Are you a good leader?
You probably think so, but then your team may say otherwise.
What would you need to do to become a better one?
Creating alignment, fighting your own ego to become a better listener and appreciating the differences within your team are all important aspects of improving your relationship with the people around you. And as leadership is all about delivering results through other people - relationships are key, right?
This post includes:
When creating alignment, you do need to have agreement on where you’re going. Most people focus on this a lot - they think it's the single most important element. But setting goals is the easy part. The challenge is working out where you are now and getting everybody on the same page: you can add the destination to your GPS, but if it doesn’t pick up a signal and tell you where you are right now, you won’t be able to identify the route. This is where most organizations struggle: they haven’t got everybody on the same page about where they are now. To create alignment, focus most of your attention here.
Once you know where you are and where you want to be, the next step is to look at those two things together and determine what needs to be done in the middle to move from one state to the other. Once you have worked all three - then you have alignment.
I once worked with a chief executive, Angiolina. She’d worked for a government-funded organization which was performing so poorly that the government was considering canceling the funding and closing the whole operation. I was called in to help work with some of Angiolina’s leaders and ran some leadership development programs to challenge their current ways of thinking and help them get into another mindset.
When I was with these leaders, the way they would talk about Angiolina amazed me: they all admired her. Although she never took credit for it, she played an incredibly significant role in turning the organization around for the better.
When I had the opportunity to have a conversation with her, I was determined to find out what her secret was. She told me that the one thing she thinks is the most important to make a difference in an organization is encouraging people to speak up and actually listening to them.
Of course, we need to be really clear on what that means - usually, when we think we’re listening to somebody, we’re actually just thinking about what we’re going to say next. Because, when it comes to listening, we need to get our ego out of the way: at that point of the conversation, it’s just not about us. We need to focus on the other person and really understand what they’re trying to tell us. As a leader, it’s easy to get defensive or to disagree with what others have to say, but understanding the reason for their perspective is key to productive conversations.
The feeling of being listened to is actually really close to the feeling of being valued - some people can’t even tell the difference between them. It’s that impactful. I’d encourage leaders to think about this and focus on their listening skills.
To improve your listening skills, there’s an important principle to understand what leadership is about first - I talk about this in my TED talk, “Great leadership comes down to only two rules”. Everything begins with rule number one: it’s not about you.
It’s not about you or your way of doing things. It’s not about your solutions and your ego. As leaders, if we’re going to deliver results, our focus has to be on them. The worst leaders focus all of their attention on themselves; the best ones put the emphasis on making their teams as successful as they can be.
A lot of people talk about leadership as if there’s a magic tool that’ll make everything fall into place. Here’s a secret: it doesn’t exist. In fact, looking for another tool or another technique to solve all of our management problems just creates even more confusion for teams.
We need to stop looking for the secret tool and realize that leadership is about mindset. It isn’t a hat you put on when you come into work; it’s the way you think. Until leaders fully grasp this rule, attentive listening might remain a challenge. Leaders will probably think they’re great listeners, but their teams would say otherwise.
To avoid misunderstandings like this, you can ask for proper feedback from your team - although if there’s tension already, they might not be very honest, worrying it’ll come back on them. To seek more genuine feedback from them, you have to acknowledge that you have some weaknesses and that you’d like to improve in a few areas. If you openly admit that you’re trying to be a better listener, it creates an environment where others will be more open with you, and you’ll actually receive honest feedback.
Alternatively, you can watch yourself and see how many times you interrupt people in team meetings and one-on-ones. These interruptions can take different forms, including finishing somebody else’s sentences, cutting them off, or disregarding a point someone else has made and continuing the discussion with a completely different topic.
The best leaders realize that they’re not great at everything. They see their shortcomings and actually build a team that complements their strengths and weaknesses. Diversity is talked about a lot these days, but some companies just obsess over ticking certain boxes. Real diversity is about having a whole range of different people with different backgrounds and perspectives in the same place.
It makes perfect sense to recruit people with similar values. However, that doesn’t mean having similar perspectives and strengths. We tend to surround ourselves with people who are just like us. The danger is, it doesn’t leave space for complementing each others’ strengths and weaknesses.
Let’s look at two extremes: you have someone on your team who is brilliant at creating technical solutions but has a hard time connecting with new people. And then you also have someone who’s less interested in the solution itself, but is passionate about building relationships with others. There’s space for both of these talents, even though they differ in a lot of ways.
Although there will be disagreements and tough conversations in every team, your role as a leader is to look at your team members and see what’s great about them instead of focusing on what’s wrong with them. Now, the challenge is, the more different somebody is to us, the more we see their shortcomings instead of their strengths. That’s why true diversity can be a challenge.
In this case, I’d challenge leaders to try this practice every day: think of somebody in your team and come up with five things this person adds to the company. It might be a characteristic of theirs, or the way they do things, or one particular piece of work they’ve done. Whatever it is, five things for that person that day. And then each day, pick another member and think the same question through.
If you struggle to come up with five things for each person, talk to somebody who also knows the person in question. Sometimes, getting someone else’s perspective can help you write that list.
The beauty of this exercise is that once you’ve worked out these five things, you’ll start looking at that person from a different perspective. You can even form a really strong relationship with them thanks to seeing them in a positive light. Despite your differences, you’ll be able to see and value them for who they are.
Ideally, this practice doesn’t stop here. I encourage you to tell your team members what it is that you appreciate about them. It’s a game changer if you create this type of shift in your relationship and communicate openly with them. We all need feedback, we’ve just got used to living without it.
Forget the feedback sandwich - that’s the worst feedback tool ever. When I run development programs, I make people give me an oath that they will never use it. It’s a dreadful principle.
The best leaders are looking for what’s right in their team and express it regularly to them. They certainly don’t save it up for quarterly reviews but make it an ongoing conversation. But they don’t ignore the tough conversations, either. The key is having far more of the positive conversations than the tough ones.
If you catch yourself having tough conversations over and over again, you’re probably driving a downward spiral, and the problem is with you. You’ll need to start looking for something that’s right, because you’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you focus on what’s wrong, that’s all you’ll ever see.
In terms of how to actually go about having a tough conversation with someone, the most important thing is to just do it. Some leaders might be too worried that it’d go wrong, or perhaps they’re uncomfortable with it, so avoiding the whole conversation seems easier.
Secondly, before you go into the conversation, remind yourself that your perspective is only one part of the picture. Be open to having your own assumptions challenged. Think about it this way: when someone’s driving very slowly in front of you and you get stuck behind them, you might be tempted to think they’re simply an idiot who absolutely cannot drive. It also might just be that they’re driving someone home from the hospital after a huge surgery, and try to be as careful as they can so they don’t hurt them.
So before you go into this tough conversation, give yourself a few scenarios why the person does things their way. It’ll loosen your hypothetical grip on them, and you’ll approach the issue with a more open mind.
In terms of the conversation itself, stick to the specific facts rather than opinions. It’ll make the discussion more impactful and less confrontational. Instead of accusing someone of being lazy, tell them the facts - for example, that they’ve been ten minutes late for the last three team meetings, and what impact it had on the rest of the team.
After stating the facts, stop talking and let them speak. You can even use this lovely phrase I’ve picked up a while ago: “So, this is how it appears through my eyes. Tell me what you see through yours.”
The goal during these conversations isn’t to solve the problems right away. Your goal is simply to put the issue on the table and open up a conversation. If you’re specific and stick to the facts, it’s less likely to go in the wrong direction. After you’ve addressed everything, you can even give some time for the other person to think about the situation and get back to you later to discuss it further.
Nobody wants to work for a plastic manager. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to come into work and pretend to be someone we’re not.
But the more authentic we are, the more we’ll understand our strengths and weaknesses, and the more open we’ll be about them. This quality will also make it a lot easier for our team to connect with us.
It’s okay to admit if you’ve never encountered something before or if you have some concerns - the pandemic is a perfect example. Most leaders have never had a similar experience in their careers before, so pretending like they know all the answers is simply inauthentic.
Be brave enough to be vulnerable. You can’t control and direct everything.
I’ve seen too many senior teams just sitting in a darkened room and working out what they think the values of the organization should be. Shockingly, when they present these company values to the rest of the team, people just aren’t that excited about them.
I’d like to remind everyone of rule number 1: it’s not about you. It’s not about you deciding what these values should be. What you can do instead is take a look at what values are already implicit in the organization. You can also ask people what they find special about this company. These steps will give you the full picture of what’s already in your team, so your only job will be to appreciate and articulate them clearly.
For me personally, listening is what I struggle with the most. In particular, when someone shares a concern or an issue with me, I try to avoid being defensive. This is where ego is usually getting in the way - when you’re listening to someone else, you might unconsciously focus on defending your position.
Actually, if you don’t focus on understanding where they’re at, you won’t be able to help them get where they need to be. It’s hard to recognize your ego is in the way, but it’s necessary in order to really understand the information they’re giving you.
Another common mistake people make is trying to pretend everyone’s the same. The whole point of diversity is accepting we are all different. Even if two people have the same role, their day-to-days might look different. We can obsess over fairness and consistency, but if we build a team around complementary strengths and weaknesses, then each individual’s responsibilities will be unique to them.
When it comes to feedback - positive or constructive - , leaders sometimes make the mistake of not being specific enough. Simply telling someone they’re wonderful won’t be as authentic as pointing out a few examples where they were true superstars.
I’ve created a tool called the Inspirometer which you can also try. It contains some questions to help you think about the type of leader you are and will give you a score on how inspired and inspirational you are. Upon completing it, you’ll also receive an individual report that has some powerful suggestions and practical things that you can do to improve.
I work with a lot of people who are new to being leaders and want to create a tangible shift. We agree on a goal to work towards, and it’s part of the process to deliver results based on our aims.
Once we agree on a goal, we’ll typically work on this for nine months, depending on the complexity of it. This is the core part of the coaching process, but we can have as many extra sessions as needed to have the desired outcomes. This way, leaders aren’t investing in coaching, but in the results themselves.
Peter is a UK-based executive coach working with managing directors, chief executives and senior leaders from organizations of all sizes. He’s an engineer by training - the principles he learnt from an engineering perspective still help him in his everyday work as he shifted to working with people instead of systems.
He’s passionate about leadership, simplicity and alignment - both on a personal and organizational level. He’s married with two grown children, enjoys cycling and good food and is involved in his local Christadelphian Church community.
Feel free to reach out to Peter on LinkedIn.
At Apex Lab, we're experts in end-to-end digital product development. Our remote-first company operates with a flexible schedule, allowing us to help clients tackle difficult challenges worldwide.
Want us to build your next idea or upgrade your existing product? Our experts cannot wait to work with you. Get in touch with us and let's make this happen. 💡🚀