Leadership has a steep learning curve. How can you lead your team through the right conversations? How can you get trustworthy commitments from your team? How does the team stay coordinated through all the unexpected (but inevitable) changes along the way?
Over the years, talented folks on my team have shared with me their ambition to grow, lead, and progress professionally. I usually hear something like, “I really like coaching people and growing people so I want to be a manager”. Or “I want to be seen as a strategic partner”. While both of these statements are important parts of leading, they also point to what people think leadership is about, not what it actually means to be an effective leader.
Coaching your team members is part of leadership. And it is easy to feel satisfied with successful mentorship relationships. But what about the folks we aren’t as compatible with but are still responsible for mentoring and growing? People struggling, underperforming, or with different values or a point of view?
And, imagining yourself as a strategic lead bringing your ideas come to life is awesome -- kind of like a mini Steve Jobs. However, actually getting your ideas across the finish line requires enormous amounts of communication, coordination, and relationship building.
As a leader, you’re responsible for all of it.
The good, the bad, the changes, the upsets.
There are three pillars of leadership. First, a base which requires you as a leader to establish and support a culture, values and a mood that your team lives and breathes. This is beyond just sticking some values on the wall - it requires acknowledging the mood, having the skills to shift the mood when required as well as having a culture with values that you as a leader live and model.
The base creates an environment of acceptable behaviors that are agreed upon - how do we act? How do we treat one another? How do we help one another or hold one another accountable? What happens when something goes wrong? These cultural norms become the contextual background - the shared landscape we’re all operating within. And they may be invisible to you, but someone new in the organization would benefit and become effective more quickly from clearly understanding the rules of the game. AND if these are invisible and unspoken, they can sometimes morph into unconstructive or undermining. As a leader you need to know if the culture you think is happening is actually happening. What subcultures are you blind to?
The base also includes operational norms. How do we operate as a group? What are our processes? How do we hire, fire, grow the company? Depenidng on your role as a leader you may be creating or supporting these operational proceses but they form the base of how the team comes together to produce, grow, evaluate, or sell.
The second pillar is the future thinking - what mission and vision are driving the team forward? Where are you leading the company, team or product? And how well are you doing that? This is a realm that most people have seen modeled well or badly from their own seat in the organizatoin. Does your team know where you are going? How did they find out? Is that communicated regularly? Does it land? How do you know? Again, leaders may spend a lot of time and concern thinking about the future of the organization and its easy to overestimate what is communicated to the team. Or, if it has been clearly shared with the team, is the team invested and does the team see action that feels approporate?
When talking to leaders, they are sometimes hesitant to share a mission and vision - after all, they may not be so confident themselves and/or it may feel like some of the future vision could simply distract the team or redirect work that is still important and requires focus. Even as a manager of a small team, its important to know how, when, and what tone is right to land the future you intend to create.
But lastly, and what I wish someone would have told me about leadership directly is that your job is all conversations. Perhaps this is incredibly obvious, after all, As a leader, you’re having conversations all day long or at least sitting in meetings. It’s painfully obvious that you’re spending your days talking over doing. Sure, maybe your leadership peers talk about “more effective meetings” or “being an effective leader” but we rarely talk about using more effective conversations to generate the results we want to achieve. We don’t make the time to understand how to become better at those conversations. We don’t take a look at why you may feel like you are talking all the time without getting results. What’s happening?
Any leader’s job is to have conversations that make promises to the organization, conversations that share that mission with the team, conversations that hold teams accountable, conversations that address breakdowns when things go wrong. Perhaps you’ve got natural inclinations for doing this well, which has landed you in a leadership role, but to become masterful and understand the moves you can take in a conversational playbook can dramatically improve your team’s effectiveness.