Posted by: Kristen Ridley | September 22, 2012

What makes a leader? Part 2

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” ~Mark Twain

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post I titled “What makes a Leader?” and in that post, while I offered some suggestions about what a good leader does, it was more about naming some of the people who I feel are leaders, and why I feel they are good examples of leadership.

Since then, there have been some changes in my professional life, and I felt it was time for a new post about some of the additional things I’ve learned about leaders and leadership.

Since that last post, I accepted, worked at for a short time, and ultimately chose to leave a job. The overall fit was just not right for me. But although the job wasn’t for me, I was extremely fortunate to work with a senior person – though he wasn’t my direct manager – from whom I learned a great deal, and with whom I’ve happily been able to stay in touch.

In fact, I had lunch with him yesterday, which is one of two things that inspired this post. As we talked and got caught up over a fabulous lunch, I was reminded, yet again, of all the reasons why I have so much admiration and respect for him. He also left the organization we both worked for, and is now in an even better role. But what hasn’t changed is his interest, encouragement and good advice to me based on the wisdom of his experience.

The second inspiration for this post is my manager in the new job I’m in now, where I’ve been for just about two months.

My new manager is such an encouraging, engaging leader that I don’t think I have ever been in a better situation “boss-wise” throughout my entire working life, which at this point is coming up on a total of 25 years, so I think that’s saying something.

Between lunch with my former colleague, and several conversations just in one day with my manager, a few things seemed to crystallize for me when it comes to leading and engaging people successfully. I doubt any of this will be revelatory information, but, as I’ve said before, I process things by writing about them, and the good and the bad of leading people is something that has by turns fascinated, puzzled, discouraged, infuriated and, occasionally – like yesterday – uplifted me when I  get lucky and meet a natually successful leader.

As I thought about the two individuals who are the subjects of this post, I identified some things both of them do that, while they may not even realize it, have a tremendous impact on others, particularly others at a more junior level who are trying to learn and grow.

I wanted to remember these things, so that if and when I’m in the position to return that favour, and encourage someone else – because you don’t HAVE to be someone’s manager to have a positive impact on their engagement or learning – I can keep them in mind and try to incorporate the ones I may not already be doing into my own approach.

Make time – This is probably the most powerful thing any leader can ever do, but with the structure of our relentless, aggressive business environment, it’s also one of the toughest. Because while most leaders do have meetings or conversations with colleagues in subordinate roles, sometimes the quality of that time is less than ideal. Now, I want to be clear that I’m not judging or criticizing here – because I get it! Time is always a spectre pushing us to go faster, do more and multi-task. But for EXACTLY that reason, it is beyond impactful when I have a conversation with my manager, and he is fully present with me, and with what we are discussing EVERY SINGLE TIME! I always feel like I, and the topic we’re discussing is the most important thing for whatever period of time we talk about whatever project we’re discussing. Given the world we live in, being the recipient of someone’s undivided attention is a rarity, especially at work, and let me tell you – it makes an impact. Finding and, sometimes simply MAKING the time if you have to as a leader, will inspire people to bend over backwards to show you how much they appreciate that, and how they want to be worthy of it by being the best they can possibly be on the job and for the company in return.

Teach rather than tell – both of the individuals I’ve mentioned are people who teach me things by example, and by encouraging me to challenge and stretch myself, rather than simply telling me what to do, or giving me tasks and asking me to implement what they’ve already decided on. Some people who are in leader roles [as opposed to ACTUAL leaders] lack the confidence to step back and allow someone else to take the lead, especially if that other person is less experienced and might not get it as precisely right as you would if you did it yourself. But, again, genuine leaders understand that long-term, sustainable success depends on having the whole team working at the highest possible levels. And that can only happen if people at all levels are given the opportunity to grow, learn and get to the next level of expertise and experience, even though that may involve the occasional misstep or slower than ideal delivery. So when you believe in us enough to turn us loose and let us learn our lessons, we will reward you with trying to get better as quickly as we can. Which leads neatly into the next quality . . .

Talk about your own learning experiences and mistakes – when you are in a leadership role with anyone, never forget that others are watching what you do and how you do it, especially if you are their direct manager, but even if you aren’t remember that you are a role model whether you like it or not. So being humble and, again, confident enough in your own abilities and sense of self to be willing to share stories about your own learnings – especially when they were less than perfect – is a powerful way to inspire loyalty in those who may be looking to you as someone to emulate. Realizing that someone who, today, is a successful, talented senior person in a responsible role  had some bumps along the way, and had to overcome mistakes or bad choices too, makes the rest of us believe that we really can overcome missteps and build a successful career. There’s nothing wrong with being human, and those of us following behind you will look up to you even more strongly if you actually let us see that side of you and let us share some of your lessons vicariously. Who knows? Maybe your stories will help us AVOID a mistake or two along the way, which benefits everyone, right?

Have real respect for everyone – that “real” is important, because I’ve worked with some senior people through the years who knew what they were “supposed” to say, and how they were “supposed” to behave with more junior people, and they were always scrupulously correct in their interactions. But here’s the thing – and this is something that I have to frequently explain and reinforce to the executives, managers, and other customers I work with as a communicator – PEOPLE AREN’T STUPID!!! Too many senior people can become distanced from the day-to-day realities of the larger groups of people in the companies they lead, and this can allow them to believe that because they have access to all the information about everything, they are smarter, or better equipped to decide who should know what about what’s going on. Unfortunately, as any communications person will tell you: just because leadership doesn’t tell employees what’s really going on does NOT mean they don’t know. Organizations are simply too big, with too many people having access to information, to effectively hide things, especially from your own employees. So you can kid yourself if it makes you feel better, but believe me when I tell you that people know what’s going on, and worse, when they hear it through the grapevine rather than formally from you, it gets twisted and blown out of proportion as it goes along, which always makes it worse. But back to leadership and respect. When you “act” and “talk” like you respect me, but your demeanour, body language and actions dispute that, I’m going to believe the latter, because that is the more truthful component. And if I feel you have no respect for me, my skills, or what I bring to the organization, I will still do my best work – because I don’t know any OTHER way to work – but I will be discouraged and dispirited because I know that no matter how hard I work or what I might accomplish in spite of you lack of interest in me, I will never truly excel, because you don’t believe I can. Is that REALLY how you want the people doing the day-to-day work in your company to feel? Bottom line – every employee, regardless of what job they do, or what level they’re at, can make a real contribution. As a leader, you need to find a way to genuinely respect and appreciate all of us, because we know when you don’t, and it hurts, rather than enables our shared success-potential. Conversely, when you as my manager demonstrate on a consistent basis that you not only welcome my opinions and suggestions for how to do our work better, you inspire me to really stretch to have something valuable and thoughtful to say so I’m ready to be a real contributor when you ask me what I think. I really want to impress you, and show you that I’m working my backside off to do really good work! When I know you truly respect and believe in my abilities as a member of the team, there’s almost nothing I won’t do to return the favour.

Having a role model and someone you can watch and emulate is a powerful thing and has impacts that may not become apparent for months or even years, but they WILL bear fruit and the people who inspired that kind of growth will be rememered with incredible loyalty, appreciation and fondness. Genuine mentoring leaders are an incredibly rare animal in my experience. The fact that I have two right now – one of whom is actually my current manager – makes me feel beyond fortunate, and it makes me go to work everyday completely determined to do the best work I’ve ever done, so I can be worthy of the trust and encouragement that I’m on the receiving end of.


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