It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you think of all the things that you have to do as a leader. The responsibilities that typically come with a leadership role can be daunting. Leaders manage projects as well as people – and it’s easy to get wrapped up in what we want to do, without remembering that our actions as leaders actually define and affect the culture in the business, as well as the behaviors of others.
I worked with a leader once who said she wanted people to be efficient with their time and prioritize the needs of the business and the customer, but then she said and did things that caused entire divisions of people to waste thousands of hours on non-essential projects. As a result, people were more focused on what would make her happy or keep them in her good graces than they were what the customer or the business needed. When we get into roles with authority, we shouldn’t use them to marshal our own league of minions, even if we are doing it accidentally.
There are a lot of things to remember as you ascend into leadership. Here are three things to keep in mind if you are going to cause people to focus on what will grow the business, not what will serve the leader.
If you are in an individual contributor role and happen to mention in a meeting that we should do something differently in our business, people will probably listen — they might even agree with you — but often, nothing else happens. If you are the leader of the business, immediately after those words leave your mouth, people are sending emails, making notes, changing the duties of others below them, and spending valuable time on your idea. If you meant for that to happen, great. But there are opportunity costs for every set of actions, and you need to be clear about the fact that they will stop doing something you said was important last week to focus on this new thing you care about. It’s far better to have a set of guiding principles and business priorities that don’t waiver, based on an idea you had, if you want people focused on fewer, more important things. If you mention that the food at the meeting wasn’t very good, expect your team to spend way too much time worrying about the food for the next meeting, spending more money than they needed to on it, and obsessing for hours over a menu. They may even involve you and help you waste some of your valuable time deciding on the soup and whether to have marble cake or apple pie for dessert. If you want focus, you will destroy it by tossing out what you think are interesting ideas or minor complaints, without a clear picture of how people should act on those ideas and involvement of others to help build an executable plan.
Not necessarily on purpose, but they do. They shade the stories they tell you so that they are more favorable. They tell you mostly what you want to hear, avoid confronting you with reality when needed, and keep bad news to themselves. Even when I have worked with leaders that swear their team is brutally honest with them. A few quick conversations with the team illustrate that the leader is getting the made-for-TV movie, not the documentary. In order to lead, you need to understand the documentary; the real story. As a leader, your job is to receive feedback from your team, not have to tell your team to give you feedback. The questions you ask determine the answers you receive. “How’s it going?” will yield platitudes and safe statements. “Tell me three things I could be doing better as a leader and that we could be doing better as a business?”, will get you much closer to the truth.
What you do, and how you do it, will cause change in the organization immediately. The level of energy and focus you bring will influence others, and the things you spend your time on will be judged constantly. You are free to react impulsively, rant, or shut your door and hide, but these things will add to the narrative about you and the culture you create. People are constantly discussing your motives and their interpretation of your behaviors and then making decisions on their level of engagement and commitment based on those interpretations. When someone says, “she just stays in her office a lot” or “he always drags in on Mondays”, they make choices about how much effort they will put into being involved or inclusive and showing up fully engaged. If the leader isn’t fully engaged, why should they be? Yes, that makes leadership lonely and difficult sometimes. We became leaders though, hopefully, because of the impact we can have on others. Well, welcome to impact. The good news is, it works both ways. If you involve, collaborate, and engage others that will become the culture over time, too. If you show up energized and focused, others will observe that and raise their own bar a little. As a leader, you get to decide on what kind of impact you have, but only if you make conscious choices about it, instead of simply doing what’s convenient, comfortable, or habitual.
Leadership is an incredible capability to have, and a very rewarding endeavor. It does, however, mean that we need to be conscious about what it means to others and how we execute that role. We need to make choices about the outcomes we want and then do the things that cause those outcomes. We must also fully understand the power a business hierarchy gives us, and use it to cause our team and our people to be better. And that might mean we have to change our own behaviors first.
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