll see it first thing each morning. Whenever you meet with team members, you call this intention to mind so that it functions like a beacon to guide you, keep you on course, and prevent you from sliding back into your habit of jumping in with the answer if no one else comes forward right away.

Choose behaviors to implement. From the reading you’ve done and discussions with your coach, you design the following practices:

  • Share your experience. To serve as a role model for self-directed learning, share your own learning process and experiences. Discuss the problems you’re working on and ask for ideas from team members about how to resolve them.
  • Ask the right questions. When team members ask you how they should proceed, stimulate their thinking with questions rather than answers. Ask team members to talk you through how they are thinking about work problems and what might help. Ask other people to contribute ideas.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. When you feel frustration at a team member arising within yourself, label the feeling as an opportunity to learn something about leadership. Try considering the situation from their point of view instead of reacting from frustration.
  • Acknowledge achievements. Recognize and praise proactive behavior whenever you see it occurring.

Seek feedback. Tell your team members that you’re working to support their proactive problem solving and that you need their feedback to help you get better at this. Ask them to let you know whenever you do something that either hurts or helps. Let’s say that a few people note that you tend to shoot down others’ suggestions and micromanage when you’re under stress. Based on this feedback, commit to refrain from criticizing ideas and instead ask team members to assess the pros and cons of each idea.

Review and celebrate progress. Within a few weeks, you’ll be able to tell that you’ve made progress if team members are engaging more actively in problem solving on a regular basis. You’ll have a newfound appreciation for the creativity of some employees. If you’ve continued to seek feedback and the team has responded, you should now be able to spend more time clarifying desired outcomes with team members and less time overseeing their work, resulting in a net gain of time and energy. You’ll feel more enthusiastic about leading your team and realize that you have more capacity to develop yourself as a leader than you previously appreciated.

It’s one thing to want to hold a leadership role; it’s another to want to do the deep work that learning to lead entails. Resisting the developmental journey of leadership is like flying to an exciting locale, but then spending your whole time there in the airport bar. On the other hand, interest in and commitment to continuous learning and development as a leader will keep you fresh and vital. There’s a valley to cross before you reach the peak. And there’s another valley between that peak and the next one. The developmental journey is fascinating and fulfilling if you embrace it. You don’t have to wait to be trained; you can design leadership development practices any time you want.

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