Becoming an Effective Leader at a New Organization (Part 2)

This installment follows Part 1, which you should read first if you haven’t already.

We’ve already established that it is not easy to step into a position of leadership at a new organization.  In Part One, I discussed some of the dynamics a leader might encounter as they enter a role with a new organization, and suggested that leaders “ask us before you tell us.”  In this post, I will look at the second of three critical steps to success: “Care about us before you expect us to care about you.”

Before we get too far into this one, I’d like to take a quick second to talk about the word “care” because while some of you are perfectly comfortable with the word, others are already reaching for the back button on your browser.  I know that individuals have different styles and preferences when it comes to interpersonal relationships, and that organizations have widely varying cultures, norms and expectations with regard to relationships.  I have worked with very effective leaders who have said out loud about their teams, “we don’t all have to be friends, we just have to be good at getting the job done.”  And as much as that flies in the face of my personal approach to teams, I’ll admit that it’s true.  So know that when I talk about leaders “caring about” team members, I don’t have a particular definition of the nature of interpersonal relationships in mind.  Rather, “caring about” represents a pretty big tent, under which I believe we can all find a place, and if you want a better understanding of what that means, just read on.

2.  Care about us before you expect us to care about you

Leadership, boiled down to its bare essence, represents one person (a leader) asking some other people (followers) to put their time and effort into something the leader cares about.  For the moment, we’ll call that thing the goal – and at the beginning of Part One, we narrowed the goal down to effecting change in an organization.  So as a new leader in your organization, you want to effect change, and you ask followers to invest in accomplishing that goal with you.  Power-wielders and managers, as we discussed earlier, impose changes on the organization, and typically engage followers in that activity by simply giving something of value or using threats to obtain their investment, and the followers typically do what’s asked of them.  That’s classic transactional leadership.

A leader though, as we established in Part One, wants to effect change with the support, involvement, even enthusiasm of the followers.  That is, a leader cares about the change she wants to bring about, and wants her followers to care about it as well, motivating them to give their best possible investment in accomplishing the goal.  So as a leader that is new to an organization, and new to the followers, the questions is, how does a leader get followers to care about what is important to her?  And while there are lots of answers to this question, and many ways to build personal investment, engagement and pride-of-place in a team, for a leader that’s new to a team, one of the first steps will always be for the leader to show the followers that she cares about them first.

As important as it is, the expression of care can be tricky, due in large part to the fact that people are generally very good at detecting authenticity and in new-leader situations, followers are often hyper-focused on detecting its lack.  People tend to approach relationships with strangers from the perspective that trust is not given freely; rather it must be earned.  Followers, who select (or more often are assigned) a stranger to lead them, embark on their relationship with that stranger/leader looking for evidence that they are worthy of trust.  Most often, evidence of a lack of trustworthiness is easy to identify quickly, whereas evidence in favor tends to be of a type that develops over longer periods of time.  So in the critical start-up period when a leader starts at a new organization and strives to build a relationship of trust with his followers in order to convince them to care about his goals, he needs to convince this naturally suspicious audience that he cares as much about them as he wants them to care about his goals.  And the only way to do that, with all due respect for my “we don’t all have to be friends” colleague, is to actually care about them.  Individually.  Personally.  Really.

How To Care

So what does that mean on a practical level?  If followers want to know their leaders actually care about them before they will care about what is important to their leaders, then those that want to be effective leaders need to care about people effectively.  Again, there are lots of ways to show care for people, but I want to give three very practical approaches to caring for leaders in a professional setting.  And I’ll warn you that while I believe these three tenets are absolutely fundamental and necessary practices of effective leadership, you may find that they come across as a little counter-cultural in the fast-paced, task-oriented, get-the-job-done, look-out-for-number-one environments that many of us work in.

Take the time to know and be known

This first approach is heavily influenced by Parker Palmer’s seminal work, To Know As We Are Known.  The book itself is about revisiting our understanding of the educational process, but at its heart is the concept that one of the most fundamental human needs is the need to be known.  And not just at the factual level; a mid-career software engineer with strong technical skills, weak soft skills and experience with object-based programming.  Rather, known at a deeper level that understands the contexts that contributed to shaping our strengths and weaknesses, our beliefs, perspectives, fears and joys.  And Palmer further helps us understand that one cannot truly know another without allowing themselves to be known as well.  I cannot authentically know you, and understand who you are below the surface of your resume, unless I allow you to know me at that level as well. Knowing is a mutual and consensual act.

I know I’m about to lose a block of readers (if I haven’t already) that are thinking, “Oh really?  To be a good leader, I have to be sappy, touchy-feely, and emotional with my subordinates?  That’s never gonna happen.”  But actually, that’s not what I’m saying at all.  In fact, if you aren’t a particularly emotional person, pretending to be that with your team would be inauthentic, and we’ve already talked about how easily followers pick out the fakers among their leaders.  What I’m saying is that to be a good leader, you have to be willing to know your followers, and to let them know you.  To be fair, you can be powerful, or even a good manager without doing this.  Pay or threaten people and they will carry out tasks at your direction, and if that’s all you want, then you’re good.  But if you want to lead, if you want the support, involvement and enthusiasm of the followers, you’ll need to know and be known.

Now, to get really practical, here are three suggestions for ways to know and be known by your team.  First, spend time talking to them.  Getting to know followers requires an investment of face time.  Much as the old management-by-walking-around approach acknowledged, time spent talking directly with followers helps build understanding and trust and creates opportunities for you and your followers to share information, whether work-related or personal or simply incidental, that helps each understand the other’s story a little more with each conversation. These conversations take time, and may appear unproductive from a task-completion perspective, but they are a critical.

Second, ask and answer questions.  When you talk with your followers, ask them things.  This is a great overlap with the principle I addressed in Part One.  When your conversations consist only of you telling people what to do, you make no progress toward understanding what that person is doing, nor toward knowing that person individually.  So ask authentic questions that will help you understand something about the person, their work, their life, whatever.  Over time, the answers to these questions will cumulatively build a more and more complete picture of who this person is.  And the corollary of course is to answer questions in return, even when those questions go unasked.  It should go without saying that if you are asking questions of others in order to get to know them better, then when they ask you questions, you should answer openly and authentically so they can get to know you better as well.  Whether that helps them understand your priorities better, your expectations of them, your work style, or more personal aspects of your life, you should share just as openly with them as you want them to share with you.  And since it can be harder for a subordinate to initiate these kinds of questions with a leader, sometimes you just need to anticipate the kinds of things your followers might want to know about you, and just go ahead and share.

And third, when you interact with followers, you should actually listen to what they say.  As snarky as that may sound, the truth is that I know far too many leaders in organizations that I’ve been part of that do not appear to know anything about the people on their teams, even though those people regularly share things about themselves and their lives.  From strengths and weaknesses, to hobbies and avocational pursuits to the names of their kids, leaders often let information that doesn’t seem relevant to the work at hand pass unimpeded through their awareness.  I have known leaders who literally can’t remember how to pronounce the names of people on their teams.  And I know that is an extreme example, but I included it to make one last point about authenticity.  If you truly want your followers to care about what is important to you, then you must show that you are willing to care about them, and at the most fundamental level, that means taking time to talk to them, ask about them and truly listen to what they tell you.

Put others first

This second approach is, I believe, the one most likely to get me in trouble.  Not trouble with the law or anything like that, but I can forsee having trouble convincing some of you that this one is really going to work out in your favor, but I’m going all in on this because I believe it’s true, and that it works.  So here it is: leaders should prioritize the needs, opportunities and advantages of their followers before their own.  Of course, this is easy when prioritizing your followers needs increases their effectiveness and productivity in such a way that it makes the leader look good, and thereby accrues to the leader’s benefit.  However, if a leader’s engagement with this approach stops there, it ends up really being nothing more than using the followers for the leader’s own benefit.  And as we’ve already established, followers are great at detecting the lack of authenticity in that kind of leadership, and don’t respond well to it.

Authentically prioritizing the followers’ needs means that the leader truly considers their needs as more important than his own.  Their opportunities for advancement are more important than his.  The risks they take deserve more attention and mitigation than the risks he takes.  The adage “give credit and take blame” fits perfectly into this approach.  In the short-term, this can be a very risky approach for a leader to take, because fully embracing this approach can result in a leader taking on himself the full brunt of blame for a failed project, missed assignment, or poor product, while at the same time, credit for successes and achievements are all passed on to the team that made them possible.  It is a very humble, even self-deprecating approach to leadership.  And for a leader that comes fresh into a new organization, this can mean accepting responsibility up front for past performance in which the leader may have literally had no involvement.

So why do it?  Because you don’t have to, but you can.  The authority of your position as leader gives you the power to assign credit and blame for the activities and accomplishments of the followers under your span of care.  Using that authority to take credit and assign blame destroys the trust and care relationship with followers that is so important.  On the other hand, using that positional authority to protect and build up your team makes them stronger, builds loyalty, increases trust, and generally engenders greater levels of effort, productivity and engagement from your followers.

As a personal note, I can say that in the 30 plus years that make up the entirety of my working life, starting as a part-time ice cream scooper at Baskin Robbins when I was fifteen, to my most recent position as an Executive Director at Azusa Pacific University, I have never asked for a raise.  I have, however, asked on many occasions for pay increases and promotions for people that work for me.  I have gone out of my way to highlight their skills, promote their accomplishments and publicly praise their contributions.  When there are failures, we work within our team to resolve and rectify them, but to the organization I make every effort to deflect blame and finger-pointing from my team members and assume responsibility for those failures myself.  And while logic may dictate that this pattern would be personally counter-productive, the reality is that I have had the pleasure of working with teams of committed, enthusiastic, loyal people whose support I have had the privilege to enjoy.  And on a practical level, I have received a number of pay raises, promotions and plenty of accolades as a result of work that I could never have done by myself.  Putting followers first has meant taking some shots here and there, but over the long term, it has always been the right choice.

Invest in your followers’ development

The third approach to caring for your team is more practical.  Do whatever you can to invest in the professional development of your followers.  How each leader approaches this will depend on a number of local factors such as available budget, organizational policies regarding training and development activities, etc.  However, within whatever constraints apply, leaders will find few investments that provide a better return than an investment into their people’s ability to do their jobs well.

This investment can take any number of forms.  From educational reimbursements, to specific skill based training courses, to online training from organizations like Coursera, Udacity, Pluralsight and others, targeted skill training is a great way to invest in your people.  Of course there is a level of risk involved when you help your employees get better at what they do.  If you invest well in them, and as a result they become more skilled, productive and valuable, you may find yourself fighting to retain them as other, more lucrative opportunities become available to them. Given today’s workforce, though, this is a risk that any organization should be willing to take, because the truth is that most employees these days will not stay at any organization long-term for any reason.

The average worker today stays at each of his or her jobs for 4.4 years, according to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the expected tenure of the workforce’s youngest employees is about half that.    Jeanne Meister on Forbes.com

Investing in continuing education and training may actually be a strategy for increasing longevity, even though you may be essentially preparing your own employees for their next job, but the greater value here is in helping your followers actually become better at doing the things that contribute to the success of your team and your organization.

I should also mention that investing in the development of your followers is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to many of the things we’ve already discussed, like expressing trust, building loyalty and putting followers’ needs before your own.  In all these ways, it’s not just a matter of putting on a show.  Caring is about being real.  You have to actually care, and then you have to do things that demonstrate that care.  Having your administrative assistant stamp your signature on a birthday card for each of your team members and then sending them out through the year is a great example of not caring.  On the other hand, knowing your team members’ birthdays, and finding each of them on their birthday and telling them “Happy birthday!” is an investment of time and energy on the part of a leader that will pay immeasurable dividends.

Image credit: “Atlanta,Georgia,downtown skyline,dusk” by apple.white2010 on Flickr

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