Heard and Valued: Three Short and Useful Bits of Advice for Improving Your Leadership Skills


Yogi Berra famously said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” In this article, Payson shares some of what he’s learned about leadership just by listening. Learn how transparency and iterative improvement can maximize the results of great leadership.

An uncommon amount of wisdom has been shared with me recently that I want to pass along. I’m not sure if the stars aligned, people came back from the holidays rested, or I’m doing a better job of listening, but some obvious truths about leadership have been there for the taking.

Helping someone else resolve a tough problem can be a growth experience for both the coach and the person helped if the coaching is well delivered and well received. Dale Emery offered a clever idea about coaching a few years ago that stuck with me: “The first thing you need to coach someone effectively is his or her permission.” Since most of us have been the victims of unwanted “help” at some point, the power of this idea is apparent.

I was having coffee with a friend, Tim, the other day, and he was talking about a new project executive that he liked. “Rather than saying, ‘Tim, please go help Mary with X,’” my friend said, “this guy would tell Mary, ‘Mary, I suggest you ask Tim for help with X.’” Brilliant. This hadn’t occurred to me before, but it helps work out the “permission” to coach in a professional setting. Tim said it also makes clearer that the problem is still Mary’s responsibility, for the problem has not been shifted to the coach.

Incremental Improvement
Usually one actionable and memorable idea a month is a pretty good pace, but the gifts kept coming.

One way to get a discount on my gym membership is to attend a series of classes they offer on better living (eating, exercise, etc.). I was only marginally interested in the content, but it cuts your monthly dues by $20, and my regular racquetball partner—a young and starving bachelor—was taking the classes to save some money, so I figured I would tag along and save some cash, too.

The dietician teaching the “eating right” class was a fit and knowledgeable lady of about 50. I imagined that her entire career consisted of trying to show people how to improve their food selection process, and clearly she was used to facing audiences with different opinions, experiences, and expectations that caused resistance to her message. Once I realized she was advocating process improvement, I heard what she said from a whole new perspective:

I’m not suggesting you go from a fast-food, fat-rich, vegetable-free diet to a vegan diet consuming only of things you grow organically in your backyard. What I’m suggesting is that you look to make modest improvements over time—a few more vegetables, water instead of soda occasionally, and maybe having two slices of pizza rather than three. Over time, if you integrate these small changes and see some results, you can ask yourself if you are satisfied, or want to go a little further.

I’ve probably been told something similar a hundred times, but this was the first time I’d framed it as a process improvement suggestion. It immediately called to mind the off-putting process improvement zealots I’ve encountered with the one true way of doing things and for whom anything less is unacceptable. This dietician’s approach gave people in the class permission to try something without threatening established patterns. We’ll see if it sticks, but I have consciously made a couple of healthy choices during the past week or so, and I’m more conscious of when I’m making unhealthy choices, as well.

I’ve been consulting on a couple of huge projects—multi-year, enterprise-wide, over-eight-digit-budget affairs. I was talking with one of the project executives about some of the current issues (there are always a few), and we were reviewing what information was being shared with the team, with executive management, and with other stakeholders. There was clear traceability of the significant issues and, they were discussed openly with executives. She said, “I like to play the cards face up on the table. I’ve promised my boss—no surprises.” I firmly agree with that approach, and it was refreshing to hear someone else embrace it.

Projects—particularly large ones—never go completely smoothly, and to expect otherwise is foolish. Because the issues were on the table and being worked for this project, everyone could focus on the issues rather than expending energy trying to fix blame or put political spin on what was happening. The transparency allowed true collaboration and let senior executives deal with issues in stride.

Contrast the approach and consequences of this transparency with projects that gloss over issues and try to give the illusion that things are going smoothly. On these projects, when a problem can’t be dealt with at the lowest levels of the organization and is escalated, it shatters the illusions of the executives involved and often they have trouble calibrating their response. It can also undermine the credibility of the project team.

This is a good reminder that, if you play your cards face up on the table, people can quibble about how you play the hand but will be hard pressed to say that you cheated.

So, here are three good leadership points to consider this year:

  1. A good technique to encourage people to ask for help (rather than asking someone to help them)
  2. A suggestion about selling and pacing organizational (or personal) change so that it is more likely to succeed
  3. A reminder that transparency reduces surprise and helps to build trust

Are you looking for good leadership ideas? What good leadership lessons have you picked up recentlyr? Any you wish to share?

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