May 12, 2023
Leading people requires a whole different set of skills than distinguishing yourself in project-based work.
Katie Anderson For companies to thrive, it is critical they have leaders who cultivate cultures of innovation and engagement. Leaders who align and leverage the creativity of their people are needed now more than ever: to create new ways of working, address workforce shortages and manage through unexpected global challenges such as supply-chain issues. However, the behaviors that executives and new managers have been taught to define leadership success are not what will actually deliver the successful outcomes they desire. In my work with leadership teams around the globe, the biggest “ah ha” people have is how skills they have honed for years are actually getting in the way of their success as organizations, teams and individuals. Think of a great leader or coach whom you’ve been given the opportunity to know, be mentored by or learn from. What did that person do to help you grow or achieve a goal? I’ve asked this question to over 10,000 leaders around the world over more than a decade, and the actions they share are universal. Great leaders: Challenge them to achieve more than they thought was possible. Provide encouragement to keep going, despite challenges and setbacks, and lift them up when they are stuck Give constructive and sometimes challenging feedback with kindness to help them improve Ask questions, listen and give space for them to come up with their own ideas to learn, fail and grow Consistently show up, even during difficult times Genuinely care about their success and always have their best interest at heart. So, we know what great leadership looks like. Yet when stepping into a leadership role, we may get stuck in old paradigms of command-and-control leadership.
This is not our fault. We are programmed to view being a success as being the one who has all the answers, the one who achieves the result. Most of us start our careers as individual contributors, with a focus on our personal impact within an organization, a business, a cause or a team.While we know we are a part of a larger business ecosystem, we are focused on our work, perfecting our skillset and proving ourselves to the company we work for, and leaders we report into. And our culture perpetuates this. Likewise, our education systems reinforce personal progress over collective momentum, rewarding individuals for having “the right answer.” Our corporate structures reward content experts and problem solvers—”firefighters” who come in to save the day—for their answers or heroics with promotions into management positions. But while we may have excelled in our previous roles, being an effective leader requires shifts from content expert to people coach and from project-based work to people leadership. Having the Answers Is Not the Answer Being promoted with expanded responsibility can be exciting. Yet, suddenly, our expertise is not the primary thing that matters. We have to let go of us coming up with all the answers, and instead start thinking about how we can cultivate the expertise of others. It was our knowledge and ability to execute on initiatives that got us here, but it will be our leadership and people-development skills that will get us there. To become a successful people-centered leader—one who fosters learning and innovation, one whose team chooses to actively follow – you’ll need to follow three critical and intentional steps. 1. Become self-aware Self-awareness is the baseline requirement for personal and professional growth, as well as ensuring that our actions are actually creating the impact we intend. While typically expertise drives advancement, awareness instigates the humble shift to supporting growth and success for all. Often, we are blind to how habits that once defined our success actually create the opposite impact when we move into a team-leadership role. As an expert, you likely knew what you needed to know in order to do your job successfully. Your “answers” are likely what led to your managers recognizing your leadership potential. But answers are not the foundation of leadership … at least not in the way that you may have once thought.
Leadership is not an “either/or” equation. It’s situational. The most effective leaders know how to move between the continuum of expert and coach. They know when their expertise is needed, and when it is their role to help cultivate and support the development of others’ expertise. The reward for intentional leadership comes in creating the conditions for others to get to the answer. And, in fact, the beauty in this shift is that innovation occurs when new thoughts are built, and there isn’t only one way from point A to point B. Our one way may not even be the best way. 2. Focus on the process of discovery and learning People leaders see impact beyond outcomes. Although, of course, outcomes are important, the process to get there is more important. Effective leaders know that impact is a part of a larger chain; a chain of shared learning. Learning is cultivated when leaders offer clear direction and provide support by creating conditions for individuals to experiment with new approaches to finding answers and learning through failure. Learning happens when teams fail forward, and learning is at the heart of personal and professional impact. 3. Take action to inspire action by breaking limiting habits Some things are meant to be broken, and that is true for some ineffective leadership habits, most significantly the “telling” habit. Reflect back on some of the leaders you’ve had in your career. You can likely easily identify those who set you up to succeed and those who did quite the opposite, draining you of your energy and potential quickly. It’s likely that those who mentored you successfully had embraced the mindset shift from “telling” to “asking.” It’s a knee-jerk reaction to offer the solution when a problem arises. Your knowledge and expertise has afforded you a plethora of right answers to common or even challenging problems. But the pivot from expert to coach requires a pivot in how to see problems and how to coach your team to uncover solutions. While it may appear to be a quicker solution for all when you offer the answer, the more effective, long-term solution is to empower your team to find their own answers. It’s time to break these limiting habits and cultivate those aligned with the leadership impact you desire. Create Habits Aligned with Learning So, how do you do that? Here are some tips on how cultivate more effective leadership habits aligned with learning:
Go see: Make a routine of “going to gemba,” the place work happens. Intentionally check in with your team and the rest of the organization and inquire and listen to genuinely learn and discover the challenges they may be facing. Ask questions: When your team comes to you with a challenge, focus less on the solution and more on the questions to help them get to a solution. Ask supportive follow-up questions to encourage collective uncovering of possible solutions. These questions help team members discover that they likely already knew the answer all along, and if they didn’t, now they know where to find it in the future. Be transparent about your intentions: Share with your team the “why” behind your actions. For example, they may be habituated to you coming up with the answers and suspicious about why you are asking questions instead. Share the importance of mutual discovery and how learning and innovation go hand in hand. Let them know that you want to hear their input, and support them by giving them space to think. The hard truth is that not every successful expert is equipped to be a successful people manager or leader. But those willing to embrace a new paradigm of success—moving from expert to coach of others’ expertise—will be able to achieve so much more. It’s like my client Shawn, a director of operations and operational excellence at a global biotech company, recently shared with me: “It’s like I have a superpower now … and it’s so easy!” Whereas in the past, he might have wanted to jump in to solve his teams’ problems and give all of his suggestions, instead he now provides a clear target or goal for each team and then supports them by checking in on them regularly and asking questions. He is transparent that he is there to support them to come up with their best ideas of how to improve the work. It’s that simple. They are achieving more, are more engaged and other teams are noticing the impact of his leadership approach. Having awareness of your own limitations and growth opportunities, embracing the impact of your new role and being willing to break some of the habits you used to get you here so you can get there is your roadmap to becoming the leader you strive to be.