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There Are No Do-Overs in Leadership


In a perfect world, we would all start our roles as managers and emerging leaders fully aware of the behaviors and ingredients that promote success. In reality, the work of leading is learned through clumsy practice and, hopefully, refined over time. I for one would love a do-over for my ego-driven, “my way or the highway” early days as a manager. Unfortunately, there are no do-overs in leadership, just opportunities to do-different. For anyone striving to climb out of the primordial leadership muck and move in the direction of effectiveness and respect, it is possible to shore up or rebuild your leadership foundation mid-flight. Here are some ideas to help.

1. Engage your group.

I’m not suggesting you stand in front of your group and admit, “I’m a lousy leader,” but I do want you to reach out and let them know you need their help with this personal, professional development. Ideally, in a live setting, offer that you are working on improving your effectiveness as a manager and leader in support of your team and you will value their help and input in the process. Depending on your relationship with the group they will range from cynical to supportive. Regardless, by putting yourself out there as someone striving to improve, you’ve cleared the way for subsequent steps.

2. Ask three crucial questions.

I reference this phase as the 3 W’s technique for the three core questions involved in this exercise. Building on your admission of your own professional development initiative, indicate to the entire team that you will meet with everyone individually. Highlight this is their meeting and the only agenda is they show up prepared to offer input on these three questions:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not working?
  • What do you need me to do to help you?

I’ve run this with large and small groups, and on every occasion, the input I’ve received has been priceless. I encourage people to focus on the business environment for their organization. Put the emphasis on process or strategy or structure, and not on careers. (I do encourage you to follow up with career development discussions at another time. However, those are out of context for this exercise.)

Commit to keeping the specific input confidential, and commit to rolling up the key themes you hear across the entire group and sharing those back in a subsequent group meeting. Inevitably, there are some easy fixes you can make on the fly. Ultimately, you (and the members of your team) gain a treasure trove of insights on how to do more of what’s working and fix what’s not.

The one-on-one meetings are valuable, and my experience has been they are cathartic in environments where managers haven’t done an adequate job listening to group members over time. The real impact shows up in the group debrief where you share the core themes you heard in the sessions and engage the group in understanding what they mean and what should be done about them. Ultimately, the group sets the priorities and establishes plans to attack these issues. Put yourself out there as a sponsor, responsible for ensuring the resources, organizational support, and cover to make the changes.

3. Ask for input defining your leadership charter.

Role clarity and accountability are key ingredients for high performance in any group setting, and this is particularly true for the individual responsible for leading the group. A technique I’ve applied and now teach to anyone who will listen is for the leader to make her primary responsibilities to the group and the firm visible to all in the form of a Leadership Charter document.

The charter spells out your responsibilities and typically starts with, “My role as a leader on this team is to… .” Of course, filling in the detail is the challenge and the opportunity.

A powerful tool of both persuasion and building trust is to provide power to others. Given your earlier admission of your personal, professional development effort and following on the heels of a 3W’s process, you have a license to ask for input on your Leadership Charter.

My counsel is to solicit from your team members their thoughts on this question: “At the end of our time working together when we’ve been successful, and you’ve grown as a professional, what will you say that I did?”

I prefer you do this in a live setting where you can facilitate and ask clarifying questions. Make thoughts visible on a whiteboard or flip-chart and then use this raw material and your own ideas to form a rough charter document. Again, you are completing the sentence: “My role as a leader on this team is to… .”

Give a draft document back to your team and ask for input. Once you’ve locked down your responsibilities, I encourage you to make it visible to your team. Some managers frame the charter and place it on a wall in their office or cubicle. One manager gave out smaller, laminated versions. And others make it visible on their firm’s collaboration platform. Regardless of approach, the charter must be visible to all and then brought to life by your actions. Importantly, you must encourage your team members to hold you accountable to the charter. This simple act of asking for them to hold you accountable is a powerful trust-building action.

Your Leadership Charter becomes an important part of your success when you reference it daily and use it as a reminder to focus on those priorities most meaningful to your team members and your organization.

I used mine as a daily reminder to focus on finding ways to help knock down walls for my team members and to support their growth and development. It proved most valuable when I would lapse into what I term: transactional management, and focus on fire-fighting and not on working to enable an environment where my team members could do their best work.

The bottom line for now: The tools and approaches outlined above are just a partial offering of opportunities to strengthen your foundation and effectiveness leading others, however, they are excellent starting points. Since we rarely gain do-overs, these ideas to do-different offer massive potential for gains in credibility, trust, and collaboration. All three attributes are part of the formula for high individual and group performance.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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