Nearly 20 years of consulting and coaching experience in some of the world’s most effective organisations in virtually every sector imaginable, and the absolute privilege and honour of working at a deeply personal level with the most senior leaders in these organisations has left me with some impressions of great leadership as it is lived on a daily basis.
This is not the result of hours of empirical research with endless questionnaires and data tables. Rather, it is my reflective summary of what great leadership feels like. The list speaks to the habits of brilliant leaders, and can be understood at all levels of an organisation.
Ask great questions that illuminate new solutions – flashes of inspiration, or insights as I prefer to call them, do not just happen to leaders. Great leaders create the conditions within which the people around them have great insights, and they do this by relentlessly asking questions to understand what is before them – probing, illuminating, incisive questions that cause those around them to have a broader perspective and think differently. Fertile ground indeed for new ideas.
Learn to harness and exploit your natural strengths – many of my clients assume that I am there to help them negate their weaknesses. The power of the human mind is such that you get more of what you focus on, and if you concentrate on your weak points, you enhance them. Better therefore to build and exploit your strengths… way more fun too!
Only work on the weaknesses that limit you – we all have blind spots and things that do not come naturally. Great leaders understand that the only weaknesses that matter are those that are either getting in their way or limiting them. In my coaching work, I have found that often even these performance limiting weaknesses get compensated for and minimised by focusing on strengths. So this list should be pretty short – developing weaknesses is a last resort.
Check-in with people more often than you need to – teams and individuals who are being led have a need to be heard, listened to and paid attention to. It is a basic human need to be recognised and valued. Understand this, and check in with your people multiple times a day – you are never too busy to do this. It is amazing what you learn by just chatting to people, and the motivational effect is huge.
Look at industries that are similar but different to yours – when we look at other companies that are similar to us, we simply see a reflection of ourselves. Surely the object of looking outwards is to find something different. So if you are an airline, don’t look at other airlines, look at how five-star hotels or casinos treat their customers and take lessons from that. Maybe this is a better route to finding ways to differentiate in a crowded market.
Look inwards for the solutions not outwards – in my consulting work I have the privilege of understanding how a huge range of organisations operate – with different styles, structures and strategies – it gives me a wider viewpoint and more perspectives to draw from in helping my clients. However, one thing is clear to me – that ideas and techniques do not easily transport from one context to another, and where I have seen leaders create the best solutions has been when they think carefully about what will work within their organisation, rather than look at what everybody else is doing.
Ask what, how and when rather than why – any question beginning with the word “why” is surely a probing enquiry into understanding the situation better, isn’t it? What I have observed, however, is that people get very defensive when faced with this sort of question. “Why did you do that?” has an accusatory tone to it which does not exist in the questions “What else might you have done?” or “How might you have done this differently?”.
Answer questions with questions – in a number of the leadership development programs that I have designed and led, participants are asked to spend two weeks asking questions in response to any questions that they are asked by their team. It is a tough exercise. However, the results are invariably along the lines of “I realise that my team already have the answers”, “they are simply looking for me to take the responsibility for the decision” and “they want me to do the thinking for them”. It is very seductive being able to give people answers, but as leaders we are better off taking the harder road which is to ask the insightful question that helps point the way to them finding their own answers.
Be positive in your outlook for the future – human beings are hardwired to respond to positive ideas, language, attitude and behaviour. Negative people are draining, and with the pace of organisations today we can ill afford this. As leaders we must model the way we want people to be – and being positive about the future gives people hope, and hope gives energy.
Be grounded in your assessment of today – however, it is critical that leaders see the reality of today, and ground the judgement within this even one being very positive about the future. This is essential to be able to build connection with the individuals and teams that you lead. This is where checking in with people on a regular basis is invaluable – I have seen so many leaders make assumptions about the reality within their organisations, when all they are really seeing is what they want to see. This builds distance between them and their people, and as a consequence the leadership impact is diminished.
Some of these reflections are counterintuitive, or at the very least not how we instinctively behave. I am supremely confident that if you can model at least some of these behaviours within your leadership you will see dramatic improvements. This is borne out by the thousands of managers and leaders that I have worked with over the last 20 years, and the other thing I have learnt is that only you can make these improvements.
Over to you then…read more
We have all experienced doing homework in our school days (longer ago for some of us…), and many of us will be parents ourselves now. My question is this: what is the best way for a parent to help their child if they see that they could be approaching their homework in a much better way. The problem becomes particularly acute when the child is a teenager – all parents of teenagers know exactly what I mean by this!
Direct advice is at best short-cutting the child’s learning, and at worst risks developing a passivity in the child that they will be given the answers when their work is challenging for them.
A similar conundrum often presents to technical leaders – how can we use our deep experience and intuition to help teams do better work, but without telling them what to do and so disempowering their creativity and expertise. The key to this lies in the subtle use of questioning techniques allied with a results orientation, and the following quote sums up the spirit of this:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
You want to be able to use your experience to improve performance and help your team to gain the benefits of your experience, but without disempowering them. Neuroscience research tells us that we are all wedded to acting on our own thoughts, and so how can we facilitate the transfer of this expertise from your head to theirs without telling them directly?
It turns out you can have your cake and eat it, and there are 3 key steps to this:
1. Understand the current situation
2. Raise the bar in terms of performance expectations
3. Using coaching questions to help them explore how to meet these higher expectations
Help them feel understood
Your team members need to feel that you understand them before they are likely to respond positively to your thoughts. The first step is therefore to gain a thorough understanding of how the issue is currently being approached through at first open-ended questions, and then more detailed probing around the areas that you are concerned about.
You need to gain a real appreciation of how they are approaching the issue in terms of their thinking to establish where the changes need to be brought about to get the result that you know is possible. Once this is clear to them the way is open to helping them see that something else is possible – before this stage is reached you risk making it you against them in an intellectual tug-of-war.
Moving the bar up a few notches
Let’s think about this for a moment…
Your role as leader at this point becomes to help the person explore the possibilities for greater performance. To do this in a positive and constructive way you need to help them explore new avenues of thinking, by asking questions such as “What would the effect be if we changed this…”, “How could this element be approached differently?”, ” What other options do we have?” or “How could we change the way we are thinking about this?”.
The most important point throughout this process is that you are focusing on how they are thinking about the problem, not on the problem itself. Your task as leader becomes enabling the person to make a breakthrough join their thinking, so that they in turn can produce the breakthrough results that you are looking for.
Don’t forget the line managers
If there are one or more levels of management between you and the person you are helping, make sure that your parting blow is to encourage the individual to collaborate with their manager(s) to find the breakthrough solutions. And of course let the managers know about the conversation you have just had.
Maybe even applying this technique to some teenagers you might know when they are struggling with their homework will enable a breakthrough for them.
Although if they are teenagers, don’t hold your breath.
Sink or swim – that was my choice.
This was the first day of my career breakthrough – I had just been appointed to manage Toshiba’s European television manufacturing facility. The first task was to chair the morning operations meeting, and I was faced with a team of supervisors who in turn managed a shop floor of 350 skilled people. They were looking to me for direction, inspiration, wisdom even.
And I was 24 years old.
Previously to this I had been managing product development projects in the Satellite TV industry, liaising with pan-European development and commercial teams to introduce key products into a new market at that time. But this was different. I had the pressure of people sat around me depending on my judgement, words and experience – the last one being in short supply!
With a deep academic background in management, I knew the theories and understood the concepts. They don’t help you so much when you are faced with a decision that needs to be made within the next 20 seconds because a production line has stopped, and there are 50 people staring at you with nothing to do.
It was this experience that gave me my most important and impactful lesson in leadership. This learning would shape the whole of the rest of my career, and enable me to work at the very highest levels in some of the most prestigious and ambitious companies in the world. It has informed every job and project I have since led or been part of, and it has served me well. When I go off track, it is because I have forgotten my learning, and I need to find and apply it again.
And it is incredibly simple. Just ask more questions. That’s it.
Something magical happens between 2 people when a questions is asked.
Firstly, asking someone a question demonstrates a deep respect for their expertise and knowledge, and pays them a huge compliment. You are saying that you need and value what they have to offer. We all want to be needed and valued, and asking the question conveys this to others.
Secondly, being asked a question makes new connections in your brain and helps you to see the world differently. It helps form new perspectives. It helps both people learn. Applying your mind to someone else’s situation or challenge does not just help them – you learn from this experience too.
So I came to learn that questions are possibly the most powerful tool we have in the leadership and management toolkit, and I have spent the last 25 years of my career developing the capability of using questions to illuminate situations, create new insights and find new solutions to old problems.
Of course, there are a great many other skills that need to be learnt on the path from being a technical expert through to becoming an organisational leader, but that 24 year old learnt fast that the art of asking questions, and by so doing shaping peoples’ thinking in an empowering way, is an excellent first step along the road.
Sink or swim. It’s your choice.read more
Do you ever feel that there are people you know who should have been more successful than they are given their talents, experience and abilities? Do you feel this about yourself perhaps? The reality is that we all have our own glass ceiling, self-imposed through our ‘dark side behaviours‘.
Unfulfilled career aspirations and potential, and even outright derailment are all symptoms of our inability to see, focus on and deal with the dark side of leadership. It is tempting to think that these dark side behaviours are overtly negative, and therefore they would be obvious to us and those around us. Unfortunately this is not the case – these derailing behaviours or characteristics or more subtle.
Around a year ago, we took on a psychometric product called Talent Q to offer to our clients as part of our coaching and leadership development work, as part of our armoury in helping leaders to counter the dark side of leadership. The elements that Hay Group have identified as derailers the following (amongst others) as limiters of leadership effectiveness:
- Hypersensitivity – are you either too affected by others’ emotions, or not tuned in enough – either way it is a problem for you.
- Isolation – too connected to others, or prefer your own company? Extremes are best avoided for leadership success.
- Eccentricity – research has shown that not enough creative thought can be just as limiting as being ‘out there’.
- Over-confidence – a balance of humility and confidence are required – no shrinking violets, but Attila the Hun had control issues…
- Micro-management – are you too across the detail? What would your team say about this?
We have found that leaders find difficulty in assessing accurately their own position on these factors, and so we are now licensed to deploy these reports and debrief fully to help people in leadership position avoid the downsides of the dark side behaviours.
If you would like to know more about how we can help you maximise the positive aspects of your leadership ability, and avoid these limiting factors, contact Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org, or just call me on +44 (0) 7711 831992.read more
The world may not be getting smaller, but it is certainly getting more competitive. All of the client firms that we are currently working with are experiencing the need to compete more globally, and in this age of freely available information it is hard to see how you sustain any form of advantage for any period of time.
Customers are increasingly looking for new forms of value, or ways in which they can access value in more convenient, easier or cheaper ways. The Internet is fuelling this search, and to succeed in the future firms are going to have to think very differently about their business model and offering.
Innovation therefore becomes critically important for future survival and prosperity–but we do tend to think of innovation at the strategic level, i.e. new products and services, new markets and the like. However, there is huge untapped improvement and innovation potential within all of the people that you employ.
Therefore, building a culture of continuous improvement and innovation can provide an enormous source of value, as organisations clearly need to innovate at both the operational and strategic levels.
So, in the real world how is this done?
Sir Ken Robinson in his RSA video (Click here to watch) outlines the challenge – when we were small children, we could envisage hundreds of potential uses for a paper clip, but as we were ‘educated’ our ability to think laterally and creatively diminished sharply. This underlines the challenge of reclaiming that innate innovative ability.
The reality is remarkably simple, although difficult to do (like so many things in life…). As organisational leaders we need to:
- Highlight the need for innovation, why it is critical for us and your desire for people to engage in this way with their work
- Continuously ask for and positively reinforce the behaviours of challenging the norm, thinking differently and bringing ideas forward
- Experiment with different management behaviours and leadership styles, and monitor the positive (or negative) impacts they create
- Clearly demonstrate behaviours focused on continuous improvement and innovation
If we do not change our behaviours, how can we expect anything different from those around us?read more