Picture this: You're at a dinner or cocktail party and mention your work. The face of the person you're talking to lights up in acknowledgment and you nod your head and grin as you hear in response a familiar comment, one you often hear when your work enters the conversation. It seems that, no matter the line of work we’re in, we tend to hear common themes: Dentists hear about bad dental visits. Doctors get asked about that persistent rash. And teachers, who work tirelessly year-round, are often on the receiving end of: "Lucky you! You get the summers off."
For me, it often goes like this: "You work in leadership development? Oh, my company really needs that!"
I hear horror stories from friends and strangers alike about ineffective managers, terrible bosses, and (as more than one person has described it) “straight-up jerks.” I hear stories of bosses taking credit for work; managers who do not give effective feedback or only do so when there are concerns of losing someone to a different team or opportunity; and leaders who staff projects so ineffectively that it negatively impacts the image of the entire department. The list goes on … and on.
In all of these stories, there are common lessons that we as leaders can learn so that we do not become one of our employee's leadership horror stories at their next cocktail party.
1) Evolve your mindset.
People management and the acceleration of your number of direct reports is often a sign of increased responsibility and can be a sign of “status” within an organization. When people are promoted into leadership roles that require people leadership, there is a mindset transformation that must take place.
Leaders must go from delivering work themselves to doing so through others by actively empowering their teams; from solving problems themselves to aligning team members and entrusting them to devise creative solutions; and, speaking of trust, from viewing trust and belonging as “nice to have” attributes on their teams to firmly establishing these things — and understanding the critical impact they have on team performance.
Many of the horror stories I’ve heard have been about leaders who get stuck in doing the day-to-day work and fail to see that their role now involves getting work done through the talents of others. (You can read more about this in a December 2022 blog post by Laurel Tyler.)
2) Remember that communication is key.
A common theme across many of the stories I’ve heard is the lack of effective communication. Caution! Do not equate effective communication with having all the answers. Rather, successful communication means being transparent with the team, admitting when you don’t know something or have imperfect information, and being able to productively articulate a vision and mission for your team. At Insight Experience, we use our Strategic Communication Model to help leaders audit their communication.
At its core, the model is simple. Does your message include:
- The What. What are we doing? What are we trying to achieve?
- The Why. Why is this our course of action? Why are we not focusing on alternate solutions?
- An Appropriate Tone. Your tone should match the context of your message. If it's bad news, the tone should match — and vice versa.
- Next Steps. What does this communication mean we need to do? Who is accountable?
You can watch a short video about Strategic Communication from Insight Experience's Nick Noyes here.
Many of the stories I hear involve leaders not being able to articulate the why or the strategic value of a project. Keep these ideas in mind when crafting your next communication to maximize your message’s effectiveness.
3) Be your authentic self.
Absolutely no one is the perfect leader. Being a great leader requires experience and plenty of reflection. But your best bet at success is to be true to who you are.
Back in the year 2000, Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones posed a provocative question in an article at Harvard Business Review: "Why should anyone be led by you?" Everyone in leadership positions should give this informative article a read (an article fleshed out in their 2006 book of the same name, subtitled What It Takes to Be an Authentic Leader), but here, in the authors' words, is a synopsis: “Be yourself — more — with skill.” Chances are you’ve been promoted to a leadership position because you are incredibly capable at delivering results, setting direction, and solving problems. You’ve got the skill. Remember that great leaders do those things while also revealing weaknesses and always being true to their core – in other words, being authentically themselves.
Being your authentic self and building your leadership self-awareness requires dedication. Great leaders take the time to do personality assessments, 360 assessments, and/or even get a leadership/executive coach to help them in their journey.
Granted, this lack of authenticity has never been an explicit complaint I’ve heard at dinner parties. But this is undeniably at the core of many of the grievances I hear, and this is the central issue around criticisms about the ownership of choices, thoughtful delegation, and the establishment of trust with a team.
These three suggestions require conscious practice and execution. I challenge you to pick one of these ideas presented above and make that your focus for your next week of work. Track how much work you take on, responsibilities that you can instead delegate to team members in the name of empowering them; make note of how consciously and effectively you communicate, always including the why; or recognize when you filter yourself or reach for an answer you might not have.
Good luck and happy leading!