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Leadership Digital

Agile leadership: what it is and how to get it

 

Armed with a degree in biology I started my career as a bench biologist, but the route from there to where I am now is quite circuitous. In the almost 25 years I spent in a corporate environment, I held eight different positions in three major business areas. All of my career moves were of my own choosing.

At one point, my manager told me that if I wanted to go into management, I would need to stay in a position for longer than a few years. I thought his advice was faulty when I heard it (and as it turns out, it was), so it didn’t slow me down.

I loved learning new things, and my curiosity led me into some unusual jobs; I learned what I needed to, completed what I started, and moved on. Apparently, this “job hopping” (a term I heard often) wasn’t normal at the time. I was willing to risk a career for the ability to continue learning in far-ranging business arenas.

Every bit of what I learned in those positions was put to work on the next corporate business, what I do now, and what I will do in the future. There is a term for people that learn and are able to capitalize on it: “learning agility”.

Leaders who are agile learners are quick thinking, decisive, curious, intuitive and take (what others might call) risks. Agile leaders are exactly what we need in our organizations that are getting bigger, flatter, and more complex. They adapt moment by moment, are creative, proactive, able to learn on the fly, and comfortable with complexity.

Whew. This is a lot to ask of a leader, but the good news is that even if you don’t consider yourself “agile “now, you can learn to be. How?

Try new things: Get out of your comfort zone. Travel. Take on unusual assignments. Make lateral moves in order to learn something new. Converse with people who aren’t in your usual circle of colleagues and friends and be curious about them. Volunteer for something you never thought you would do. Take a class, learn a language. Try your hand at an artistic endeavor.

Stay present: To be able to learn on the fly, you need to be present to your experience. Observe your inside reaction as well as your external experience to new opportunities. If you have difficulty with staying present, try meditating (a new experience in and of itself!), which can help you to practice being present and create new neuronal connections that may make it easier.

Be reflective: Set aside time daily to reflect about what you’re learning in your quest to become more agile with your new experiences. It helps you to capture your learning in writing. Hire or seek out a reflection partner; someone you trust who can ask you about what you are learning, hold you accountable, and encourage you to continue. The trick here is to capture your learning systematically, not just hope it all sinks in.

Agile leaders learn and apply their learning in order to keep up with the pace of change. What have you done to learn something new lately, and how did you capture your learning?

 

 

 

Are you ready to do the work of being coached?

 

If you’re thinking of working with a coach, consider them as a guide. You will be taking responsibility to actually do the work that will help you to become the best you can be.

An analogy would be the sports or music coaches you’ve had. You “met” with them on a regular basis, but in order for you to get better at your craft, you also needed to practice between these meetings. It takes work on your part.

In executive and leadership coaching, this means you will co-design fieldwork with your coach that will be practiced in your workplace during your coaching engagement. You’ll need to reflect on what went well and what didn’t with those assignments and be ready to discuss your successes and challenges with your coach. Then you’ll practice again and again over the period that you being coached (usually for 6-12 months).

The reason for this “fieldwork” is that this is how you’ll learn, practice, and embody the new behaviors that are required for you to be the best leader you can be.

Although you may also co-design other types of assignments with your coach (perhaps some reading or an extracurricular work activity that has relevance to your coaching goals), this on-the-job fieldwork is of the utmost importance. This is the stuff that will change you. Although regular meetings with your coach are important for accountability, new insight, and moving you forward, they’re secondary to the experience of doing the fieldwork you’ll design with your coach at each meeting.

It can be hard, but rewarding work. It requires you to:

Be open to trying some things you have not tried before or that you may have preconceived negative opinions about. You’ll need to be creative in co-designing fieldwork that will be contextual to your situation and workplace while still getting results.

Be present as you try new behaviors. You’ll need to self-observe your reaction and the reactions of others around you as you practice your fieldwork in the workplace.

Be reflective and willing to take the time needed to think about your new behaviors, whether they are working for you, and how you might need to alter them for better results. For many leaders, this will require that they block out time on their schedules to reflect.

Be humble because the people around you will know that you are working with a coach. Coaching seldom needs to be a secret, and those around you will likely participate as stakeholders in your coaching engagement, providing feedback and encouragement.

Be engaged in practicing the fieldwork or provide a substantive reason why you didn’t do it to your coach. “Forgetting” to do the fieldwork is only excusable once or twice. Find a way to remember (tie a string around your finger? Put a sign up in your office or a note in Outlook?) and just do it. It’s that important!

The “fieldwork” (or “practice”) that you co-design with your coach is the key to successful personal/professional change. It will require time and effort, but it will help you to develop your new skills and behaviors.

 

Collaboration: it’s not what you think it is

 

“I’m going to begin to collaborate more with the stakeholders outside of my organization – clients, cross-functional partners and others.”

I asked the leader who made this statement what “collaboration” meant to him and his organization.

“I see it as a way to get more buy-in into the mission of our organization and to learn a bit more about them in the bargain.”

This isn’t really collaboration, a term that has become a buzzword in business and politics. True collaboration is not about what you can get from others.

A continuum of interaction that I learned many years ago helped me to understand what collaboration is. It can help you to understand what you really want to do in the situations you deal with and therefore direct your attention, intention, and behavior when you choose to collaborate.

Three words that begin with “C” broadly describe the types of interactions and relationships you may have with others. On a continuum, they look like this:

Competition à Cooperation à Collaboration

They can be defined in this way:

Competition: In competition both parties are attempting to win something. In the parlance of Stephen Covey, this is a win-lose situation; one party will get what they want and the other loses out. There are times when it makes sense to compete: organizations set out to “win” in the marketplace. You might also observe competition internally in an organization when two or more people are vying to win a promotion or when individuals with opposing views are competing for their idea to be adopted. Realistically, I think there are many times when competition occurs in organizations where it shouldn’t. Think carefully about whether you are using competition as a healthy conscious choice in your way of leading before you adopt it as a general strategy.

Cooperation: Many organizations have a lot of cooperating going on which is mistakenly labeled as “collaboration”. Cooperation often means that people agree to something but in the bargain may have to “give in” or “give up” something that is important to them. They may not fully buy in as they continue to cling to their own vested interests. At some point dissent appears and can interfere with a project, team, or organization. Cooperation can have the impact of increasing dissonance in a strategy, project or team and ultimately it can slow or stop the work you’re doing. Nonetheless, it is often an expedient strategy when the stakes are lower or time is of the essence.

Collaboration: Collaboration is a step above cooperation, and it’s rarer than hen’s teeth. When people collaborate, they give up their own vested interests for the greater good (often the greater good is fostered by a “compelling vision” of the future). They’re driven to work through their differences to achieve a goal by working hard to understand other’s viewpoints and being open and genuinely willing to change their mind. The stakes may be high and stretch them, but they are able to collaboratively bust through barriers to reaching the end goal. If you look hard enough you may see “moments” of true collaboration in your organization, but it generally doesn’t happen as often as it should. It takes time, effort, and ongoing attention by a leader to make collaboration work. True collaboration is a powerful way of making great things happen. Listening for understanding, co-creating the way forward with all interested parties, and a willingness to sometimes let go of deeply held beliefs can make collaboration part of the culture. Not to mention that collaborative work can be great fun and seem almost magical for those involved.

You will stand out if you can make collaboration part of your personal leadership style, being intentional about how and when you create the conditions that will foster it. Are you striving for competition, cooperation or collaboration? When does it make sense to strive for which of these?

This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.


 

The “V Word”

 

Vulnerable:
Emotionally open to attack, harm, or damage. Merriam-Webster.com

 

We were young and old, male and female, leaders and coaches, sitting in a circle at the retreat center that houses a profound learning experience called “Presence-Based Coaching”. We were learning to learn from each other. When we started talking about vulnerability, the room quieted as our struggle to understand what it meant in our lives and work. This learning is part of a lifelong journey for those of us who yearn to make deeper connections with other people.

We talked about how the word “vulnerability” is taboo in most arenas of our lives, but particularly in the places where we work. We imagined that our aversion to what became jokingly known to us as the “V word” was bound up in the part of us that didn’t want to admit our failings. We fear emotional attack and judgment. We understood that the ego has a strong grip on us and recognized our own fear that we would be rejected by society and not liked by others when we were vulnerable.

We gained more insight as the week progressed that we were becoming vulnerable as we sat in our circles, ate our meals, went for walks together, and just did the things we did when we had so much time together in an enclosed space. As we opened our hearts to each other, we demonstrated the power of vulnerability and deep connection even if we would never see each other again.

Leaders need to open up their hearts

In your work world you rarely encounter physical harm. The harm you most often protect yourself from has primal names like rejection, shame, humiliation, and disgrace. You’ve felt these things at some point and you don’t want them to visit again. After all, aren’t leaders strong, resilient, and courageous?

Yes, the best leaders are all of those things when times call for it. At the same time, none of those things work or matter if they don’t stand on a strong foundation of healthy relationships. And healthy relationships begin with opening yourself up – in other words, being vulnerable to those primal things you don’t want to feel.

Your leadership will ascend when you open your heart in these ways:

Ask for help when you need it. Nobody has to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders, and people want to help. Who can help you?

Tell stories that connect you with others, even the ones that might show you in a less-than-ideal way. Chances are that others have had similar experiences and you can learn from each other. What stories show you as less than perfect?

Admit failure out loud because we all fail at something. Failure connects us to the larger community when we openly admit it. The shared experience of failing draws people together. What failures are you willing to admit to?

The “V word” is an honest word that can connect you with others. It requires much of you, but it gives back so much more. It’s okay to show your vulnerability.

 

Happiness is an inside job

 

Do you get weary and irritated at all of the attention paid to happiness these days? Research studies, blog posts, TED talks, and even entire nations studying “gross national happiness”. Bah, humbug. What does happiness have to do with leadership anyway?

A lot it seems, despite my feeling peeved when yet another psychologist throws their hat in the happiness ring. Expecting your success at work to make you happy is the wrong way to think about this, according to Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think Inc. (his TED talk is very entertaining; take a look). Shawn claims that 90% of your happiness is predicted by how you process your work internally (the other 10% comes from your external world).

According to Shawn, studies indicate that people who are happy are: 37% more successful at sales, 3 times more creative, 31% more productive, and 10 times more engaged. Those figures wake up the scientist in me. I also see evidence that my personal experience with some daily activities I do may be responsible for my own happiness. This pushes the skepticism right out of me.

Intrigued? You should be. I’ve always wondered why leaders I know with positive outlooks seemed to be more successful at work than others:

  • Mike, the leader whose organization’s sales are consistently through the roof in a very competitive market before, during and after a recession.
  • Sandra, who recently moved to work in a U.S. Fortune 100 from overseas and overcame her self-doubt to quickly establish a large creative team that won her a prestigious corporate award during the first year in her position.
  • Eric, who takes his role as a servant leader seriously, and has a constant stream of people knocking on his door wanting to work for him.

There are more of these leaders, but what they all have in common is that they have regular “practices” (even if they don’t call them that) that helps them to cut through the negative stuff (we’re all bombarded with daily) and maintain a positive attitude. Most of these practices are on lists of things that have been studied and shown to increase happiness but some aren’t (maybe they’ll make the lists later). All of these leaders are dedicated to their practices. And they still find time for work, family, community, sports, fun, and everything else that makes life good.

Here is their list:

  • Journaling
  • Eating healthy
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • White space
  • Intentional acts of kindness
  • Gratitude
  • Spiritual/religious practice

These leaders think their practices are so important to their ability to function at their best that they block out time on a regular and frequent basis to do them. All of the practices increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates a feeling of pleasure in the brain. That means that these highly successful leaders likely experience a regular feeling of pleasure (i.e., happiness, positivity) because they work at it.

Shopping therapy (or working harder, or finding the job of your dreams) just won’t produce sustainable happiness. It comes from inside.

So what’s your excuse? How can you NOT find time to do the things that help you to maintain a positive attitude?

 

Your automatic self vs. your aware self

 

Bethany, a leader in a Fortune company, knew she had an issue with expressing quick and deadly (metaphorically speaking) anger. It would come out of nowhere in a flash that silenced her stakeholders.

Dirk, CEO of a nonprofit, interrupted people. He cut them off or talked over them to get the first, second, and last word in.

Amy, a middle manager in a government organization would roll her eyes in impatience and cross her arms over her chest in disagreement with others.

Perhaps these seem like insignificant behaviors, but as organizational leaders, they had become barriers to effectiveness and were keeping these leaders from making the kind of impact they were capable of. Their behaviors had become automatic habits – something we all have that are difficult for most of us to change.

Your automatic self

Your body and your brain love to be on automatic, to have habits that are fine-tuned through years of unintentional practice that become ingrained and often work well for you. Even “bad” habits like those described above can work to your advantage, but the down side is that they will also – at some point – work against you.

These automatic habits conserve your energy, literally. When you react reflexively, you save brain power, physical effort and even emotional energy. Your brain has built entire structures around your habits – with connections built specifically so you don’t have to think or expend additional energy doing something in a new way. But yet, these habits can harm your ability to influence others or to develop strong healthy relationships that will help you to live into your full potential.

You’ll need to work hard to change them, but if you are the driven leader I know you to be, you can do it.

Enter your aware self

Perhaps you’ve received some insightful feedback that makes you aware of a habit that isn’t serving you well. You’ve decided that you want to change this habit and trade it in for something that is more impactful.

Every impulse you have to make a move (whether its body language, words from your mouth, or expressing anger) arises from somewhere. It happens in a millisecond, but being intentional enough to observe the sensation and where it comes from is the first step toward replacing a habit you don’t want with a new one you choose:

Observe in real time where the sensation arises (hint: you might find it surprising that it will be in your body, not your head). For example, the sensation of anger may be noticed initially as it burns in your throat or your face becomes hot. The sensation of impatience or fear may be felt as a twisting in your gut.

Center and ground when that sensation happens. This only requires a simple move of feeling your feet solidly on the floor/earth and shifting your body to sit or stand up straight, shoulders back and chin up. Notice how this minor shift in your body can also shift your perspective.

Make a choice to do something different rather than express your normal behavior: stay quiet, sit still, take a belly breath or write down what you want to say (instead of acting it out). Play with what might work for you, and when you find it, repeat it. Over and over again. Until this new liberating habit becomes automatic.

You’re on your way. Keep practicing! Who can help you in your journey to develop new, healthy habits? How can they help?

 

Holding others accountable

 

When I was young and new to a corporate position, my manager Karen gave me an assignment that involved translating a very confusing government regulation into a benefit that would be available for our employees. She was expecting a proposal from me that would detail what needed to be done and then to lead the implementation of the benefit. At first, I struggled to understand the regulation and had difficulty grasping how this could be put to use in our company.

Karen refused to let me off the hook by giving me the answers (that I was pretty sure she had); she simply trusted that I would figure it out. She checked in from time to time to see how I was doing, spoke encouraging words, and left me alone to work out the details. Her tactics eventually resulted in a proposal and the implementation of a significant benefit for our workforce.

Had Karen become impatient or used tactics that were intimidating, I would have frozen and possibly failed to produce a final product. I’ve never forgotten how she handled the situation even when it became personally frustrating for me. She held me accountable in a calm and respectful way, trusting that I would figure it out. I did, and in the process gained a great deal of self-confidence. I completed the project successfully. I was now ready for the next challenge.

The lessons I learned from Karen were valuable to my future career, and since you may also struggle with the idea of holding others accountable, here is what I learned that might be helpful for you:

Use a light touch: It’s not uncommon for managers to continually and forcefully check in as a means of holding someone accountable. These tactics rarely work, and in fact may often terrorize the very people who are expected to complete it. Karen tactfully checked in when she felt the need so I was always vigilant in moving forward in order to have something to report. Most importantly, she was open and willing to listen when I got stuck. Shaming, blaming, interrogating, or rescuing would only have served to slow me down. Her gentle and occasional questions, her excellent listening skills, and her open demeanor were enough for me to keep me on track and know that she was supportive.

Treat them as equals: It can be easy for a manager to make someone who is struggling with an assignment to be made to feel “less than” or beneath them, but it doesn’t do any good and can make the situation worse. I appreciated that Karen treated me as an equal without using her position to intimidate. Never once did she express impatience or frustration. Having worked with managers in my short career who did the opposite, I was grateful for that. The way she treated me gave me a lot of freedom to be creative and explore different options without feeling inordinate pressure (the pressure I felt came from me, not her).

Encourage them with trust: Distrust breeds distrust throughout an organization. When you distrust the capability of the good people you’ve hired, you spread fear, doubt, and unnecessary caution as people hold back on taking initiative and being creative. Karen was confident that she had hired the right person to do the work that needed to be done. She trusted that I would figure things out for myself and expressed her encouragement openly along the way. Karen’s faith in my abilities helped me to deliver a great product to our employees.

Great leaders know that accountability is a key to great employees and exemplary organizations. They recognize that their dedication to accountability with a light touch, equality, and trust is what drives individual growth, development, and confidence. The end result of holding people accountable in this way is a great organization.

This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership

 

 

From technically brilliant to great leader

 

One thing that hasn’t changed much over the years in many technical organizations is the criteria used (sometimes unspoken) about who gets to be promoted to choice management roles. A smart and successful technical manager often has a head start on getting a promotion that will require them to lead a larger piece of the organizational pie even if enough attention isn’t paid to whether they possess the skills to lead people at this new level.

If a technically bright manager doesn’t have the right people skills, you might notice that work isn’t getting done or their direct reports become disillusioned and leave in numbers greater than expected. Eventually stress and failure set in as these managers discover that being smart is only part of what’s needed to have a broader scope of leadership.

The good news is that people skills can be learned at any level. If effort is put into helping these managers learn those skills, a brilliant person can also become a brilliant leader. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve been privileged to coach some of those people to transform into well-rounded leaders all the way up to the CEO level.

Take a good look at your technically brilliant but struggling managers and find the ones who exhibit characteristics that tell you they have potential to be better leaders by getting better at people skills. You might find that they:

Are driven to be better even if they are having difficulty now. Perhaps they don’t interact well with others, or they aren’t strategic thinkers, or they get too involved in the day to day work of their team. Even as these obstacles are present – if they are driven to learn, they can transform into effective – maybe even great – leaders.

Take responsibility for themselves without blaming others or unseen forces for what they can’t do. They know that they will find a way to bust through obstacles, and they work hard to get to the goal even when it’s hard.

Are open and willing to learn some things that may stretch their thinking beyond the technical aspects of the work their organization does. If you see glimmers of their interest in developing their employees or their team, there is hope that they’ll also be interested in developing the skills to become a better leader.

Are willing to take personal risks that might be difficult. It can be challenging for someone who has self-defined as technically smart to take a stance of not having all the answers, to listen when they really prefer to talk, and to let go of control when they need to. This is what it will take to grow individuals and a team.

If your struggling yet smart managers meet these criteria, there is hope that they can be brilliant leaders. Talk to your Human Resources or Talent Management department to see what can be done. Or contact me; I’d love to work with them.

 

How to lead when others hesitate

 

There are times when people may be reluctant to follow your lead. Maybe you recently received a promotion to a new position with new direct reports and they are holding back as they evaluate your leadership capability. Or you might be working to become a better leader and changing your behavior making people unsure of what to expect from you now. Maybe you’ve been leading your team for a long time and you’ve just awakened to the realization that team members have been hesitant and you want more of them to step up to increased responsibility. They might also have lost trust in you for reasons you’re unaware of.

Whatever the reason, there are times when those you lead will be hesitant to follow you. If you watch closely, you’ll notice it when your team seems reluctant to speak up, or doesn’t follow through on commitments. There might be lots of awkward silence and inability to meet your gaze in team meetings that may have something to do with relationships that need attention. To put the situation bluntly, if it’s bad enough and something doesn’t change, your leadership may very well fail.

Instead of getting frustrated with what’s happening and blaming the team, look to yourself. You are a leader, which means you need to begin to take action to fix whatever is making others hesitant to be led by you.

You can start to shore up your relationships with followers in these ways:

Spend time with individuals: Get to know the people on your team on a one-to-one basis. Take the initiative to meet with them individually in person or virtually. Learn about them by listening well; discover what their interests are within and outside of the team, what they are good at, what their long term goals are. Be personable. Getting to know people in this way will go far in creating strong healthy relationships.

Be open and inclusive: “Leading” doesn’t mean you always have to be out front, have the answers, or direct people. See them and interact with them as your equals and you might learn a thing or two. Ask questions about what they think, their ideas, their ways of doing things. Listen and stay open to what they have to say. Incorporate their ideas when you can.

Show your support and encouragement: Show your support by working with them to bust through organizational barriers and having their back when they need it. Encourage and coach them to take risks that just might make a difference for them and for the work you’re doing. Let them know what that you appreciate the work they do.

Be patient as you work to improve the relationships you have with hesitant followers. Depending on circumstances, it may take some time. The rewards of a great team await your efforts.

 


 

Developing strong peer relationships

 

Peter, an executive on the CEO’s team, hired me to work with him. Something wasn’t working in his relationships with his peers on the team, and he wanted to figure it out. He felt ignored, dismissed and disrespected by his peers. They seemed to avoid Peter and often went around him to others in his organization for decisions that he should be making. So I interviewed the CEO and Peter’s peers to ask them about what they observed in the situation.

As it turns out the CEO felt Peter was smart and capable but could push too hard for his viewpoint, and he had given Peter this feedback on several occasions. Peter’s peers described a leader who would dismiss their ideas. He interrupted and talked too much, insistent that his solutions and ideas were the best.

Peter was not interacting well with his peers and they were responding in kind to his poor behavior. Peter didn’t feel respected. His peers eventually got tired of his insistence that he always had the right answers and started working around him instead of with him. Interestingly, Peter’s peers didn’t feel respected by Peter.

All the while the CEO- was watching and doing damage control while evaluating the impact Peter had on the team and the organization. Realizing that his behavior could eventually be detrimental to the organization and his career, Peter was motivated to change. He decided to focus our work together on improving his relationships with his peers. We began with a plan for him to recognize the triggers and reduce the pushiness that was not serving him or the team. Peter also saw the imperative to repair the damaged relationships he had created with his peers.

Beginning to heal those relationships

Relationships with your peers may be as important as those with your boss; in fact, some argue that they are THE most important relationships you can have in your organization. Peter recognized this, and the things that worked for him to begin to heal those damaged relationships may also work for you.

Stay open to new ideas: When you kill an idea by dismissing it or trying to speak over your peers with your views, your actions can come back to haunt you. Realize that your ideas are not the only ones that might work. See if you can find merit in ideas offered by others. Listen to understand your peers and their viewpoints. Be curious and ask questions. Not only will you learn something but you’ll help to keep creativity alive in the team.

Volunteer to assist: When there is something that needs to be done by a peer that you can help with, volunteer to assist. Or better yet, ask for help when you need it. This gives you a better chance to work with and understand other’s views and they’ll generally welcome the collaboration.

Find new ways to connect on a personal level: Work doesn’t have to be all about work. Seek out your peers and get to know them on a personal level. Invite them to share lunch with you and spend at least part of the time talking about your interests outside of work. Do a lot of listening. Ask them to help you figure something out. This small talk, often dismissed in organizations as “fluff”, actually builds bonds.

Peers can be very important to your efforts and your career. If the connections with them are sound, you’ll all reap the benefits. Peter was able to realize that those peer to peer connections were a key to getting things done within his organization as well as throughout the enterprise. The entire team found more ways to collaborate for the greater good. The CEO also became more willing to give Peter increasing responsibility and to designate him as a potential successor.

 

This post was originally published on Smartblog on Leadership.

 


 

Mary Jo Asmus
Mary Jo
A former executive in a Fortune 100 company, I own and operate a leadership solutions firm called Aspire Collaborative Services. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. I am married, have two daughters, and a dog named Edgar the Leadership Pug who exemplifies the importance of relationships to great leadership.
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