Originally published on CIO
Providing good leadership means giving the people on your team the safety and space they need to thrive. Here are three things you can start doing now that will make a big difference in the year ahead.
Earlier this year, I made a passing comment on LinkedIn that I had “finally figured out what it means to be a leader, not just a manager.” Afterwards, people followed up asking, “How do you become a leader and what made you realize this and adjust?”
Honestly, the answer is that I had a buckling amount of work and hiring more people wasn’t an option. My team was already operating efficiently, so the only way to optimize was to look at myself. After carefully examining my tasks, I realized that the work I was doing was less coaching and more oversight. This realization led me to understand that I could not scale by managing people, I needed to start leading them.
Later, during a flight with no Wi-Fi connection, I had nothing to do but sit and think. I spent the time thinking about what I thought made a good leader based on my personal experiences and nearly 20 years of working professionally — on both sides of the leadership equation.
This list is for all people, in all levels, and in all industries who want to contribute to making the working world a little better for the people on their team.
Vulnerability is the most difficult characteristic to put into action, so I put it at the top of the list. If you can accomplish this, almost everything else will fall into place.
In the article What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable, Emma Sepӓlӓ writes that vulnerability is “at the root of human connection,” allowing your staff to see you as a human being, and the team to “feel more horizontal” than hierarchical. In other words, when you are vulnerable, people start to trust you as a person and feel a shared responsibility for the work and team. It leads to others being more honest with you, which then builds closer connections and ultimately enables better decision-making because leaders aren’t isolated from the advice and counsel of the people who report to them.
Being vulnerable can take many shapes, including admitting when you are wrong or have made a mistake, opening up about how you feel, and letting people know when you are angry, frustrated, sad, or hurt. For example, on a recent call with my team, which is 100% remote and distributed, I noticed that an individual on the team looked distracted, perhaps doing something else. I immediately found myself feeling frustrated and annoyed, but I was also sad because I felt like this individual didn’t care as much about the meeting as I did.
I could have ignored it because it seemed silly to be sad, but I reached out to the individual and said, “Hey, I noticed in the meeting you seemed distracted, and it worried me since this isn’t like you. I wanted to be sure everything was OK.”
The end result was a positive conversation about workload heading into the weekend and appreciation for the check in. Although it felt risky and scary, it had the impact of expressing concern for the person and showing them how valuable their participation is.
I once had a boss who had two reports, myself and another individual. Both of us had teams of our own, and all of us sat near one other. One day, I noticed that my boss and colleague went to lunch together. At first, it didn’t bother me. But as it kept happening, I began to feel resentful and left out. Too scared to bring it up, I let it fester and felt like I was being excluded for reasons that may or may not have been true. Eventually, I left the organization, in part because I didn’t feel like I had the same opportunities for upward mobility.
As a result of this experience, I try to be as consistent as possible in my interactions with individual team members so no one ever feels left out. For example, because I am really bad at remembering birthdays and anniversaries and am at risk of forgetting some, I don’t recognize anyone’s. If they mention it to the team, I’ll say “Happy Birthday,” but otherwise I don’t want my bad memory making anyone feel left out.
Other ways you can surface this include asking yourself: Is everyone getting recognized and appreciated regularly? Does everyone get a chance to review and provide feedback on the team strategy document? Does everyone have the same frequency and duration of one-on-ones with the boss and if not, is the reason why clear?
No matter how small the situation is, it is important to be as consistent as possible. Otherwise, you run the risk of people feeling left out, distrustful, and disengaged, and they may even leave.
Optimize for strengths
I’m embarrassed to admit that when I first became a manager, I was rigid about how people worked. For example, in my early days managing a help desk, I measured success in a very binary way: You either closed 50 tickets a day or you didn’t.
In my mind, those who could close 50 tickets were doing great and those who couldn’t needed to improve. Never did I take into consideration the other contributions people made. This management style resulted in an extremely dissatisfying job where I was always running around trying to get people to close more tickets. I know I made life miserable for most people on the team.
It wasn’t until later in my career that a boss noticed I was doing this — albeit in a less severe way — and called me out for it. When I told my boss that I was struggling to get the output needed from a particular individual and explained some of my tactics, my boss said, “It sounds like you are trying to jam your workstyle down their throat.”
Of course I was dumbfounded and hurt, but as I became more experienced I started to realize that it was my job to understand how people worked, what they liked to do, and how best they did it, then use my sphere of influence to guide their efforts — not to jam my expectations down their throats.
I’ve found that some people thrive on doing purely technical work, while others like to manage projects. Some people prefer to communicate via email, some via chat and some in person or on video calls. You may be thinking, well it sounds like a ton of work for me if I have ten direct reports. The answer is, yes, it is a lot of work at first, but once you get to know the people on your team it becomes more fluid.
As the leader, it’s your job to set people up for success. Sometimes, finding that space requires compromise, coaching (on both sides) and vulnerability. Yes, there are some elements of the job that are non-negotiable, like attending meetings, approving timecards, updating Jira tickets, and communicating clearly with customers. However, as a leader, your role is to manage the flexible circumstances surrounding individuals of your team so they can do their best work.
Join me in no-nonsense leadership
There is not a single path to becoming a solid leader. Being vulnerable, consistent and helping people do their best work are not the only ways to accomplish leadership. In fact, my list from the airplane included other items like be clear, do what you say you will do, use inclusive language like ‘we’ and ‘us,’ practice cultural humility that is oriented to the other people’s identity, and give lots of authentic compliments.
The bottom line is that all humans, even professionals, want to feel safe and included. Even if you aren’t in an official leadership position, doing these things will lay the foundation for people to look to you for leadership.