Developing people is my purpose; developing leaders is my passion. Emerging leaders, first-time leaders, seasoned leaders, business leaders, education leaders, and even retiring leaders hold a sweet spot in my psyche. And I’ve been working with them since the early 1990’s. These are people that step into roles and responsibilities with varying experience, education, and preparedness. Their reactions to the shifts required to succeed range from eagerness to resistance, curiosity to shock, comfort to discomfort, feeling competent to feeling incompetent, and the list goes on.
There is no lack of information about leadership characteristics, theories about leadership development, assessing and honing leadership skills, and case studies of effective leaders. I have been a life-long student and consumer of these leadership materials and remain curious about emerging ideas about leadership. I have personally been in leadership roles putting into practice what I have learned. Still, nothing takes the place of what I have learned from the thousands of leaders with whom I have had the privilege to interact.
Each leader is a person. And each person has a story. And each story is unique to that individual. How fortunate I have been to hear these stories, mostly one leader at a time, in the context of each person’s professional development. To me, it is so rewarding to experience the awareness, clarity, and growth of each leader, knowing their influence radiates to the development of others as well.
Taking stock of what I’ve learned, there are 10 pivotal insights leaders I work with find consistently helpful. To a person, leaders report they know about these insights; they don’t know how to accomplish them. And that is exactly the work I do with leaders. I deepen their awareness about themselves and others, provide a language that promotes clarity which in turn brings focus to specific actions they can take to make positive shifts in their professional development as leaders. I do this using the Highlands Ability Battery (HAB).
The HAB provides each leader with their starting place on range of cognitive abilities. Each ability has an influence on how the brain reasons; combinations of abilities make this influence complex. Without an understanding of these “auto pilot” influences, leaders can think they are operating one way when in fact they are not. Or, they know they are operating in a way they’d like to change and are at a loss of how to go about it. Knowing your objectively measured aptitudes removes the “trickster” thinking all humans are prone to which often creates blind spots. Once the influence these cognitive aptitudes is understood, specific, intentional changes in thinking and behavior can be learned. This learning is amplified by a deeper understanding of how these cognitive abilities show up in others whom they lead and interact.
10 Leadership Insights resulting from my decades of working with leaders using the HAB
1. THERE ARE MORE EYES AND EARS ON YOU
There are more eyes and ears on you, so you must deepen your awareness of yourself and how what you say and do may be interpreted by others. People have expectations about the role/position (not you as the person) and will make attributions to what you say and do based on how closely you meet those expectations. Rather than try to change who you are, it helps people understand your leadership style if you articulate the “why” of what you are saying/doing. Remember, their misattributions about you are partially based upon their insecurities. Better to intentionally put words/explanations to your words and actions to help them understand. Part of what you are managing are perceptions.
Here’s a concrete example: A person with a constant flow of ideas may positively contribute to brainstorming sessions and even persuading others to get on board with something new. A leader that shares lots of ideas can be perceived as changing priorities.
2. MANAGE HOW YOU SPEND YOUR TIME/EFFORT/ENERGY
Working with self-awareness about how you learn new information, solve problems, prefer to communicate, and accomplish your work enables you to make intentional choices about how you spend your time/effort/energy. This in turn decreases some of the stressors inherent in leadership roles. Managing stress means better decision making.
Here’s a concrete example: A person who works most effectively with autonomy and independence and is drawn toward specialized knowledge and expertise may be viewed as an excellent individual contributor. A leader that displays this workstyle may be perceived as too detail oriented (getting in the weeds) and resistant to working collaboratively.
3. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR GETTING ALL THE WORK DONE WITHOUT DOING IT ALL YOURSELF
As a leader, you are responsible for getting the work done; not for doing all the work yourself. When you find yourself feeling like it would be quicker to do things yourself, remember one of your leadership responsibilities is developing others. Think of it as an investment model; what you put into others now, will pay off down the road via learning and experience. If you jump in and do the work yourself, you convey that you do not have confidence in your employee; you give the message that they can’t do it. In fact, you’re actually adding to your workload, preventing others from learning, and decreasing your true assessment of employees’ potential.
Here’s a concrete example: A person who uses their experience to solve work problems (i.e., a Pragmatic problem solver) may be viewed as excellent in a particular set of circumstances — the current circumstances. A leader that uses experience to solve work problems may be viewed at least temporarily as providing a fresh perspective. In a very short time, this same leader can be viewed as unable to see the differences between their previous work dynamics and the current, new circumstances in which they are currently operating.
4. PEOPLE WANT TO KNOW HOW TO WORK WITH YOU
Unlike working with your colleagues, the people you manage/supervise want to know how to work with you. They are interested, not because they want to become your friend or to “like” you, they really just want to know how to effectively and efficiently give you what you want. Why not tell them? Explicitly. With deep self-awareness you can!
Here’s a concrete example: Talking through an issue, problem, or new process is extremely efficient for an extrovert. And as a leader, employees want to show support, get things done, and do what they are “told” to do. Problem is, the first thing you say may simply be the beginning of your thought process and may likely not be your final answer. Let people know when you are thinking out loud so employees don’t take action on the first thing you say. That way you don’t have to spend additional time correcting “false starts.”
5. YOU MUST REACH BEYOND THOSE WITH WHOM YOU SHARE COMMUNICATION PREFERENCES
Effective leaders broaden their reach. They do this by having absolute clarity about their communication preferences and about what is more difficult for them to do. Based on their natural approach, they LEARN to put effort into situationally adjusting communication styles, ensuring engagement of a range of timeframe orientations, creating a variety of input and feedback modalities, etc. Leaning on the talents of others, leaders realize they do not have to do all of the communicating in all modalities themselves; they just have to ensure that those resources are available.
Here’s a concrete example: Your penchant for scouring written material from websites, correspondence, and documents allows you as a leader to quickly prepare and get up to speed before meetings, presentations, and general decision-making. Obviously, sharing all the written information that was so helpful to you will benefit others, right? Hold on a minute! To quickly reach the greatest number of people in a short amount of time, its best to share information multi-modally. Create an email or short written document with bullets, numbered paragraphs, or a graphic. Use attachments for longer written explanations and documentations and assign a go-to person to field questions and talk people through the rationale. A graphic with numbers, with a caption below it, that you read to a group covers at least four communication modalities!
6. USE YOUR EXPERIENCE AND ACCEPT YOUR LIMITATIONS
Your experience provides the foundational knowledge for leadership responsibilities. However, leadership is not doing more of what you are currently doing on a broader scale. There are new expectations and demands such as developing others, building capacity, influencing, dealing with unique personnel issues, and managing finances on a larger scale among other things. Managing some of these responsibilities can cause stress. Be crystal clear on how you best contribute; and be prepared to accept/admit that you do not know everything. Because you shouldn’t. You are on a learning curve and if you stay curious, you will continue to learn. The best way to reduce your stress is to manage your own time/effort/energy and stay aware of what you don’t know.
Here’s a concrete example: You are a whiz with data, experienced with identifying trends, and a long-range thinker. Fabulous qualities, quite useful in making predictions, and helpful when strategizing. What’s missing? Potentially 1) developing communications that are understandable and make sense to those who create plans to address what to do with the data, 2) influencing and persuasion skills necessary for others to buy-into your take on things, and 3) identifying short-term/immediate needs and transitions before a pivot. Who on your team is gifted in these areas and how can you open the door for them to help?
7. GET UP ON THE BALCONY
The view from the balcony is very different from being in the weeds or in the trenches. The first time you are privy to that elevated perspective can be enlightening and sometimes shocking. It is always informative. While there may be comfort in the familiar, accompanied by the feeling of “success” of getting something done, it is not the job of a leader to do their own job AND someone else’s. Transitions are one thing. Letting go and taking an investment model approach is another. Leaders who hold others accountable for their learning, development, and successful performance are building capacity that have bigger dividend payoffs in the long run.
Here’s a concrete example: You’ve always been able to communicate and explain information, processes, and the path you used to reach an outcome. As a team member, you used this talent to help your colleagues and your manager by creating and delivering presentations, writing thoughtful emails in response to questions about how decisions were made, and explaining your rationale. As a leader, you expect and assume that your direct reports can and will do the same. Whoops, that’s not what you’re seeing from your team. What came naturally to you as a gift is often a skill that others need to develop. As a leader, you have at least one new responsibility which is developing others. That means not re-writing an email or re-creating a presentation that a staff member delivers. It is holding them accountable for developing that skill by coaching them, asking them how you can support their development of that skill, providing them with feedback, and giving them practice by re-doing it themselves. The outcome is building the capacity of your individual team members and strengthening your team as a whole.
8. FIND YOUR COMPLEMENTS
It is usually interpersonally more challenging to interact with people that are our “opposites.” While we may seek this out in our personal lives, the game seems to change when your work performance, goal accomplishments, customer satisfaction, and even rewards (pay, recognition, etc.) are interdependent with others. Work can be stressful to begin with; adding interpersonal differences can add a whole other layer of what can feel like barriers to you getting your work done and fulfilling your leadership responsibilities.
Here’s a thought–seek out your complements at work! Who are your “complements”? They are those who have innate interpersonal, problem solving, and communication styles opposite of you. That’s right. The trick is to be on the same page in terms of vision/mission, goals, and even work values. Working with your complements reduces the risk of overlooking important input and fleshes out a more three-dimensional perspective.
Here’s a concrete example: Robin has risen into leadership based on performance results as an individual contributor who now wants to get experience managing others. Robin’s interpersonal strengths include comfort with being in the limelight, knowing the intricate details of the work and how to get it done, and using acquired expertise to answer any question on the spot. What qualities complement Robin’s style? Chances are that Robin is an extroverted specialist; that means keeping an eye our for someone who is comfortable supporting the group (likely a generalist) from behind the scenes (likely an introvert). Someone that exhibits these characteristics can balance or fill-in the gaps naturally created by Robin’s style.
9. THERE IS MORE THAN ONE WAY TO DO A JOB
Leaders frequently take the place of previous leaders. There is a culture, sets of norms, problem-solving and communication patterns, and a slew of expectations of “how things get done around here.” You are not the previous leader. You are you. The most effective leaders are those that lead with authenticity — even when it is different and even when others may have to get used to your way of getting the job done. Expending energy on trying to replicate how someone else filled the role will work against you in the long run. Sure, there are things to learn from the past and those are great things to know about so you can choose what will work for you and what will not. Just expect the typical human reactions of resistance to change, wait-and-see if this will last attitudes, and over-eagerness to take advantage of the “new guy.” Being yourself means you can be consistently you. And opportunities to use your talents will await you.
Here’s a concrete example: Your predecessor’s approach to problem solving or starting a new project typically kicked off with a large group brain storming session with details about the meeting objectives provided at the start of the meeting. The brainstorming helped your predecessor canvas the input from participants which was then fodder for a more cohesive plan she created with a relatively strong structure. In fact, the next communication from her was a report of preliminary steps she had taken leading up to a launch. Her team was very used to her approach which delivered quick results at the expense of limited input from some of the team and the potential for unintended consequences. The team was also used to anticipating the inevitable fallout and did their best to prepare a safety net. In the end, the team looked “successful” to those outside despite the frequent stress experienced by team members, not the leader. In fact, she moved on to greener pastures!
At first, your style of thoughtful pre-planning, small group discussions, and somewhat systematic consideration of all angles created suspicion and even the impression of a lack of urgency among the team members you inherited. With explanation and consistent use of your approach, however, the team also achieved “success.” Your style encouraged the input of everyone (not just those who could brainstorm on the spot with no notice), required multiple team members to develop the strategy, plan and action steps to execute, and allowed for fewer emergencies and surprises. Your style also led to the development of a different set of skills for yourself (ensuring the work got done rather than doing it all yourself) and team members.
10. FOCUS ON TALENTS — YOURS AND THEIRS
There is little more refreshing and uplifting than using your talents. You don’t have to be in leadership to use them. But the special gift leaders can give others is seeking out ways and promoting the use of their employees’ talents. This is not superficially giving people what they want. This is using your on-the-balcony perspective, understanding the work, and having conversations to objectively understand how people can contribute. Being clear on your own talents as a leader also effectively helps you to see your blind spots. And seeing your blind spots allows you to let go of feeling like you have to do all the work yourself. You are able to identify your compliments and take advantage of others’ talents to build a mosaic for an outcome unattainable working alone.
Here’s a concrete suggestion: Take the Highlands Ability Battery (HAB). It will supplement (not supplant) what you know about yourself from other self-report tools such as Strengths Finder, MBTI, DISC and others. Refining your understanding of yourself is the first step to take your leadership to the next level. With this deep understanding, you can better spot talent, have productive professional development conversations, and provide a common language that enriches and enhances working relationships. It gives you a tool to reach your leadership potential.
Dori Stiles, PhD
Dr. Stiles applies her education in Industrial/Organizational Psychology as the Director of Training and Research for the Highlands Company and as the founder of Turning Points Coaching and Consulting.
“My 30 years of experience of serving both individual career professionals and organizations includes 20 years with UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the Terry Business School’s Institute for Leadership Development, the Georgia School Superintendents Association, Georgia Tech’s Executive MBA program, and private businesses such as IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Manheim Automotive and Kaiser Permanente.”