Image comparing leadership to swimming

Image comparing leadership to swimmingGuest blog by Robin Cochran, VP of Operations, Executive Forum

Last Friday I had a meeting with someone who knew nothing about Executive Forum. As I was explaining why our leadership programs are primarily face-to-face, he broke in and said, “It’s like swimming. You can’t learn to swim on the Internet either.” There’s a lot to learn about swimming, but you really can’t swim unless you get in the water.

He explained how his father had taught him to swim by taking him to the river near their home in India and pushing him in. He had to learn to swim. It took time and he got much better at it. He went on to explain that he had also wanted his children to learn to swim, so he spent time teaching them how to swim and also enrolled them in lessons at their local pool. He gave them the experience (swimming in the pool) along with lessons (the structure and meaning). He then added that his children are much better swimmers than him now, with significantly fewer years of experience.Read More

Photo of man trying to delegate

Photo of man trying to delegate“I’ll just do it myself.”

We all say this from time to time as we rationalize our decision to take on additional work tasks and responsibilities. We may tell ourselves that it’s faster to just complete the task than to explain the process to someone else. At times, we fail to delegate due to lack of trust in the quality of a team member’s help. The success of the project may seem too risky to leave in another’s hands. Other times, we intentionally choose not to delegate because we love the task itself. While giving up control over critical projects can be a stressful experience, when done effectively the result is a more knowledgeable, balanced, and engaged workforce.

Leaders who delegate effectively are able to spend their time more wisely on defining strategy, creating and communicating a vision, building effective relationships across the business, and collaborating on higher level initiatives. Teams with leaders who have effectively trained and empowered them to be successful find more meaning in their work, solve problems effectively, think more creatively, and have less turnover than teams who experience micromanagement.

High performers turned first-time leaders often struggle the most with delegation. Part of the problem is the lack of management training for frontline leaders. But addressing control issues in leadership takes more than skills training. The core problem may be deeper than trust, communication, or workload.

I recently met with a leader who was experiencing the worst performance of his career. It wasn’t for lack of effort, though. It seemed as though his year was a series of unfortunate events where luck never seemed to go his way. I was interested in how he stayed so engaged despite the challenges, so I asked him what he did this year that he enjoyed. Suddenly, he lit up while telling stories about the problems he solved and the key role he played in a few projects. He said he really enjoyed “getting his hands dirty” and working amongst his team.

After a bit of conversation, it was clear that he didn’t actually enjoy “getting his hands dirty,” nor was it necessary. By his own admission, the team was highly talented and had plenty of bandwidth to complete all of their projects without his involvement. The truth was he needed to take on unnecessary work activities so he could experience a win. His day was routinely full of disappointments and setbacks. He needed to feel like he was making a valuable contribution and taking control of the team’s deliverables became the one positive thing he could look forward to each day.

Of course, the net effect was the team felt underutilized, and he failed to drive the team forward by adjusting his strategy. What he had rationalized as the valuable contribution he’d been making all year was actually a distraction from the effort he needed to place on fixing the big picture problems.

When times are tough and the barriers seem insurmountable, it is especially challenging to find motivation to persevere. Doing more things that generate energy can be an effective coping technique, but not when it becomes a distraction from addressing the core problems. It takes both emotional intelligence and strong self-awareness to recognize when making a positive contribution takes an unfortunate turn towards work hoarding. To stay on track, leaders should constantly ask themselves, “Am I making the best use of my time/energy, and am I making the best use of my team’s talents?”

Success under construction

Success under constructionOver the holidays, I took time to clear the mental and physical clutter that accumulated throughout the past year. This included everything from shredding old papers and clearing my inbox to letting go of some disappointments that were holding me back. In the process of Marie Kondo’ing my professional life, I forced myself to read dozens of articles I’d bookmarked over the past year. After a while, I noticed a theme that was so strong, I felt compelled to quantify what I was seeing. I created a tally for every time I read a leadership article that mentioned trust, communication, recognition, accountability, and empowerment. I began to ask myself if there’s really anything new in the world of leadership development if we just keep circling around these same things.

The truth, however, is we keep coming back to these same topics because these fundamental soft skills are essential for good leadership, and they’re also the same skills we’ve failed to foster in new frontline leaders. Understandably, the learning curve for a new leader is steep. The curve is often steeper for a high performing individual contributor who has been promoted to management than it is for an individual who exhibits informal leadership behaviors. New leaders are often given more direction and support to develop technical skills, functional skills, and strategy development than interpersonal skills. Yet, studies show that interpersonal skills are the #1 reason why new leaders fail.

Frontline leaders are under enormous pressure to perform and produce results while quickly building people management skills along the way. As they learn to manage priorities, address conflict, facilitate change, delegate, and communicate effectively, they often realize that they are unprepared to take on their new responsibilities. They are also often uncomfortable asking for support in developing these soft skills for fear that they will draw attention to their development needs.

To build a successful leadership pipeline, all leaders should regularly conduct a self-development needs analysis and target the key soft skills necessary for success. Whether the needs analysis is through a self-development SWOT, 360 feedback assessment, or the support of a professional coach, the result will be critical insights into the leader’s strengths, challenges, opportunities, and development areas. When frontline leaders are given a strategic pathway for self-development, they can tailor their development activities and align them to the most immediate business needs in order to accelerate their performance.

Additionally, regularly conducting a development needs analysis across all leaders in the business fosters a culture of continuous strategic development and commitment to lifelong learning. Leaders will feel more comfortable requesting training and sharing the lessons they learn in the process. Without conducting a self-development needs analysis and tailoring a training program to fit the employees’ needs, frontline leaders will continue to be overwhelmed by their new responsibilities and contribute to decreased engagement and higher turnover.

Tired worker in office at night

Tired worker in office at night“If you don’t work nights and weekends in your 20s, you’re not going to have a successful career. Sorry.”  This tweet, posted on Christmas Eve by a cryptocurrency entrepreneur, set the Twitter world ablaze. While other entrepreneurs jumped to the poster’s defense citing their 70+ hour work weeks, many others called into question the pervasiveness of burnout and the toxicity of the modern “hustle culture.”

Much like the epidemic of “busyness,” there’s a troubling phenomenon in the workplace that idolizes unhealthy behaviors seemingly associated with success. “Hustle culture” is certainly not new, but has flourished in the past decade thanks, in part, to technology. The combination of 24/7 connectivity and the popularity of hustle culture entrepreneurs on social media has led to an acceptance of the always-on mentality. With notable young CEOs broadcasting images of themselves jet-setting using hashtags like #crushingit and #getthatbread, it seems like an entire generation of workers have been convinced that this is normal workplace behavior.Read More

Man in office contemplating

As 2019 comes to a close and performance review season ramps up, it’s a natural time to reflect on your team’s performance throughout the year. This is always a time-consuming process that few people enjoy, but can be effective when the right questions are asked. Particularly for leaders, the performance review process often focuses more on the business outcomes and goals than key aspects of people and culture. Here are 20 questions about leadership effectiveness and end-of-year reflection to guide your own self-review as a leader:

As 2019 comes to a close and performance review season ramps up, it’s a natural time to reflect on your team’s performance throughout the year. This is always a time-consuming process that few people enjoy, but can be effective when the right questions are asked. Particularly for leaders, the performance review process often focuses more on the business outcomes and goals than key aspects of people and culture. Here are some end-of-year reflections on leadership effectiveness and questions to guide your own self-review as a leader:

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Resolutions in Planner
Resolutions in Planner

With less than 3 weeks until 2020, it’s a great time to start envisioning the positive changes you want to experience next year. Start the next decade on the right foot by bringing the best version of yourself to your team. Whether you’re new to a leadership role or have a cupboard full of “World’s Best Boss” mugs, there is always room for improvement. Whether you’re committing to learn something new, narrowing your blind spots, or venturing outside of your comfort zone, your employees will recognize and respect the effort.

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