The Leader Who Wasn’t
If I could give but one gift to the hundreds of managers and leaders I’ve worked with over the years, I would give them the ability to see what goes on with their employees after the leader leaves the room.
Believe me, if bosses knew the impact their words and directives really have on people they’d all call in sick tomorrow.
It just happened again today. After working with a management team I was pulled aside by one of the participants. “I’m so upset I’m gonna blow,” he said to me. “If you go back and ask everyone in that room you’ll find an undercurrent that is killing us.” He went on to say their new leader was a nice guy with an impressive resume who wasn’t leading anything. People didn’t know what was expected and were inventing stories about him. (In the absence of clear communication people create worst case scenarios as a psychological defense. Unfortunately these scenarios get shared and adopted as “truth”. These corporate conversations feed into actions that often become a self fulfilling prophesy.)
In this leader’s case the group-think had concluded: “He doesn’t know what he’s doing; he thinks we don’t notice; it’s not our job to save him; and by the way, did I mention he’s a really nice guy?”
This new leader needs to stop leading. He needs to build credibility with this seasoned team but he’s going about it all wrong. He’s attempting to help his new team by “getting up to speed” on what they’ve been doing for years, and in the process, he’s committing the classic mistake of trying to lead people who know more about their job than he does. He shouldn’t be leading these people, he should be enrolling them.
This leader needs to start asking questions about the purpose and mission of the company, but not questions that suggest he is clueless. His questions need to engage his employees in that purpose and mission.
For example, if he started asking people how the company’s core purpose influenced their attitudes and daily decisions he would learn something he could use. Should he really care how orders are picked, how new products are designed or how web site ordering works, when Rome is burning all around? If he has no credible expertise in those areas his well intentioned help appears arrogant or even naïve.
If you have been selected to lead a seasoned team I would recommend the following:
1. Expose the unconscious and unstated expectations of your team members:
- Help them verbalize what gives them a sense of purpose to see if they are fundamentally aligned with the core purpose of the organization.
- Don’t try to be a mind reader. Just ask what needs to happen for people to feel they are making progress. This exposes the unity the team feels towards the company’s mission.
- Ask them what they need from you to be successful. Don’t waste time or credibility trying to help someone who doesn’t need it while ignoring their unstated expectations.
2. Give them your “I have a dream” speech
- Be clear about why change is needed and the burning issues that must be addressed for everyone to succeed
- Paint a vision of a preferred future. (Don’t ask them to buy into your vision, instead describe a future that allows them to play in their areas of interest and talent.)
- Clearly describe the first few steps needed to get going.
3. Engage your team by asking for their help
- Once your employees understand and accept what has to be accomplished and why, ask them how to do it. (Most people can lead themselves once they’ve been focused on a cause and an objective; and they never argue with their own data.)
4. Become a coach
- Keep people focused on the goal.
- Help them see their role and its value.
- Correct errors by asking for what you want, rather than pointing out what’s wrong.
- Sincerely recognize contributions.
Leadership happens face to face. Your people know you don’t know everything and they don’t want you to. What they want is permission and support to play at the top of their game. Give it to them.
This article was written by Bill Mills
Bill Mills is an award winning author and speaker on business innovation. He directs Executive Group Inc. an entrepreneurial think tank for almost 70 Minnesota business owners and CEO’s. www.mnexecutivegroup.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.