This week I was asked to speak to the opening session of our leadership development program for 2013. I’m proud that our company has such a program, and I like it even better that that we include a number of elements in the program that are focused on coaching, mentoring and self-awareness. Our people are at the heart of our corporate culture and it shows in our leadership development program. So when I was asked to address the group I immediately said yes, and asked what my talk should be I was told “nothing formal, just tell your own story”.
My first reaction was that this should be easy … I know all about me and my story!! The fact is we have many stories, but with 5-10 minutes to talk I decided I needed to focus on my leadership story as I progressed to an executive level position. It became clear to me that I can’t talk about being a leader without talking about being a person. The two are one and the same. So some personal vulnerability was required (see my post from last week).
You see, my leadership story involves me running headfirst into a brick wall of my own making. Throughout my career I have had success at each level. I attribute that success to two characteristics: a reasonable level of intelligence and a strong drive to acheive. And throughout my career these two characteristics not only allowed me to advance but also gave rise to some pretty consistent feedback … “Ian, you are too intense”. In working with an amazing coach (Kerry Parsons), I learned that this came from my life story. I had somehow learned that I needed to prove to others that I matter … that I can make an impact. And so I always worked longer and harder than those around me, and I would use my intelligence to solve problems that others couldn’t and then proceed to tell others all about it. I would get more stuff done than anybody else. This approach made me feel I mattered to those around me.
As an individual performer, this approach seemed to work well because the intensity at work also manifested as intensity in relationships. So I also tended to be at the center of the fun of most offices as well. As a first level leader, it still worked reasonably well as people would bring their problems to me and I would help them solve them, making their lives easier and allowing them to learn as well. But because my approach always involved telling others how to do things limitations appeared as I entered more senior leadership positions. The first is that when people are told how to do something by a senior leader, it can come across as being told they are not capable. The second is that a whisper sounds like a shout (meaning however softly a senior leader interacts, it seems much stronger).
The biggest impact was more personal. Because I had always felt most impactful when I was doing, I continued trying to do everything. As the team I was responsible for grew, that became impossible. I needed to step back and understand that while I was responsible for the results of my team, I couldn’t be involved in all of their activities and I certainly couldn’t put my stamp on every item of output. I had to trust that I had a great team and just let them put their substantial capabilities to work.
Yet I would catch myself still doing and telling. Why?
My learned or adapted behaviours were driving me to be involved in everything. It was my team and I was responsible so I felt I had to ensure that everything was perfect. I consumed more than all of the minutes and hours of the day. When I got wrapped up in doing, I would drive anyone who walked up to my door away with the “glare of death” because I was just “too busy” to talk and because I was fearful that they would ask me to do one more thing that I couldn’t handle right them. And by doing so I would actually deny myself the opportunity to do what truly fulfills me … connect with others, have meaningful conversations and brainstorm new ideas to see what we can create and contribute. Most of these activities do more to meet the results required of my team than my fingers glued to my keyboard trying to do it all myself. So I became completely unhappy with me.
So I learned to let go. And more importantly I had to know that I do matter, which would then allow me to change my approach … to spend more time connecting with the team and truly understandingt what they want to contribute, and trusting that what needs to get done will still get done if I tell less and ask questions more. As a result I am personally happier, and my read is that my team is also happier, developing faster and producing better results than ever.
So to new leaders, I would offer the following:
- Know in your heart that you want to lead. Being a leader is not the next step in your development as a professional. It is more like a new profession or a calling.
- Understand yourself first, and how that might affect what you ask (or don’t ask) of others. We need to know who and what we are bringing to the new relationships we form as a leader, and where necessary, make some changes for ourselves..
- First, build a great team, and then trust them to do what you hired them to do. They’ll ask for your help when they need it. Check in regularly to make sure they are doing okay and that you value them.
- Listen and lead from your heart. If we lead by objectives, we will likely be presented with completed tasks and hopefully satisfactory results. But if we truly listen with our heart and all our other senses for what our team longs to create, contribute, express, experience and work to allow those things to happen we will be rewared with commitment, passion, energy, amazing contributions and stellar results.