Leadership and management are concepts that most professionals aspire towards at some point in their careers. But being able to make decisions and guide others in the process comes with a lot of challengers. Primarily, all people are not alike, so there is not a one-size-fits-all solution that works in getting the most out of a group within an organization. Many first-time managers find themselves thrown off-guard by situations they had never before anticipated, or stressful workplace interactions that percolate and eventually come to a boil.
I would be remiss if I did not say that I have faced many of these challenges in my career. I found myself managing people within a year out of college. I had no formal leadership or management training at the time. As the years have passed, I have been able to reflect on times where I should have listened a little bit more; when I should have been more of a disciplinarian; when I should have been more focused on leadership and less so on my individual contributions. We are all human and we all make mistakes. But if I had five takeaways on things that I have learned in my career, a non-exhaustive list can be found below:
- Leadership is not only about “Rah Rah” Moments
It is a common misconception that a good leader needs to be really energetic and charismatic. Those are good traits to have to be sure, as people are often motivated by and more apt to listen to people who give an aura of inspiration.
Realistically though, what truly matters is not how funny your jokes are, but how you drive behavior and action from your subordinates. And succinctly put, “Rah Rah” type of behavior – pumping people up constantly – is not necessarily how that gets done. We are all human beings, which means we have human emotions. Emotion drives behavior. Good leaders recognize this and use it to their advantage.
For example, a common action inhibitor is apathy. But if someone is feeling apathetic, they probably have good reason. Trying to get them excited with all the money they could make with better behavior is a lost cause; the individual has already considered that. The way to overcome apathy then is to fuel anger. People are not apathetic any more when they are angry.
Jeff Coleman, a VP at Grid Alternatives, gave me a great presentation once on emotional drivers that create certain types of behavior. Something else he touched on was the art of storytelling. Our lives are all very interesting, probably more so to others than they might be to ourselves. When good leaders are willing to make things personal and tell stories, tying the objectives of the organization and what the team is fighting through to some of their own personal struggles, team members are more willing to get on board. This does not need to be a “Rah Rah” moment. It can be deeply personal or sad and nevertheless be compelling. At Surf and Sales, a professional development event I attended earlier this year in Costa Rica, the event started with organizers Scott Leese and Richard Harris talking about a near-death experience and a life-long struggle with depression, respectively. Their willingness to explain the “why” behind why they were there and why we all were there really set the stage for a great event.
I recently had a conversation with someone, and they said to me, “You seem very mild-mannered and quiet. I can’t understand how you lead a team and get them excited.” They weren’t trying to insult me, they were just thinking out loud and asking the question. The reality is, I turn it on when I need to turn it on, but good leaders are more strategic and thoughtful than to just be loud and excitable.
- Feedback is tied to past discussions
Part of being a leader is giving feedback – and doing so constantly. Giving feedback can be fun and positive, but often it is critical and geared in a more constructive way.
I recently had a conversation with our VP of Operations, Tim Prugar, who taught me some important lessons about giving feedback. First and foremost, feedback should be couched as a form of respect. Feedback is given to people because we respect what they are and what they can be. And because we respect them so much, we want to do what we can to help them reach the top of their potential.
Something else that we discussed is the importance of trying feedback to a prior discussion. We have all been repudiated for something or other in our lives where we were completely unaware we might be doing anything wrong. It is incredibly frustrating when this happens. Perhaps a sales rep mistakenly reaches out to an existing client when the company has no tools to show who existing clients are, or never discusses such things. How can that individual be blamed for something they did not know?
A good leader sets themselves up to give feedback later by having the discussion before the feedback. When I coach my team, for example, I not only teach them what to do, but I also explicitly train them in what not to do. If I find someone doing something on the “what not to do” list, I can ask them why they went against something we had discussed previously. And that, too, is important, to ask why first and never make any assumptions about someone’s intentions. The feedback is taken much more constructively when not projected in an adversarial tone, but rather one in which the leader seeks to understand.
- Feedback is continuous and never taken for granted
In the vein of the point above, giving feedback should never be taken for granted. Perhaps someone has done something well. It could be something small, like the turnaround time on a piece of marketing collateral for the marketing team. Well, the way we give feedback should not be the same way we assess the performance of a referee or umpire. Usually sports fanatics will point out when they disagree with a call but overlook the 99% of the time that the call was correct. Think of your average Yelp reviewer. Are people more apt to complain or give praise? Unfortunately it is the former.
In the aforementioned example where the marketing team turns around a piece of collateral in record time, positive affirmation should be given and the feedback should be tied to a past discussion. Something like, “Hey Marketing, we had a discussion last year about how the turnaround time on these documents needed to be 24 hours faster, on average. This document was turned around even 24 hours earlier than the new deadline we had discussed. That is amazing.”
The above shows that you do not take for granted when members of the team do the things that you asked them to do. By referencing a past discussion, you are affirming where the feedback comes from and your appreciation for the team member upholding their end of the bargain from said discussion.
- Leadership is not about what you want
Another common misconception about leadership is that everything is tied to what the leader is trying to accomplish. And in a lot of ways, that is true: the leader has objectives set by superiors in the organization, and the leader’s literal job is to get the team to accomplish those objectives.
But the way that a good leader accomplishes these objectives is by understanding what their people want. This comes through in feedback as well. If an individual is struggling, it might be instinctive for a leader to tell someone they are struggling. A better, more subtle way to go about it is to ask the individual why they are having a hard time. What do they want? What do they think they need to do to get there?
The sales consultant Richard Harris gave a great presentation to me about seeking to understand and treating management like cognitive behavioral therapy. Ask people why they are asking certain questions. Ask them “why” over and over again to get to the root of things. Tr to actively understand what is going on with them. Don’t make assumptions.
What else to do? Open up about yourself to show that you, too, are willing to be vulnerable. This shows that you are really in it for the other person. We do not derive any special joy necessarily from telling people things we would not tell them otherwise. Sometimes we make sacrifices to show others that we care about them, and that it is an investment in them that will help the team get to where it needs to be.
- The best leaders are willing to do what they ask of others
People don’t like being bossed around. Especially when they feel like the leader is unwilling to do whatever it is they are asking of others. This makes the leader seem like a hypocrite who is above everyone else in the organization. Leaders quite simply earn more respect by doing what they ask others to do.
A good example is an SDR Manager who coaches inside salespeople on doing cold outreach to prospects. This is a very tedious job filled with many “no’s.” When the SDR Manager is willing to get in the proverbial trenches and do the same work, it makes the actual SDRs feel more respect for what they are being asked to do. Even more so when the AE’s and VP’s get involved.
I used to have a boss who was very condescending, who belittled me often and who would never do many of the tedious tasks he asked me to do. I almost quit because of him. Remember, people do not quit because of their job, they usually quit because of their manager. If their manager is a total hypocrite, that might be good enough reason to jump ship.