As a long-time leader of teams, I often get asked for my thoughts on how to “do” leadership. Just recently, I was talking with a bright, early-career entrepreneur who said, “My business is growing like crazy and I’m starting to hire people. I don’t know how to manage and lead others. What training course would you recommend? Or are there some books I can read?”
These questions are more common than I’d like them to be. While they are well-intended, and it’s great that people who seek leadership responsibility actually want to do it well, the assumption (or perhaps hope) beneath the question is that if you read the right books, and/or take the right training course, you will be able to lead.
The question I asked this poor soul in return was, “regardless of the training course or the books – how will you know when you can manage and lead other people? Does reading the books and attending the training mean you’re done? Tick, you’re a good leader? Cross it off the list of things to do?”
The truth (like it or not) is that managing and leading others is not a destination. It’s a practice. Kind of like yoga. In fact, yoga can teach us a lot about leadership. No matter how good you get at yoga, there’s always something more to learn. There’s more to practice. You never FINISH working at yoga. And if you’ve practiced yoga, you’ll know that some days are great – you nail the pose, you go deeper, you balance longer. Some days are terrible. You fall over, or you can’t hold even the most basic version of the pose you held for 10 minutes yesterday. It requires focus, getting back into the pose even when you’ve fallen out of it six times already, and tuning in to your thoughts and feelings. Perhaps most importantly, it requires a willingness to push beyond your comfort zone – taking your pose just a bit further, without a guarantee that you’ll nail it the first time (knowing, in fact, that you’ll probably fall over).
The same is true for leadership. This is because leadership exists within a human system. One set of leadership behaviours which works perfectly well with one group of people may completely backfire with another. Or a style of leadership that works when times are good, fails when times are difficult. Some days are great – the team is humming, people are happy. Others stink – business is underperforming, there’s tension between people, tough decisions to be made, and politics to manage. Pesky human beings – they are so unpredictable.
So what is this achievement-oriented entrepreneur to do, as the company grows and leadership becomes a necessity and requirement? While I do not endorse the concept of a “checklist for good leadership”, in the spirit of helping these shooting stars along the journey, I offer the below as a non-linear process.
First: understand the baseline. Look for clues. Do you lose people from recruitment processes after they interview with you? What’s your voluntary employee turnover rate? If you use an employee engagement survey, what does the data tell you about how people feel about their manager and/or senior leaders? You should also look inward. Who’s been your favorite or most respected leader over the course of your career and why? Who do you emulate as a leader?
Second: ask your people what they need from you – what motivates them to perform at their best. Again, these pesky human beings are all slightly different. But one thing remains consistent – people join great companies and leave bad managers.. The trick is to find out what “bad manager” means to your people – and practice behaving differently.
On the note of PRACTICE…this is a critical third (and ongoing) step. Just as you don’t become a star tennis player on day 1, and you can’t learn to play the piano with one lesson, leadership is a practice. Remember that feeling of trying something new when you were a kid? It’s frustrating and uncomfortable. Get used to this feeling – in fact, seek it out in your workplace. It means you’re learning – and learning is supposed to feel uncomfortable. Try new behaviours. Refine. Try again. Try again.
Fourth – ask your people how you’re doing. And “your people” should include those below you, above you, and beside you. If you’re heading a start-up, maybe there’s no one technically above you. Whose opinion do you respect and admire? Do you have a board of directors? An investor or business partner? Importantly, consider this guide for soliciting feedback (and ignore it at your peril).
Fifth (and arguably the most important element to include in your practice): Reflect on the feedback and use it as a source of data to improve your practice. Extending the “learning to play the piano” analogy, consider how listening to a recording of your practice can shine a light on areas where you need more practice. You listen, you think about what you want to work on, and then you work on it. The same is true in leadership. What can you learn from the feedback you received? What should you try differently?
What can you learn? What can you try?
Sixth (or maybe first!) – ask for help. What professional athlete does not have a coach? What opera singer doesn’t study under another professional? It can be very lonely at the top. Cultivate your network, join leadership forums or communities, and consider a psychotherapist, counsellor or performance coach to help you reflect, learn, and grow. As someone who has been practicing leadership for decades and advising others who are doing the same, I firmly subscribe to the view that every leader needs a therapist and coach.
Finally – Repeat steps 1-6. Often, and for as long as you hold a leadership role. In doing so, you will exceed your own expectations and you will make a difference to your team, your company and potentially by extension, the world around you.
After all – isn’t this why you became an entrepreneur in the first place?
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Find out more about Kelly here
- Master of Counselling, Monash University, Australia
- Master of Applied Science (Innovation & Organisation Dynamics), RMIT University, Australia
- Bachelor of Arts (Liberal Arts/Music), Florida State University, USA
- Executive Coaching – Level Two Coach, Institute of Executive Coaching & Leadership, Australia
- Member, Hong Kong Society of Counselling & Psychology
- Member, Australian Counselling Association
- Member, Hong Kong Professional Counselling Association
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