Many organizations will face leadership transition in the coming weeks or months. A friend of mine, Col. Lance "Blade" Wilkins, wrote a thought piece while he was an Air Force Group Commander. Although "Blade's" audience is primarily military, his perspective is applicable regardless of whether you are in public or private service. It is also equally useful whether your team is going through such a change, or if you are considering a professional change.
The full article is posted below. What stood out to me was the reminder that leadership change is often accompanied by a shift in culture. Culture change is usually accompanied by some turbulence, fog and friction. It takes committed effort, energy, and trust in the team and leaders to remain focused and on track despite those challenges.
How do you cultivate and motivate those inspirational and “informal” leaders within the organization to keep the rest of the unit on task despite the “bumps” and the “stormin’” as the new leader instills her new goals and priorities?
As always, I hope this is helpful in unlocking your (and your team’s) full leadership potential.
Leading During Transition: The Power of Continuity
Has anyone tried the “trust fall” experiment during a team-building exercise? The one where a teammate stands behind you and promises to catch you as you fall backwards. What about any other exercise designed to build trust among your team, or in your leader?
Drills such as these are effective at DEMONSTRATING the trust teams have in each other and/or their leaders. Often, we see them marketed as trust BUILDING events at team “offsites” or retreats. IF this band-aid provides teams a feeling of trust and an increase in morale, it is often fleeting; a quick-fix that is rarely effective in BUILDING trust.
There are numerous examples that prove “trust is built in drops and lost in buckets”. Trust in teams and leaders takes time; there is rarely a swift way build it. Trust requires investment; training, failing and winning together. It comes from understanding the team’s “why”, understanding the team’s tasks and each individual’s role, and learning how to continuously improve because of...AND despite failure.
Leaders who understand how to develop these traits and characteristics are on the way to gaining the trust and confidence of their teams. Credible, authentic, empathetic leaders making logical (i.e. unemotional) decisions will have their teams’ trust and confidence. These teams are able to accomplish anything, have high morale, and retain their valued members. On the contrary, if a leader loses (or never gains) their team’s trust and confidence, the organization cannot succeed, despite the number of “trust fall” exercises they perform.
When organizations expend resources, stakeholders look for quantifiable means to demonstrate a return on investment. Leadership development programs (LDPs) do not easily lend themselves to quantifiable measures; trying to apply calculable means (such as organizational profit and loss) to measure leadership performance may yield horrendous indicators, and if used may hurt an LDPs effectiveness.
All assessment tools, even data evolved from the most analytical process, invite debate, a counter argument or a counter to the counter argument. Throughout my leadership studies, practicing leadership and striving to mentor and develop leaders, I found three groupings that, when applied within the context of organizational goals, accurately measure LDP effectiveness.
1) Buy-in: Does the leadership development training audience buy into the program’s methodology? Once leader-candidates are ready to be practitioners of their trade, are they motivated and ready to effectively employ the methods taught throughout the LDP? When those methods are employed, do the teams respond in a manner that has a positive impact on the organization (people) and its goals (mission)?
2) Leadership succession: LDPs should inspire, ensure, and directly contribute to building a strong leadership bench from which to pull replacements. Leadership succession is existential to an organization’s long-term success. When a person is chosen to advance, they should arrive at their new post with a level of leadership intelligence (LI) and ready to successfully lead in the higher position of influence and responsibility when the opportunity presents itself.
3) Coaching/teaching effectiveness: Coaching is a methodology focused on developing a co-active relationship where the leader and the process are a catalyst to promote subordinate self-discovery that will lead to a permanent increase in LI. Coaching differs from consulting and training in that the subordinate is actually a slight“majority shareholder” in determining areas for improvement. Leader-subordinate collaboration is key to discovering the path toward leadership change. The best leaders understand (learn) how to tailor coaching, teaching and instructional methods to most effectively build leaders. They grasp how to, discover the root cause of, and exploit failures, and (most importantly) are adept at providing fixes that iteratively improve the team.
LDPs are an essential ingredient for organizational success and are most effective when married to individual experiences and learning directly from well-respected and trusted. A mutually inclusive LDP will optimize an organization’s leadership legacy by identifying and investing in leadership candidates that, in-turn, “choose” the organization by espousing the organization’s ideas and philosophies. (http://www.rhoneccg.com/blog/mutually-inclusive-leadership-development).
Metrics are useful tools and can be indicators of success when applied with the correct context. Misused measurements can be tricky at best. At their worst, they can result in LDP changes that negatively impact an organization’s ability to build effective leadership teams and accomplish the mission. Develop the process, determine the best way to assess the process (buy-in, leadership succession, and coaching/teaching effectiveness are a few options) and either trust the process or change it.
“Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence”- GEN Colin Powell, USA (Ret)
Many important and lasting life lessons are the offspring of effort and failure. Ironically, failing is often a requirement for success. For organizational and individual leadership development, failing can bolster confidence and decreases aversion to risk.
Teams and individuals will fail as they drive toward mission accomplishment. Rewarding failure in an effective manner empowers teams and compels them to build a bias toward action. When a team fails, a leader can ensure recovery by developing and mastering an effective debrief process. One that determines the root cause of the misstep, provides an instructional fix and distributes the lesson throughout the organization.
These lessons form the foundation of experiences for teams on their path toward success and development. Coaching a team to recuperate from failed attempts is an existential leadership skillset. When handled correctly, failure is a catalyst to leadership development programs as well as organizational and mission accomplishment and increases trust in the leadership team. Teams who know their leaders will underwrite their decisions, will be oriented to take calculated risks knowing that a one-time failure will likely not have a negative impact on advancement within the company (http://www.rhoneccg.com/blog/leadership-ooda-loop).
On the other hand, team members who lack an understanding of how to embrace, learn and recover from failure will grow into supervisors who perpetuate a risk averse climate. A manager who is slow to delegate decisions and empower subordinates will retard trust in leadership and foster a paralyzing fear of failure that discourages action. This type of manager will not be able to recognize, or diagnose, a root cause or instructional fix; existential skills to overcoming botched efforts and putting team members back on the path to accomplishment.
To be clear, I am not advocating leaders establish an environment where teams are content with failure. On the contrary, leaders should set an exceedingly high success threshold and expect their team to meet it. The leader’s responsibility is to ensure their teams are resourced for success and grasp the vision and task; this includes understanding how to recover from unsuccessful undertakings. When a team member fails, the leader must make sense of the issues and convey the “why” for his organization. Each individual within the organization must understand the lesson, root cause and contributing factors. The team who most effectively learns, shares and internalizes the lessons and repeatedly applies them to future tasks, will build upon each success and misstep. The team with the greatest access to this database of lessons and experiences, and applies them to future leadership decisions and team efforts will be the most successful.
Effective teams are biased toward action. Some actions inevitably fall short of the desired mark, i.e they fail. Effective leaders will capitalize on the lessons learned from failed efforts in a way that strengthens the team, develops leaders and builds experiences that are critical to organizational success.
Leadership development is full of challenges. Resource scarcity, especially in time and money challenges talent identification and management efforts. If you believe that leadership is the single most important factor for organizational success, then leadership quality and density are existential factors. This does not mean, organizations with the most leaders will necessarily be the most successful, that prize goes to the one with the best (trained and developed) leaders; quality has a quantity all its own.
Leadership development programs are necessarily selective, or exclusive. Resource limitations and the requirement for rapid return on leadership development investment mean that not everyone on the team will be “groomed” for further leadership positions. Successful organizations develop a mutually inclusive process to identify leadership candidates. If there is an accepted definition of “mutually exclusive leadership development”, I am unaware. For this writing, it is “an organization’s process of identifying and investing in leadership contenders. These contenders also “choose the company” by espousing the organization’s ideas and philosophies.
The mutually inclusive process allows team leaders to ensure leadership succession by developing enough of the right people to build a “bench stock” of individuals ready for increased leadership responsibility. The organization’s senior leadership searches for members who not only show an aptitude for leadership but have established credibility and demonstrated passion for the organization’s vision and mission. The leadership candidates understand the organization’s “why”, and effectively develop “how” to effectively accomplish tasks. In addition to being able to build leadership trust within the organization (http://www.rhoneccg.com/blog/building-leadership-trust), the leader-in-training should buy into the team’s culture, but also be willing to provide inputs or take a lead on adapting the culture to generational changes. The organization should have a list of non-negotiable tangible and intangible prerequisites against which each leadership candidate should be measured along their deliberate development path.
To be clear, I am not advocating leaders ignore team members who are not deemed to be “leadership material”. On the contrary, developing leaders should be coached how to ensure the perennial journeymen are enabling the team to move forward and are connected to mission. Everyone impacts and contributes to an organization’s culture, in either a positive or negative way. Everyone “tops out” at some point; some as mid-level managers and others will make it to the “big office” as an executive. Leaders must understand how to discover, manage and optimize each person’s skill set Leadership development must include building leaders who understand how to develop their teams and the individuals who make up their crew.
The Mutually inclusive leadership development concept allows organizations to choose leaders who also choose the company. The leadership candidates who demonstrate leadership trust, potential, credibility, culture understanding, and who also choose the organization are ripe for inclusion into an organization’s road to increased leadership responsibility.
How do you, or your unit ensure your leadership development program is mutually inclusive?
At the risk stating the obvious and losing you right away...trust must be earned. This especially true for leaders who serve in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments in which many organizations operate and have to survive. Although trust can be demolished by a multitude of factors, in my experience there are four irrefutable characteristics a leader must have to build faith with her team. People want a leader who is credible, authentic, logical and empathetic.
Credibility does not necessarily mean a leader needs to be the best consultant, tactician, instructor, or operator. Yes “street cred” is a bonus, but leadership credibility comes from committing to meeting the same standards the leader demands from the team, (“walk the talk”), ensuring the organization is resourced (organized, trained and equipped) and empowered to accomplish their tasks. Resources include a vision, training, tools, and systems the team needs to complete the task. Properly resourced teams who are empowered to determine HOW to meet their leaders’ vision are ready to be turned loose. A solid vision should establish the task’s intent, desired end state, and path boundaries, but stop short of dictating how a team should drive along the path.
An authentic leader is comfortable presenting themselves in true form; being real. Genuine leaders approach their teams without a façade, allow their teams to know them, and are predictable. A disingenuous leader WILL negatively impact team performance. Instead of “moving out” toward accomplishing the mission, the team will spend energy wondering if they truly understand their leader, her intent, and her level of support and commitment to the team.
A logical leader must be able to differentiate between passion and emotion, and be passionate without being emotional or making emotive decisions. The passion-emotion boundary is very thin. Passionate leaders focus their energy on making compelling and persistent arguments to defend, or advocate for their team. Teams love passionate leadership and leaders, but abhor emotional decisions or outbursts from superiors. This is especially applicable when dealing with troubled subordinates. An emotional flare up is less likely to provide effective rehabilitative, behavior-correcting motivation than cogently explaining how and why a team member’s behavior is impeding organizational growth. A leader’s passion for adherence to standards, mission accomplishment and the well-being of her team is critical foundation for building high performance teams.
A passionate leader’s connection to his team is cemented with empathy, the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Empathy increases a leader’s situational understanding of the environment in which their team exists and operates. This compassion allows him to consider the impact his decisions have on individual team members and the organization. Subordinates understand many judgements are difficult and rarely satisfy everyone’s desires all the time. Regardless of the result, teams want to know that their position, and the effect a decision will have on them, was considered.
Effective leadership is the single most important factor to organizational success. Trust is existential to effective leadership, you cannot have one without the other. Trust is rarely given; it must be purchased by a leader. The cost varies based on organization and circumstances, but credibility, authenticity, logic, and empathy are universally accepted currency.
Revered, strategist, aviator and maverick John Boyd developed the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) Loop (which is actually a family of continuous and interacting loops) to defeat an adversary in combat. In many professional settings it is taught as a decision tool. As with many other combat tools, the OODA loop is directly applicable to leaders and leadership development.
Leaders must have a process in place to OBSERVE the “raw data” upon which to base decisions and actions. When a leader is physically able, she must be on the “floor” with her team sensing the variables that make up the whole of a given environment. Gaining and maintaining situational understanding of what is happening one echelon below her level is paramount, having awareness of what is happening two levels down, without interfering with your subordinate leaders’ ability to influence, is optimal. Being aware without being intrusive in order to gain insight is necessary for effective orientation.
Leaders ORIENT by focusing on, and analyzing what they OBSERVE. The analysis is the sum of a number of inputs, not the least of which is a leader’s perception of his observations after sifting them through learned and innate “filters” that will shape the rest of the OODA elements. As leaders become more experienced, they also factor inputs from other stakeholders’ reactions (e.g. company executives, board members, peers and other colleagues). PERSONAL EXAMPLE: I routinely had to combat two “filters” that fogged my objectivity, countered my intuition or “gut” and, left unchecked, would impact the rest of the loop. I learned these were my “denial and emotional filters”. To use an overly simplistic example: I appointed a “good person” to lead a division of my unit. The division was not meeting standards. The denial and emotional filters prevented me from seeing that appointment as a terrible choice (I made). The initial fog was thick enough to prevent me from even recognizing the failure was occurring. Once I realized something was wrong, instead of orienting myself so I could make a corrective decision, my emotional reaction was, “Please don’t let this be happening. There is no way the situation is as bad as it seems.” I submit these challenges are more widespread than leaders like to admit or recognize. The remedy is focused and dedicated leadership development.
The true cost of ineffective orientation is delayed decision-making. An effective leader will DECIDE on a course of action as quickly as possible with the minimal amount of information and analysis required to make an informed choice. It is nearly impossible to know when that threshold is met. However, the springboard to making the DECISION is made formed from the sum of instinct, deliberate development, experience and risk assessment, acceptance and ownership. There are two types of leaders, effective and ineffective. ONE trait of an effective leader is the ability to accept risk and make a decision. Decisions provide the required momentum for change. WHEN (not IF) a leader makes a bad decision, the fact that his team already has momentum eases the energy required for corrective course corrections. An idling vehicle in park will not move regardless of how many times the driver turns the steering wheel. If that same vehicle is in motion, even going the wrong direction, it is relatively easy to turn the wheel, change course, and move toward the modified (and corrected) objective.
Once a DECISION is made, the team must ACT and move out. An shared mental model is existential to moving out with unified effort. If the leader fails to provide a clear vision or fails to effectively communicate the team’s final destination, the ensuing confusion will paralyze efforts. Continuing the vehicle example: Once movement begins the most effective (and usually efficient) way to arrive at the destination is for the "driver" and “passengers” to continuously OBSERVE and evaluate the path on which they are driving and make minor course corrections enroute. If the vehicle drives too far before anyone in the vehicle recognizes the error, it will likely take longer to reach the desired destination (assuming the vehicle does not run out of fuel first).
It is critical for each team member to know they are empowered with a voice to recommend course corrections; their OBSERVATIONS should be used to ORIENT the leader and rest of the team for follow-on DECISIONS and ACTIONS.
In the end, mission accomplishment is the goal. The leaders’ OODA Loop is one of many tools available to leaders and leadership teams, and can become automatic and intuitive with practice and a coherent deliberate leadership succession program. Leaders need to be developed to react to situations effectively and efficiently (these two are SOMETIMES mutually exclusive), minimizing time between observing a situation which requires action and responding with action.
Great 6 min Ted Talk. Are we effectively coaching our teams to be gritty? Specifically, are we coaching them to be "willing to fail, to be wrong, and be ready to start over again with lessons learned".
If we effectively coach our team how to recover from failure we build leaders who are not afraid to take risks or (more importantly) allow their subordinates and teams to take risks. We coach them that they can fail without being a failure.
Leadership is a gift, it is bestowed upon someone by the people he is privileged to serve. It is given with the understanding and trust that the leader will always put the good of the team before his own personal gain. The team puts their trust and faith in the leader and he, in turn, sets a path that connects the team to their purpose; a path that will result in individual and team pride.
One of the most difficult challenges of leading a team is handling the myriad of individual agendas, priorities and goals that can detract from a leader’s efforts to unify effort and promote team effectiveness. Some examples are financial stake holders, the company CEO or President, each team member’s influences (family, financial gain, promotion, desire to be professionally challenged). The leader has to navigate this environment, and what determine the critical aspects for her team in order to effectively form a common purpose.
While the leader forms the vision and ensures everyone understands their purpose, achieving the established common goal cannot be done without a trusting team. Trust is existential to team effectiveness and can be bolstered by a leader who understands how to coach, or who performs as a leader-coach; effective coaching increases team “buy-in” and ownership. A leader-coach will know how to co-actively partnerwith team members develop the way forward, as determined by the team and not unilaterally by the leader. Coaching skills are often not innate but are coachable (pun intended) and will exponentially increase the connection the team feels to their common purpose.
An skilled leader-coach can establish the environment for the team to own their “how”. He will know how to drive the team to develop actionable objectives that best fit their individual and team strengths. When a leader partners with a team in a way that gives the team ownership of their “how”, the trust snowball increases exponentially. The team will also appreciate the leader’s understanding and sensitivity to their individual influences and critical factors which will likely increase individual buy-in and group motivation.
The leader who is able to inspire group and individual motivation and establishes an environment of team ownership will also witness unit and individual pride that results from the sum of these components. Unit pride is contagious and “hereditary”; new accessions to the team will sense and catch the “pride fever” and motivation to achieve and excel. The linchpin is a leader who understands that effective coaching is the most effective way to unlock the team’s full potential.
Coaching creates immeasurable efficiencies in time and resources while increasing effectiveness and connecting teams to their purpose. This connection begets unmatched pride because the team members played a primary role in developing the their “how”. Coaching, like any critical skill, takes practice but is concepts are teachable. Most importantly, the techniques effective coaches use will make leaders, teams, and individuals stronger more effective.
Feedback is common to anyone in a leadership position, but effective feedback is seemingly rare. I submit it is often because many supervisors were never given the tools and resources to provide effectively provide feedback. Feedback (as with many leadership responsibilities) is hard; and made exponentially more difficult without understanding how to do it or the pitfalls associated with poor feedback delivery. The key to effective, behavior changing, feedback that the recipient will welcome is to deliver it with humility and dignity. Providing hard-hitting, behavior-focused and frank feedback is a critical start to effectively change behavior, and is an important leadership duty.
Another important realization (that took me too long to recognize) is that feedback is about the individual receiving the feedback, not the leader giving the feedback. To that end, I try to be compassionately candid. Direct, behavior-focused, and genuine feedback is not only difficult, but it takes a certain amount of courage. Organizations and individuals expect, and count on leaders to directly challenge direct reports to improve performance. Leaders who avoid the critical conversations with their subordinates are shirking their responsibilities to the direct report and to the organization relying on them to lead. The direct reports never hear, or realize, that action is needed to amend their current course and improve contributions to the team. In the end, a leader who neglects her this duty to provide feedback is enabling weak performance and even termination which costs the organization in many different ways.
Over there years, I have learned from many failed and ineffective feedback techniques. I eventually shifted my mindset about feedback and realized that feedback is not about me, or the message I am trying deliver. It is about the subordinate and the message they receive. I offer the following as one way to tackle the difficult yet existential task:
Set the environment: The road to an optimal feedback environment begins long before the feedback session. As a new supervisor, begin forming the relationship culture by periodically soliciting feedback from your team. E.g. “What can I do better?”, “How did I impede your ability to accomplish XXXX, today?”, “What do you need from me?” This will develop a level of psychological safety in your leader-subordinate relationship. THIS IS IMPORTANT: Expect the subordinate’s initial offering to be benign and “safe”. Do NOT let them off the hook. After their initial answer I respond with, “OK, what else?” Make them think about it. Do NOT interrupt or provide an escape from the certain uncomfortable silence that will follow your deeper probing question. The subordinate is likely calculating of the risk-reward of giving you a candid response. While five to six seconds will seem like an eternity, embrace it. This additional probing shows your team that you are not offering the equivalent of “how are you today?” and that you are truly invested in them and their opinion. Subordinates want to provide feedback to leaders, but often do not want to face the potential consequences of offending “the boss”.
This silence is also an investment in their development and ability (and willingness) to receive feedback from you. Make it uncomfortable to NOT answer the question; do not rescue them by filling the silence or moving on. Your reward will be a well-thought, trust-building, and actionable response to your question. Another caution: When you get the answer, do not get defensive. Listen to understand, not to refute. If you brush off their perspective, you will have lost that individual in more ways than one.
Build on the foundation: Once you establish a culture of compassionate candor, build upon it. The trust snowball will have exponential growth as you provide frank, well thought out receiver-centered feedback. When you have to deliver the news to a direct report that he isn’t meeting the standard and must improve, respect them enough to give the “straight skinny”. Do not insult him by delivering a “Feedback Sandwich”; E.g. “Nice hair, bad act, great shoes.” Instead let them know that you HAVE to honest because what you are about to reveal helps the individual and the entire team; all of you are required to constantly improve in order to operate at the highest level possible.
Timely, face-to-face engagement: The “flash-to-bang” from the realization of substandard performance to feedback should be near immediate. Do not wait until a scheduled “mid-term” feedback opportunity. That paradigm wastes weeks or months when immediate and compassionately candid feedback could modify the subordinates’ behavior and start raise the bar immediately. Lastly, the world is becoming increasingly networked and organizations are becoming more geographically separated. A team leader may be separated from her subordinates by hundreds of miles or multiple time zones. Despite that challenge, It is important to provide feedback face-to-face. 90% of communication is non-verbal (that must be true, because I saw it on the internet); leaders and teammates gain an insight to how well the recipient receives the message through non-verbal communication. While in-person feedback is not always convenient or possible, most people have access to a video teleconference capability. If telephonic or written feedback is necessary, rehearse your delivery to ensure the receiver will hear the feedback as you intend them to; you may only have one chance to convey an effective and accurate message.
Feedback is a critical part of learning, improvement and leadership. In order to improve performance, it must be candid, well-thought out, and delivered in a way that motivates a subordinate to change and maintain his dignity. Done correctly, everyone involved will become a better leader, subordinate and teammate.