It may seem as though the summer has just begun, but in a few short weeks, the summer section at Target will be replaced with crayons, backpacks, and #2 pencils as kids prepare to head back to school. My own daughter will be heading to Kindergarten this fall, which means we’re pouring over Kindergarten Readiness checklists and school supply shopping lists to make sure she’s ready for her first day. As I looked over the remaining skills she needs to acquire before school starts, I started envisioning what a Leadership Readiness list would look like. Much like school supply shopping lists these days, it would likely be unnecessarily long and expensive. We don’t always need the 64-count box of crayons to create a beautiful picture. When we over-complicate the list of requirements, we lose sight of the essentials.

Here are five things leaders don’t need in order to lead:

  • Charisma. Charismatic leaders are engaging individuals who are highly skilled at communicating a vision, evoking emotion, and inspiring others to join their mission. Their positive energy and interpersonal connections can be incredibly effective for motivating others to carry out their daily tasks. These leaders excel at creating legions of followers with unwavering commitment. This degree of power can be dangerous, though. In fact, most cult leaders are considered charismatic leaders. The charismatic power of persuasion can be used for good or evil and it all comes down to strategy. The tech industry is full of wildly successful leaders who lack charisma, yet lead legions of committed followers based on their vision and strategy. One cannot lead based on charisma alone.
  • Authority. If your neighbor’s house caught on fire, would you knock on the door and ask permission to put out the flames? Of course not. And you wouldn’t choose not to operate a hose because you lack a fireman title. It doesn’t require permission or a title to take the lead on solving a problem. Anyone in the organization can lead by doing the right thing and setting an example for others. It doesn’t take formal authority to influence others, be authentic, and make impact. Individuals who aggressively pursue good and excellence often find that they’re not alone in their endeavors. Being someone worth following can be more powerful than any organizational chart.
  • A Team. In a boat race, the coxswain leading a full team of eight rowers will have the upper-hand over a partially staffed boat. However, if all the rowers suddenly became incapacitated, the coxswain must still steer the boat and take on responsibility for paddling toward the finish line. When there are no followers in sight, great leaders roll up their still find a way to accomplish their goals without excuses.
  • Experience. While it’s unlikely a job posting would say “Leadership Position Available- No Experience Necessary,” we must be careful how much confidence we place on previous experience. Experience is a double-edged sword. Certainly, experience can save us from making disastrous mistakes, but it can also narrow our perspective and minimize the risks we’re willing to take. Experience can create cynicism and negative thinking. The “we’ve been there, tried that, and it won’t work” mentality is often proven wrong by outsiders who are bold enough to try something new.
  • Knowing Everything. Leaders who believe they need to be decisive and have an answer for every problem set themselves up for failure. No one has all the answers. And while it can be uncomfortable saying the phrase “I don’t know,” it can be an incredibly smart move. No leader needs to know the answer to every question or problem, they just need to be able to ask the right questions of the right people. A leader who is willing to say “I don’t know” is also someone willing to accept that they are not the smartest person in the room. They are more likely to be open to new ideas and entertain the contributions of others.

While the Leadership Supply List may not include titles, power, or answers, there are a few items that are mandatory. Character, vision, compassion, selflessness, and drive are a few of the basic needs every leader should have in their backpack to start off on the right foot.

There’s a unique bond that happens between business travelers when flights are delayed. We all grab our laptops and try to make the most of our time on the ground/tarmac in a desperate effort to preserve the delicate work-life balance we’ve constructed. We make apologetic calls home to the spouses who desperately need a break, and we begin rapidly assessing the potential impact of future delays. On this particular severely delayed trip, I was huddled around the one accessible power source with a senior design leader for a tech company. I was struggling to concentrate because every few seconds an alert would go off on his computer. After a few dozen times, I leaned over and said jokingly “wow, you’re quite a popular guy!” He was not amused.

This, naturally, made me more curious about the alerts going off. I noticed that no matter which app popped up, he immediately clicked the X button to close the unread message. Slack, Yammer, and Google Hangouts kept pinging him, but he refused them all. Then in a burst of frustration, one last alert went off and he grumbled “I don’t need your advice! But thanks (sarcastically)” as he clicked the exit button on an app. It was only a few minutes later that his phone rang. His side of the conversation went like this:

“Yeah…yeah, I know….sure…I appreciate that but…but….LISTEN, I CAN EITHER HOLD A CAMPFIRE AND LET EVERYONE SHARE THEIR FEELINGS ON THIS OR I CAN GET THE JOB DONE!”  (pause) “I hear you but they’re not ready….and we won’t meet the deadline if I do…the only way it will get done is if I just do it.”

Yammer, Slack, Skype, Google Hangouts, Google Docs, Dropbox, Box, Trello, Basecamp, and a few hundred other products on the market all have one aim—encourage collaboration. It’s a multi-million dollar tech industry trying to solve a non-tech problem. Sure, the tech can make collaboration between cross-functional and remote teams easier, but at it’s core a lack of collaboration is a people problem.

Collaboration is a business imperative. From the front lines to the C-suite, collaboration impacts virtually every aspect of business. From performance to profitability and employee satisfaction, studies have shown that organizations with strong collaborative cultures outperform their competitors. So, how does one establish a culture of collaboration? There are a number of key components, but here are a few to establish a foundation:

Personality.  Personality in aggregate becomes culture. If you hire all Type A people, you will inevitably create a driven, aggressive, competitive culture. The same goes for collaboration. As a part of the interview process, be clear that collaboration across teams, divisions, and leadership is a critical aspect of your organization. Be sure that the individual wants to work in a culture of high collaboration and interdependence. Additionally, consider using a personality assessment to inform the selection process and ask data-driven questions as a follow-up from the assessment. Other key behaviors you’ll want to consider in that assessment are openness to experience, transparency, and accountability.

Modeling. A collaborative culture must be modeled from the top down. Take a deep look at the way the top leaders in the company make decisions and communicate. Are their conversations inclusive and transparent or are decisions made behind closed doors and communicated via email. Similarly, it’s valuable to take a look at the hierarchical structure of the company. The more a traditional hierarchy is minimized, the more it encourages collaboration across silos and removes the traditional approval structure. Seemingly insignificant things can greatly affect the perception of openness to collaboration including the size of a leader’s office. He who has the largest office has the last word.

Get personal. Encourage friendships in the office and facilitate those relationships through organization wide initiatives. Something as simple as an internal social media site will allow people to share common interests and connect across divisions. Share personal accomplishments publicly when possible. Celebrate the employee who just completed their first half-marathon and who just had a baby! Those simple gestures convey a message of caring and express how important each individual is to the organization. And it creates bread crumbs of information to connect strangers in a meaningful way.

Share wins, big and small. A culture of shared responsibility should also be a culture of shared celebration. Communicate milestones and achievements in a meaningful way and emphasize the collaborative nature of the solution. An inclusive celebration message should identify everyone who played a part in the process (no matter how small). In an interdependent organization design, there are no small players.

Coach. Even when you select individuals who value collaboration, and try to connect them as much as possible, that doesn’t mean magic will always happen. Consider formal training to help leaders understand the value and mission of interdependent leadership. Given the highly complex nature of leading across boundaries, don’t assume it will happen naturally. Support it purposely and formally.

Technology. While technology can’t create collaboration where it doesn’t live, it can help already collaborative teams, leaders, and individuals enhance their collaboration and drive productivity. Whether through instant chat, video calls, group whiteboards, or project timeline applications, the technology can provide a playground for collaboratively primed leaders to innovate. But consider using technology to do more than just to complete projects. Top leaders could create their own video blog sharing their progress, challenges, and ask for opinions. Discussion boards and polls also encourage open communication and idea sharing.

When it comes to collaboration and technology, it isn’t as easy as “if you build it, they will come.” But perhaps it’s closer to “If you build it, nurture, and support it, the right ones you hired will come!”

Photo of stressed manager

Photo of stressed managerLast week I attended a local networking group for leaders from various industries. At each meeting, they invite a speaker to kick off the meeting by sharing their thoughts on a specific aspect of leadership. There was nothing particularly earth-shattering or edgy about the presentation. It was mostly about how leaders must spend time cultivating relationships, developing trust, and maintaining a healthy workplace culture to drive higher performance and engagement from team members. It was all pretty basic and universally accepted, but the speaker did have some unique ideas about specific things a leader can do to create connections, so the presentation was still engaging. A few slides into the presentation, though, I realized that the gentleman behind me scoffed or snickered after each key point.

After the presentation was over, I made my way through the crowd to meet the heckler and hear his perspective. This was his first time at the leadership networking event, and likely his last. He explained, “These leadership theory authors are all the same. Yeah, everyone gets warm and fuzzies thinking about building camaraderie and mentoring some “high potential” (said while gesturing air quotes), but then there’s reality.”

He was loud and unashamed of dismissing the speaker, who stood only a few feet away. He continued, “The reality is there’s no time for group hugs, thank you notes, and inspirational quotes. I’ve got stuff to do! I have quotas. I have KPI’s. I have 17 people in three locations and someone always has “the flu” or their “grandma” died (again with the air quotes). I have dashboards, and status reports, inventory reports, budget reports, and customers, and presentations, and (looks down at his phone) THIRTY SEVEN EMAILS SINCE I GOT HERE AND IT’S 7:00PM! I don’t care how many bean bags they put in those offices. The culture is just ‘do your work!’”

And the room was silenced.

We were all so focused on the burnout (and questionable job fit) seeping out of his pores that we didn’t notice the speaker herself had quietly joined his audience. We all waited for her to defend herself or dismiss his condescending oversimplification of her presentation, but she didn’t.

What she did next was so artful, I think many of us wish we’d been taking notes. First, she thanked him for his bold, honest perspective from the frontlines. She said she rarely hears this kind of critical feedback from a real leader and it is worth more than a million compliments in her mind. Then she asked him to share more. Question after question, she dug into the details of his daily life. The 37 emails. The mandatory travel. The constant shift of strategy. The four bi-weekly reports that all say the same thing. The Monday meetings that have nothing to do with his division. The monthly leadership call where he says the same thing he wrote in the bi-weekly status reports.

With each unfolding detail, the speaker expressed understanding and sincere empathy for the struggles and competing demands this man experienced. She asked him what he would change if he could. If he could stop doing one task, what would it be? Then, as if she was brainstorming in her own mind, she said “I wonder what it would take to get that off your plate.” He quickly shared his plan for reducing his 4 reports to one. In fact, he’d already designed the template, but had been too busy to get approval for implementation. He already created the value proposition and estimated cost savings for replacing one site visit per month with a virtual huddle but was hesitant to pitch it because his predecessor believed webcam meetings were impersonal.

In just a few short minutes, this man went from loud, abrasive and dismissive to defeated and then re-energized by his own plans. By this point, most of the crowd around him had dispersed and were pleased with seeing this miraculous transformation. But the speaker wasn’t done with her show.

She said “I wonder what your day would be like if you could eliminate all of the redundancy and unproductive tasks.” He laughed and said “I would probably have time to actually work with my team.” He looked down for a second and said “It wasn’t always like this. Would you believe I used to mentor new graduates? They’d send them all to shadow me for a few days and I’d coach them on finding the right path in the organization. But then I just had too much to manage, so….”

It was as if the words tumbled out of his mouth and landed on his chest like a ton of bricks. He couldn’t deny it any longer. Somewhere along the way, he stopped leading and started managing.

The speaker that day skillfully led him to his own realization. By welcoming his ridicule as valuable feedback, she disarmed his offensive attack. She empathized, asked questions, listened intently and got him to open up about his frustrations. Finally, she gave him confidence to take ownership over his future and make changes. And after all of that, what she uncovered was an over-worked, bruised, inexperienced frontline manager who had never received formal training, coaching, or mentoring. He was a person who had a vision for the leader he wanted to be, but when competing demands overwhelmed him, he blamed his poor leadership on the lack of time.

True leaders always find the time.

Elon Musk famously told Tesla employees they have permission to walk out of meetings and hang up on calls that offer no value. He urges everyone to push back on meeting for meeting’s sake and question rules/processes if they don’t make sense. In essence, he’s saying you’re too talented to waste your time listening in on calls. You weren’t hired to doodle. You were hired to make a difference—to lead! Stop doing things that don’t matter. There will always be things to manage, but there is no excuse for not finding time to lead.

Survey Graphic

Survey GraphicAs we near the mid-way point for the year, many organizations are conducting employee engagement surveys to address satisfaction, productivity, and retention issues. Ironically, the employee engagement survey experience is typically less than engaging. Employees receive an email from Human Resources asking them to answer 10-15 minutes worth of questions that inquire about everything from workload to leadership’s vision. And in the end, most employees feel like the survey was a waste of time. It’s not that the employees lack opinions, they just lack trust that their responses will drive change.  Read More

Image of frontline leader seeking trainingFrontline leaders are crucial to an organization’s success. Frontline leaders are the closest leadership level to the customers and are responsible for day-to-day operations. In addition, they must ensure their team is engaged and exhibit positive, impactful workplace behaviors that realize the organization’s vision. They are vitally important to successfully meeting business objectives. Yet, this is also one of the most undertrained positions on the leadership team. Approximately 60% of frontline leaders say they’ve never received training for their role. This is staggering given the weight of responsibility being placed on them.Read More

image of introvert

image of introvert“Can I pick your brain for a second? What would stop me from using the Myers-Briggs assessment to choose my leaders?”

The question sent chills down my spine. I’ve been asked that same question hundreds of times in my career, and it always has the same effect on me. As I talked through the differences between personality type and personality traits, I thought of all the introverted leaders in the workplace today. I thought of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Elon Musk. And then I thought of introverted leaders outside the tech industry. Stephen Spielberg, JK Rowling, and even Barack Obama are considered introverts. Each of these individuals are wildly successful, admired leaders. Some are more gregarious than others, but at their core, they are more introverted than extroverted.

The problem with using a type assessment for selecting leaders is many people have an idea in their mind of what a leader looks like. They imagine someone charismatic, strategic, organized, and visionary. In most cases, they don’t often picture an ISTJ. And yet, an introvert is just as capable of being a successful leader as any other personality type. In fact, there’s a place for each personality in leadership.Read More