Too busy to lead: The diary of a well-intentioned manager

by Iain Hopkins13 Jun 2013
Do you accept that the first and most important role of a leader is to build a resilient and high-performing team? 
Take a moment to really think about that before you go on to the five steps below. And even if your answer is a resounding “yes”, this can’t just be something that sounds like a good thing to do – it’s got to be a career choice. 
Why a career choice? 
Because you’ll let go of being the technical expert who answers all the questions, and become the coach who asks the questions and facilitates people in finding the answers.
Of course this isn’t going to be easy, because you won’t get the same recognition that you are used to, and you’ll also feel out of control and exposed by people who don’t do things as well as you do.
Finally, this is about relationships and emotions. You might think that’s soft stuff, but it will help to start thinking about emotions as data, and relationships as  your new most important tool to get things done. 
Ignore the tempting advice that great leaders sell a vision. Some do, but you’ve got problems to address such as budget, out-of-date systems, a transformation program about to sweep like a tsunami through the department, and more than a few stressed-out colleagues who wouldn’t mind blaming your team for their shortcomings. 
Now that’s all a bit negative, so let’s do what pragmatic leaders do in this situation and focus on selling the one problem that everyone will buy into: “How do we build a team that’s got more influence in this enterprise?”
You’ve spent your whole career getting rewarded for solving problems. Now it’s time to reward other people, but they’re not as skilled as you are yet, so be patient. Start by teaching everyone how to use a common problem-solving tool. Don’t worry about it being perfect. This is what’s called an ‘adaptive’ challenge, which means you are helping people to learn, so a few mistakes are a sign of progress, not a reason to stop. 
Look at your meeting agendas. Bring problems, not answers. Bring flip charts and pens, not just reports. Bring questions – challenging questions – and then coach, encourage, and stay committed to developing a team of problem-solvers. Nothing will liberate you and your team better than having everyone skilled and responsible for solving problems.
As your team gets better at problem-solving, it’s time for you to get better at establishing expectations. Most teams have lots of expectations, but they don’t share them with each other and then they get annoyed or disappointed when people don’t meet those expectations. That breaks down trust and confidence, which is poison for any team or organisation.
Always keep in mind that people, not teams, form relationships, which means that good leaders spend one-on-one time with their people and one-on-one time with key stakeholders. 
Use that time to share and negotiate (two-way) expectations about what needs to be done and how to do it. With practice you’ll get alignment to happen instead of just being a nice buzzword to discuss at those team leader training sessions. And keep score so you can recognise success and coach people through difficulties.
As neat and sensible as the first three steps are, the reality is that bosses aren’t always rational, and workloads are not predictable enough to fit snuggly into the resource boundaries. However, that doesn’t mean it has to throw you into an emotional spin that keeps you awake at night and frustrated by day. 
Instead, your next task is to choose an active calmness regime. Take your choice: meditation, yoga, rock climbing, prayer, walking, or anything else that calms and disciplines the mind. Social media and TV are not included! 
Leaders who do well under pressure don’t absorb the pressure and instead stay slightly detached. This comes from practising calmness in the same way that Olympic athletes do in their training. And maybe add the word ‘perspective’ to the list because it’s a lot easier to handle the upsets when you’ve got a friend, colleague, partner or coach who can help you to keep perspective when the world seems to be arranged specifically to annoy you.
Businesses always call their work units teams, but many fail just about every test of teamwork. At the very least, ask yourself and your team these three questions:
  • Do we have a clear sense of common purpose?
  • Can everyone see how their efforts contribute to that purpose?
  • Do we regularly review what’s happened and what we’ve learned?
With clear purpose, meaningful roles and regular learning, a team will emerge. People will be less guarded and more vulnerable with each other because they’ll be more confident in their own roles and comfortable to learn from experiences. They’ll see problems as something to solve, and they’ll dwell less on what might have been. In a word, they’ll be resilient.

Diary note Tuesday


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