Every year when Independence Day is upon us, it can be the beginning of thinking not only about the freedom we enjoy in our country, but the freedom that is possible in our workplaces. Freedom is something we all desire, and when it’s present in our workplaces, it opens up all kinds of creativity and joy that can lead to real bottom line results. As a leader, you can set the tone for workplace freedom.
In 1990, I bought a copy of a now classic book (for adults as well as children) called “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodor Seuss Geisel) for my four-year-old daughter Kelly. My gift to her turned out to be a gift to myself as well as many of my clients. The message of freedom of choice is very clear, and it includes cautions that the choices we make will not always be easy.
“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.”
“I’m so sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
can happen to you.”
Dr. Seuss’ messages are humorously realistic ones you should take to heart for how you manage yourself and how you lead others. What you can learn for yourself and how you can apply it to leading others may just change your life. The advice is time-tested and has the power to reduce the suffering you can experience as you (attempt to) live your life and work in the spirit of freedom:
Choose freedom over fear. If fear of failure is driving your choices, it will reflect negatively on your leadership. Make sure you have firm personal values and an organizational vision to fall back on to make your choices, and although they may not be easy or perfect, they will be the right ones for you. Let
go of the need to please others in the choices you make. Some of your choices will result in bang-ups and hang-ups, but if you have the support of others behind you, you’ll get through the tough times with grace and your dignity intact as long as you don’t dwell in the “should haves”.
The people who work for you are smart adults and wonderfully capable of doing more than you – or they – believe is possible. Don’t be fooled into thinking they need you to keep a tight rein on the work they do. Give them the freedom to think and act for themselves. Guide them gently. They will thrive and so will your organization. Sometimes making the choice to extend freedom will be hard, but giving yourself the gift of choice to free others up to be the intelligent, creative, and wholesome people that they are will have extensive positive consequences for your leadership and the goals you can achieve or exceed.
Make every day a day of freedom.
“And will you succeed?
Yes! You will indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)
KID, YOU”LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!”
Many leaders drive others harder than they need to. What results is constant push for their team to achieve those goals. Meetings consist of checking the lists of things to be fixed and get done NOW.
Recently I listened with awe as leaders described a change of heart following my Coaching for Breakthrough Performance workshop, where we spent significant time on skills that build relationships. Many described their new-found recognition of moving relationship-building with their stakeholders higher on their priority list.
One poignant example came from a retail leader who told how her days are filled with meetings with store managers. Her normal way of operating is to walk into each store and make lists of problems and then spend her time with the managers telling them what they needed to fix. After the workshop, she committed to spending time in the following week just listening to the store managers.
Many leaders need to move these relationship-building behaviors up to the top of their priority list:
Listening: When I ask a leader’s stakeholders (especially direct reports) about opportunities for the leader’s improvement, I often hear “I don’t feel heard” – even (especially) about well-respected seasoned leaders! Many leaders feel compelled to let people know how much they know. The truth is that relationships are built by listening to others.
Asking: Instead of telling your stakeholders everything you know, the catalyst to helping them feel heard is inquiry. I know that you’re skilled at telling people things but it doesn’t do a lot to help others grow and develop. Becoming skilled at asking curious questions that you and your stakeholders don’t know the answers to is a great way for everyone to learn.
Developing: Helping others to develop is part of your job. Yes, you still need to get results – but you’ll discover as you mentor, coach, teach, and train others, the results will follow. And what follows that is significant satisfaction as they become skilled and you find you don’t need you to “push” them to meet goals; they’ll know how to get there.
Encouraging: Another common theme I hear when I speak to stakeholders is that the leader’s way of operating is to find “what’s wrong”. Criticism and problem solving are the default communication tool. What if you looked for the things that people are doing right and encouraged them by letting them know what you noticed instead?
Thanking: Don’t wait until the work is completed to say thank you. Find ways to appreciate your stakeholders along the way. A brief email, a handwritten card, or a conversation about what you’ve noticed will go a long way toward helping others to feel good about what they’re doing and repeat it.
I’ve observed first-hand what’s possible leaders take the time to put a higher priority on relationships. You may believe this is unproductive at first. If you stick with it, you’ll notice the commitment, motivation, and engagement in your organization that can result in bottom line impact.
When two apparently drunk Secret Service agents crashed into a barrier while driving in front of the White House recently (later reported to be more of a “bump” than a crash), the agency’s director Joseph Clancy was not told about the incident until five days after it happened via an anonymous email. The incident created a feeding frenzy in the press that further undermined an agency that was already under scrutiny for a string of bad behaviors amongst its agents.
Similarly, a private sector leader wasn’t told about something he should have known from inside of his organization until it became public and unpleasant in the press. Employees feared telling him bad news due to his well-known unrestrained negative reactions. This leader lost his job over the situation.
Had these leaders been informed earlier of the negative news they needed to know they may have prevented the fallout that happened afterwards.
Although there may be very different reasons why these leaders weren’t informed until it was too late, their chances of getting crucial news would have increased if they welcomed the messenger. If you are prone to being surprised about information you should know, first make sure your stakeholders are clear about the type of news you want to hear. Then:
Listen well. Listening to others when they have bad news is a way to welcome them. Be inviting. Talk less. Open yourself to what you hear and ask questions to understand the situation. When you do these things, you make it safe for someone to disclose something that they may be uncomfortable telling you.
Know your triggers so you can choose your reaction. What sets you off? What do you sense or notice in yourself before you go ballistic? Beginning to notice how and where your reaction begins is a first step toward choosing how you want to respond to it. Then choose to stay calm because when you explode, you distance yourself from people; they begin to fear your reaction and stop informing you of the things you need to deal with.
Thank them for bringing whatever they brought to your attention because it’s a gift that they didn’t have to give. Even though you may not like what you hear, it’s important that you express gratitude. Follow up with them later and thank them again.
Manage your stress: Stress that causes dramatic reactions isn’t a result of what’s in the external environment – it comes from inside you. Learn to control what you can and let go of the rest. Focus on your priorities. Make sure that you take care of your life outside of work so you can lead well at work. Exercise, rest, eat healthy, get sleep, spend time with those who are important to you, and do whatever else you need to do to feel fulfilled.
When you welcome the messenger, you open the doors for those who support you to feel safe enough to say what they need to say. It might make a big difference to you and your leadership.
Driving along the highway with the radio tuned to the Here & Now show, I was just “sort of” listening. But then…..Deke Sharon (producer for The Sing Off and both Pitch Perfect movies) came on to be interviewed about the resurgence of interest in a cappella music. I pumped my fist and shouted YEAH! when Sharon mentioned that part of his job requires him to smooth over rough patches in the relationships amongst group members because:
“You can’t create harmony unless you have harmony within the group.”
One definition of “harmony” (Merriam Webster) is “a pleasing combination or arrangement of different things”. Harmony is what happens when relationships in the group are intentionally built. Sharon’s statement is also true of leadership teams and groups of employees who have to work together; harmony amongst the team can create great results.
This is the work you need to do to create harmony on your team:
Be clear about the vision that you want to achieve. Working together with your team on the vision can be an exercise in working toward harmony in itself. Masterful a cappella groups spend a lot of time defining their vision: the BHAG’s they see themselves achieving in the future. They’ll work together on what they want to be known for, how they’ll stand out from the crowd, and how they’ll be working together to achieve their vision. Engage your team in an inspiring dialog about the vision, and you’re shaping the future together and setting the stage for harmony.
Capitalize on the unique gifts of each team member. In the finest a cappella groups the singers who are naturals at singing within a certain range (soprano, contralto, tenor, bass, etc.) normally sing the role meant for their voice. These groups blend their differences of range to create a unique, pleasing, and very complex sound. Your team members should work within their talents when possible, and blend their usual gifts with those of other team members to create a team that capitalizes on the strengths and minimizes the weaknesses of each member.
Embrace conflict and address disrespect. In the movie Pitch Perfect, a female a cappella “underdog” group was only able to reach their potential when they addressed the behavioral issues that were holding them back. Work with your team to set some norms about what’s acceptable and what isn’t in terms of behavior. Conflict of ideas can foster creativity, but behavior that is disrespectful kills new ideas. What are the behaviors are acceptable when conflict arises? How will the team address someone who isn’t doing their part?
A cappella groups and work teams harmonize well when they have built the kind of relationships that can create extraordinary results. Harmony requires a lot of work behind the scenes. Be as intentional about facilitating harmony with your team as you are with the work that needs to be done, and you’ll have the potential to achieve more than you thought possible.
I know what you’re dealing with: a need to move faster than lightening, get results now, and get them right. And did I mention all the corporate paperwork and processes you have to follow while still delivering on time and under budget?
But wait – in all of this rush, you’ve forgotten something – or someone and maybe many “someones”. The fact of the matter is that you can’t lead without others, and people need you. They take time. They take effort. They take relationship-building. Last but not least they take conversation. Sometimes they need conversations that are emotional because work can be emotional or because they have something going in their outside-of-work life that is impacting them and their work.
This time with someone may be the most important part of your day, and it just might be less awful than you think, because you have everything you need to have that emotional conversation that can come unexpectedly. Welcome it. Stop what you are doing and turn to the person who needs you. Let them have all of your attention, because sometimes all that conversation requires is your presence.
It’s this easy and this hard:
Listen because when someone is distraught, that’s often all you need to do. Do it with all of your mind and heart. Shut off the chatter and turn to the person in front of you as if they and their problem were the only thing you have to do at this moment (even when it isn’t). Listen to understand their situation, and when you get a chance, summarize what you think you heard and don’t be upset if you got it wrong. You did your best.
Ask what they need. A very simple question, “What do you need?” can work miracles. Don’t assume they need anything, because chances are they’ll surprise you when they say they just need to be heard. If they need something more, let them tell them tell you. You don’t have to say yes – compromise if you need to. Don’t jump into the fire with “doing” because right now you just need to “be” there.
Don’t judge their story. That may be the first place your mind goes, but it’s not what’s best for them or for you. Don’t judge with your words or your thoughts. Instead, you might find some common ground to be able to say simply, “That sucks, and I’ve been there too”. Beware of telling your own stories because at this moment, they just need to feel heard.
Stay with them and stay present as long as you can. Focus on their situation and their story. If you’ve promised to do something that they need, then either follow through or get back to them with a darned good reason why you can’t (and apologize profusely for being caught up in their emotional situation and vowing to do something you cannot do).
Now you can let them go on with their life. If they need to be heard again, they’ll let you know.
It might not seem true at this very moment, but this just may be the most important part of your day.
Ken and I were in the yard yesterday planting gardens when a police car drove into the driveway. We’ve lived in this sparsely populated location for almost two decades and although there has been an occasional car accident on the road in front of the house that requires police presence, we’ve never had a cop come up to the house out of the blue.
The policeman had a handful of letters in his hand. He said that someone had opened every mailbox along the roadside the previous evening throughout the township and he’d been picking up mail that was scattered along the ground. He just wanted us to know in case we we’d left mail in the mailbox overnight (we didn’t).
We chatted with him and promised to let our closest neighbors know. He said he was going to pick up every piece of mail he could find, sort it out and make sure it was delivered. I was impressed. There were likely a myriad of other things he’d prefer to do than search for mail along the roads.
He was being responsible. He couldn’t do much about what had happened, but he could pick up the mail so it could be delivered to the appropriate homes.
Leaders take responsibility.
Instead of shrugging your shoulders and saying that there is nothing you can do consider if you are doing what you can. That may mean:
An offer of help to someone who needs it. This could be a colleague, a direct report, a customer or a boss. Someone may be overwhelmed at work and could use your help. Maybe someone is experiencing a tough situation outside of work that would benefit from your assistance. Offer to support them in any way they may need it and not only will you be acting like a leader, you’ll have an ally for life.
A listening ear to hear someone out. Listening to someone tell you their troubles might not sound like your favorite way to spend some time, but the truth of the matter is that sometimes that’s all that’s needed. So often people don’t need our advice or our active problem solving, they just need to feel heard.
A willingness to step in. Yes, sometimes you just have to roll up your shirtsleeves and do it (like the policeman in my story). The job that needs doing might not be glamorous and you may not get kudos for doing it, but it needs to be done. Be aware of the times when something needs your active participation, and step in and get it done.
Leaders lead responsibly by staying aware of the things they can do, even when something looks hopeless or routine. This creates connection and forges the kinds of relationships that will help you to become an exemplary leader.
The leader and I sit quietly dissecting the 360 report she holds in her hands. This is an esteemed and seasoned leader who had spent years managing others and was now a “manager of managers”. She sits across from me, trying understand the feedback in the report. I sense her distress when she says:
“This information must be wrong. I have great feedback conversations with my stakeholders. I ask them frequently what I am doing well and what I can do better. They tell me I’m doing well and that doesn’t match up with the negative information in this report. Is this really my report or could it belong to someone else?”.
She was trying to make sense of information that doesn’t seem to match up because they were different ways of assessing her behavior. The fact of the matter is that the feedback she receives by either method won’t tell her “truth” – they are a snapshot of perceptions of her stakeholders. What matters is what she thinks and does with the information.
First, she needs to spend more time after this initial debrief to review the report again and to think. When she’s digested the report and had time to think more about it, her results can become the beginning of some illuminating conversations and an action plan.
Assessment results can be disconcerting, and every leader deciphers the results reacts differently. Some will agree with the strengths and disagree with the weaknesses that are highlighted. Others feel the results reflect well how they show up, warts and all. All of it’s the start of something.
After you receive your report, begin the conversation:
With yourself: Spend some time going through your report again. Recognize that NOBODY has perfect scores. There is always something that you can do better or differently. As you look at the information, consider the balance – you’ll have plenty of strengths that show up too. Ask yourself: What surprised me? What am I proud of? Where do I go from here? Put yourself in your stakeholder’s shoes and ask yourself if you can imagine why they might have scored you low in some areas of your report.
With others: 360 reports do not always pinpoint the exact behaviors that can result in lower scores in some areas. Have a conversation with trusted stakeholders who can tell you exactly what behaviors they observe that might be causing the lower scores. Listen well and ask questions about when they see the behavior, who you are with when you exhibit it, and what they observe you doing. I know it’s hard to be vulnerable in this way, but its important for you to know the specifics so that you can make the changes that will transform your leadership from good to great.
It can be difficult to receive critical feedback, but when you see it as a learning opportunity and the beginning of conversations that can make you a better leader, you just may be on your way to greatness.
Look around and notice the leaders you admire. What they do looks easy – but staying at the top of their leadership game takes intentionality and practice. If they’re among the elite leaders, they practice at being the best by targeting areas of strength and development on a continual basis.
You might not think of leadership as something to be practiced, but like so many professions that require human effort (athletes and performers for example), mastery can be fleeting and elusive. So why wouldn’t you make the effort to become aware of your developmental needs and practice at them in order to always work toward mastery?
You need to continually work at the behaviors that will help you to become an exceptional leader; there’s always something you can improve upon. Start here:
Identify behaviors you need to improve upon: Leadership is mastered through your thoughts and ultimately, your behaviors – including how you communicate, how you move, and how you respond. Maybe you need to listen better, connect more, become more confident in your skin, or make sure you express your appreciation more often. The behaviors you choose are the seemingly small things that make great leaders. I once worked with a client who wanted to stop interrupting others, and she found that when she did this, it made a profound impact on how performed as a leader.
Break your behaviors down into daily practices: Its best to begin with one or two behaviors at a time. Practice them daily. Stay accountable to your practice in some way (ask a friend, your manager, a colleague or your coach to hold you accountable). Plan to spend 6 months or more with daily effort at embodying your practice; it will get easier. Ask for feedback as you practice: are others noticing the changes you’re making? Based on what you hear, adjust and carry on with your practice.
Reflect on your progress: At the end of each day, spend a few minutes in quiet reflection to consider how you are doing with your daily practice and the progress you’re making. Ask yourself: Have I met my commitment to practice? Why or why not? Does the practice continue to be important to me? What do others say about my progress? Are my new behaviors becoming automatic (habitual)? What do I need to change now?
Take care of yourself: Forgive your slips, lack of commitment, and forgetfulness to practice; but if it’s important to you to continue, recommit and stay accountable. In the meantime make sure that you maintain your energy to meet your commitment by getting enough sleep and leisure time, eating well, exercising and doing the things that renew you. They’re like the hidden batteries you need to continue this work.
Leadership requires your intention and continual practice even when you’re at the top of your game. What do you need to start practicing today?
I live in a part of the world where we greatly appreciate the spring season. I look out my office window, and see the glorious magnolias blossoming. When I stretch my view just a little wider I can see the tiny spinach leaves and pea shoots stretching out of the soil from where I planted them a couple of weeks ago. The ruby-throated hummingbirds are on their trek back to this part of the world to make their nests and raise their babies. It’s a time of renewal when all of these living systems require nourishment.
Have you thought about the work relationships you need to renew and nourish? So many leaders become caught up in the rush to make the next quarter’s goals, solving issues that arise, and the daily tasks of assuring that deadlines are on track that they neglect the relationships that keep their leadership and their organizations strong.
There are also important connections to be made and relationships to be nurtured that you may not have paid attention to; some may require healing or trust-building.
Internal support (HR, Finance, Marketing, etc.)
- Community partners
What have you done lately to connect with key individuals in these areas that support you?
Begin by considering:
Who do you need to connect with? Set aside some “thinking time” to create a list of the key people you need to renew relationships with. Some leaders appreciate the ability to visualize those connections with a relationship map. Others may find it helpful to simply make a list and prioritize the key people they need to reconnect with.
What outcomes would you like? Before you meet with these individuals, think about why you want to nourish the relationship.
Do you need to develop greater trust with a key stakeholder? Heal a broken relationship? Or simply renew a relationship that needs an extra shot of energy?
What outcomes would they like? Don’t make assumptions about what they want, ask them! It’s important to make sure that the relationship is a two-way street and not just what you want. Once you are clear about what both of you want, co-create an agenda and set up a meeting.
How will you foster the relationship? If it’s important to continue to nurture the relationship, then decide together how you will do that. Will you have regular meetings? How often? What will you discuss?
Make a plan to continually renew and nourish your important work relationships. Those connections are the key to insuring that your leadership will grow and remain strong.