I find that the highest performing leaders hire great people and are skillful delegators. This is a good thing because organizations are leaner and reliant on fewer people to accomplish more work. Yet I still see so many leaders for whom pacesetting (driving results, “setting the pace”) is their primary leadership style. And I also see a fair amount of pacesetting’s cousin, micro-management. With new leaders this is to be expected. Moving from individual contributor to leader is a big transition. It can be hard to hand things over to others when you know it will be easier (and better) if you do it yourself.
When I see a high degree of self-reliance and pacesetting with established leaders, it worries me. Highly self-reliant leaders don’t delegate well and they aren’t good at developing others. If development is the new promotion in our leaner organizations (and I believe it is) and our best development happens through challenging job assignments, reporting to someone who doesn’t delegate is a bigger problem. Talented people like to be challenged and they will move on if they don’t get the development they need.
Part of the problem is that our educational system and the way the professions are trained still celebrate self-reliance to a great degree. Yes, many MBA and business programs engage a more collaborative and team based learning curriculum. But leaders often come to their role through professional training that values autonomy and self-reliance. I am thinking particularly of engineers, physicians, pharmacists, pilots, lawyers and finance. I commonly see these professions in executive positions. Their teams want them to hand over challenging projects, but the boss struggles to really let go and trust others without finding ways to step in.
It makes a lot of sense. These leaders are often rigorously trained to be independent thinkers, to own their work and outcomes and work autonomously. They must learn vast amounts of complex information to ensure competence and safety and practice within rigorous ethical standards. In addition, they begin this odyssey in undergraduate school, while still young and forming their identity. Self-reliance is drilled into them. They often make great founders and entrepreneurs but struggle when their business starts to scale. It is somewhat less painful if they are in large corporations because they are likely to get more formal leadership development as their careers progress. And yet there is still a gap between learning how to do something and actually doing it.
In our highly connected world, self-reliance is becoming a bigger liability for leaders. Technology is making all of our jobs faster and more complex. Knowing how to inspire and motivate others to contribute their best is becoming an even more valuable competency. Learning to trust and rely on others can be scary for many of us. Leadership requires we surrender to that fact that we can’t do everything ourselves.
When a new CEO assumes her or his role the first thing they consider changing is their corporate structure. I would rather have them focus first on communication, decision rights and recognition systems as these have been shown to have a greater impact on getting things done than structure. I think the reason why executives go after structure is because it is easier to move the chairs than change minds. Shifting organizational “habits”, the way people share information and make decisions, require deeper work. Changing the recognition system is probably the quickest and most effective way to change behavior so this can be the best place to start depending upon your business situation.
If you decide you need to change your structure, put your strategy and business first. The best structure will be clearer if you know where you are headed and what you need to achieve. I know this sounds simple. It’s not. I still see executives building their structure around people they like and trust vs. what they need to achieve. If the “like and trust” is based upon the leader’s ability to deliver the business and inspire and motivate people aligned with the organizational values, then I am all for it. But this is not always the case. Sometimes “like and trust” means that they are comfortable, working with them is easy and they don’t challenge or push back. I wish it weren’t so but this is what I observe.
The best way to avoid this is to have a small, smart internal team of knowledgeable leaders design the structure. The team should be comprised of leaders who have a reputation for being objective and putting what is best for the business ahead of their own needs. The CEO or executive sponsor must provide the vision and expected outcomes, e.g., improved collaboration across boundaries, leaner operations, or more efficient information flow. A professional and confidential facilitator will benefit the process. If you don’t have the internal leadership talent, the business is in trouble, or needs to transform, then you most likely need to hire an external consultant to help you design your structure.
It’s true that the right leaders in the right places can make organizational transformation easier. But there is a reason why most transformation efforts fail: we don’t bring the people along. Structure alone won’t change hearts, minds and behaviors. For that you will have to work on the operational and people practices. Though it can be difficult, frustrating, and exciting, working with the “people part” from the start will help you get further faster and with higher engagement.
It’s interesting how many executives through the years have told me that they don’t need much appreciation. Then when something difficult happens with their boss, or with their team, the truth comes out. They comment on how underappreciated they feel and it’s clear they experience the resentment that most of us feel when others act ungrateful. I understand. Admitting we need more appreciation is really not okay in most organizations and even less so at the top. It is not uncommon to feel that it makes us look needy and vulnerable. So we may deny the need to be recognized and appreciated.
Based upon personality research, it’s true some of us genuinely need less recognition and appreciation. But I am convinced that many at the executive level, and high-achievers at every level, are wired to need more. They also expect more feedback in general because they want to grow, develop and feel challenged at work. It seems like a trivial thing. I don’t think it is.
There is this narrative that I hear a lot, “The [executives] get paid a lot and they have a great package, so what do they need more appreciation for?” This may be true but it’s shortsighted. Like security, belonging and love, a need for appreciation is human. As much as we want to close off parts of ourselves at work, human needs don’t go away as we move up the corporate ladder. And what is demonstrated at the top, both effective and non-effective behaviors, often cascades to the next levels.
Executive’s behaviors are watched and mirrored. So if an executive at the top doesn’t recognize or appreciate her team, or coach, develop and provide ongoing performance feedback, it is also less likely that her team will do so. Of course there will be leaders who provide appreciation and recognition anyway, because they know it is a good practice and they are individually committed to growing their team. However, it is less likely to be an organizational habit, which is a big miss. Even if you really don’t need much recognition or appreciation, some of the people who report to you do and they may feel less motivated to extend discretionary effort if they feel others with whom they work don’t appreciate them.
Sharing appreciation and recognizing excellence, just like recognizing less than acceptable behavior and performance, is a requirement of leadership at all levels. If pay and benefits are where they need to be, thoughtful appreciation for extra effort, creativity, high performance or outstanding achievement is mostly free. It takes a little time to write a note, pick up the phone or stop by an office. The ROI will be well worth it.
Self-awareness is the degree to which we have knowledge and understanding of:
Even the most self-actualized among us, have blind spots. Our own “take” on ourselves is informed (and often misinformed) by our mental models, early learning and beliefs about the world. People who know us well, our families and teams, have an experience with us that may be very different from our own. Which one we trust and use most to guide our actions, depends upon how much impact and influence we want to have on the world. If we want to stay within the boundary of the roles we have defined for (and to which we have limited) ourselves, then greater self-knowledge may not be as necessary. But if you want to lead others, larger teams and organizations, then you need to continue to expand your self-knowledge.
Why do I believe expanding self-knowledge is required work for leaders who want to become more effective? Because as the complexity of our information and technology based economy grows, leadership roles become more challenging. More often leaders need to evoke the best from people who are wired differently than they are. The more global our world, the more diverse our businesses, the more this becomes a top priority. When we have a team that comes from a different background, culture, geography or language, we need to discover what motivates and inspires them. We often like to hire people more similar to ourselves. It is easier. It is also less effective to all sorts of business outcomes. Understanding diverse customers and cultures, expanding creativity and innovation, all rely on diverse mental models, and greater understanding and acceptance of others.
In my experience, even understanding the mental models of someone who is similar to us is more like learning a new language than we think. So how can leaders expand their self-knowledge? Here are a few ideas:
In my experience, improving our self-awareness can feel daunting. What we deny the most may be the most important for us to understand. One thing I know for sure, greater leadership self-awareness can lead to more openness and understanding of what inspires the best contribution from our teams. It can also make you a more capable and powerful leader.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.
©2021, Leadership Consulting Parters, LLC