There’s something wrong with my team” said Jane, a smart, motivated, personable CEO, newly appointed to run a manufacturing company. “I’ve been really clear about my expectations, but they are just not stepping up in the way I need them to. I thought it could be me, but it now seems more likely it is them. They just seem slow to act and I’ve got to come up with all the ideas. It’s really frustrating me!”
Over the many years of coaching senior executives, I have come across some recurrent issues that executives ask me around leadership, but the most common is this: “How do I get my team to step up, take ownership of the problems and be creative in solving them?” Normally this would lead to an exploration of the team, maybe their personalities and attitudes – but what I have learned is that most of the time it’s the leader’s thinking and assumptions of their role as a leader, not their team’s capability that is really at play.
Like Jane, in the example above. When I first met Jane, she was indeed frustrated. Being newly appointed to a senior role, she was working in a high pressure and extremely competitive business environment. The usual pressures abounded, including a clear imperative from the board that she needed to grow both revenue and profit. She told me she was extremely busy, working long hours at night and had little energy left at the end of the day to do the outdoor exercise she loved. She was clearly not thriving.
Jane gave more detail about her situation. She revealed how her team were not stepping up as she would have hoped. “I want them to succeed and do great work but they are just not taking up the slack. I must step in and intervene all the time. I feel bad but if I didn’t the result would be disastrous. To be honest I don’t think they can do what’s needed without my help” and she went on “it feels as though I have multiple jobs- getting my own work done and then making sure my team do their’s right too.”
The urge to hold the reins of authority tightly, as Jane experienced, is normal for newly promoted leaders. Behind it is a fundamental uncertainty: “Will my team really deliver?” It feels like a huge leap of faith to believe that others not only have the capability to step up, but also the intelligence to make whatever contribution is required, without the leader needing to be hands on. But without such faith, a vicious cycle is created – the leader delegates in name only, so the team feel diminished hold back their intelligence and fail to deliver, thus seeming to validate the leader’s lack of faith. All sorts of organizational dysfunction takes hold: micromanaging, doing the team’s jobs for them, confusion over roles, pointing the finger of blame, decision paralysis, and on and on. In summary a sad waste of talent and a whole lot of intelligence left on the table.
Jane’s instincts were right in one respect: it is about her and it is about the team too. To help executives understand this I use two simple approaches. Firstly, the exploration of Leading Self pointing to an understanding of how to lead from the inside out and finding a deeper intelligence from which to lead. And secondly Leading Others- how to use this deeper intelligence to become a Multiplier Leader, one that multiplies the intelligence of others. (This is based on Liz Wiseman’s Book Multipliers – How the best leaders make everyone smarter).
Leading Self - Inside -Out Leadership, Finding A Deeper Intelligence From Which To Lead
Once we started the coaching, it was clear that Jane’s thinking was consumed by just one issue: how to “fix” her team. But to her initial surprise, during the first two sessions of our coaching, I didn’t even bring up the team at all. My only focus was investigating with her the truth that she, like all human beings, is creating her leadership experience from the inside out. “What does inside-out mean?” Jane asked somewhat confused by my assertion. I explained. “It seems to me that you think the team are creating your leadership experience, when the truth is it doesn’t work that way. In fact, it is the opposite: it’s your thoughts about the team that are creating your experience. If you didn’t have those thoughts you would be having a different experience of them. More to the point if those frustrated thoughts were not on your mind you would move from mental clutter to mental clarity. Then when our minds quieten we can access a deeper intelligence and that gives us access to insight and be more open to the possibility that something else might be going on.
For leaders (and all human beings) this is powerful understanding: Our thinking about things shapes our perception. We are not at the mercy of external events. If we have a mindset that the team is lazy or incompetent, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, we can see things differently at any time we choose, because we are the creators of our experience. If we have a mindset that sees the team as having immense potential, that just needs to be drawn out, then people respond enthusiastically to the challenge.
This is the ultimate human freedom - the freedom that emerges from realizing the power each person has to create their own experience of life. Understanding that we are not our thoughts means that taking thoughts seriously is optional. Instead, it is in being able to access our deeper intelligence that is where our resilience, perseverance and power rest.
Jane discovered that she had simply been caught up in some thinking that proved not to be helpful. By accessing her deeper intelligence she could easily see it for what it was, and let it go in favour of a view that also seemed more real and authentic. Accessing this deeper intelligence allows Jane to “stay in the game” no matter what the environment or circumstance, and also to know if she does fall into a low mood (which she will), she needs to do nothing and her mind will automatically self correct to clarity, contentedness and resiliency.
For Jane “leading” started to lose its heaviness on her, and she realized that she did not have to have all the answers. This was so liberating. By innocently giving too much weight to some erroneous assumptions, she had made things harder than they need to be, for herself and for her team. She began experience leadership from her deeper intelligence and wisdom. Actions and decisions began to flow naturally and without great effort.
Leading Others- Multipliers, How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter
Once Jane began to see with more clarity what assumptions were more useful and what were not, our final sessions did focus on the leading of her team. Jane by now had a completely different perspective. No longer frustrated and exhausted by the team she had instead become extremely curious about them and what they really needed from her. The connection with her deeper intelligence meant that she no longer saw her team as a problem, in fact she didn’t even see herself as the problem! She just identified the challenges facing them, and knew that she and the team needed to figure them out together.
To help her with this exploration and to give her some new ways to lead from this deeper intelligence, I introduced Jane to Liz Wiseman’s “Multipliers – How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter”. Liz defines a Multiplier as someone who uses their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. She writes, “Multipliers have radically different assumptions about people…they liberate people to think, to speak, and to act with reason. It’s about unleashing other people’s genius rather than displaying your own.” Liz’s research showed Multiplier leaders got at least 2x the intelligence out of others; Diminisher leaders halved the intelligence of their team. Jane discovered, though well intended, she had been accidentally diminishing her team, providing the answers too quickly and being too hands on, so they never had the space to figure things out for themselves.
When leaders become intentional Multipliers, using the five Multiplier disciplines, people are given the responsibility and authority to achieve very rapid results. The leader provides the stretch challenges so that people are using all their intelligence for innovation and solutions. The leader also provides a degree of guidance and reality checking, but their main role is make sure the team understand the context of what is being asked for, and the broader view within which to work, so that the team can direct their efforts effectively.
When you involve all the intelligence in the room, decisions, once made, seem to stick. They are implemented quickly because once there is genuine agreement in the room, what needs to be done becomes abundantly clear and everyone just gets on and does it.
Furthermore, these changes can yield concrete results. Measurements could include speed of action, speed of decision making, assessments of the number of people who demonstrate leadership capability, employee engagement surveys, innovation rates, customer satisfaction or simply more consistent financial results.
So how did things change for Jane following her insights: was it her that was the problem, was it the team that was the problem? Were they able to step up?
Well in truth it wasn’t really about Jane stepping up: she simply changed her view of things, and started acting differently: she focused on what her role really was, which enabled her team to focus on theirs. As she understood her impact on her team better her confidence in her abilities grew. She could provide more clarity, ask better questions, but still be decisive when needed. Her relationship changed with her team to one of encouragement and enabling. By leading from this deeper intelligence common sense started to rule and simplicity prevail. She understood the accidental diminishing effects of some aspects of her leadership on others and chose to intentionally move to be a Multiplier leader: to create an environment where the best ideas are allowed to surface and where people can use all of their potential.
Of course, there were ongoing team challenges, that’s part of leading; sometimes team members genuinely weren’t performing, but the range of options she had for dealing with this had changed dramatically. There was no way she was going to fall back on doing their job for them! She instead could investigate with the team member what was going on for them in a genuine way, and explore any number of ways to resolve the situation. Leading her team was a lot less effort for sure, especially when she only had one job to do.
So if we want others to step up, solve problems and be more creative, we need to start with leading ourselves. Jane and I had explored this together and a new understanding of her leadership had unfolded.
We saw that Leading Self is understanding that we function as human beings from the inside out. Once we know this we can discover how to lead from a deeper intelligence on a consistent basis.
Leading others is about becoming a Multiplier Leader -multiplying others intelligence, putting this intelligence to work so that everyone can truly thrive.
Who wouldn’t want to work for a leader who knows and lives this?
Judith Jamieson is the founder of Thriveatwork.today, an executive consulting and coaching firm — www.thriveatwork.today