There are all sorts of metaphors for leadership. One of my favorites comes to life every fall at our Global Institute of Leadership Development® (GILD), when participants experience an orchestra led by a conductor. By the end of the presentation, the podium—a place for one person to stand and lead—becomes a place for 200 or more participants to stand, listen and learn.
The podium is enlarged. And no tuxedo required!
Standing on the podium is symbolic of the impact that we, as leaders, have on others. It is also symbolic of how effective leadership can help create a collective effort where everyone is aligned, engaged and moving forward in the same direction—like a finely tuned orchestra playing in perfect unison.
In this scenario, the conductor found his purpose a couple of decades ago: applying the metaphor of the “orchestra” with the meaning of leadership, all the while bringing the message of classical music to the masses. By sharing his podium with corporate types who crave insights about leadership, he broadens their understanding and appreciation of his first love: music. He shares his baton. He shares his passion. And, as a result, something insightful, something memorable, something identifiable, something collective happens to a group of people.
The essence of purposeful leadership is finding the “why” within yourself, and then enlarging your podium to include other leaders who have similar “whys”—or who are inspired enough to adapt your same “why.” The purposeful leader uses this collective energy to organize and energize efforts to achieve the “why.” But it starts with self-understanding. It starts with understanding our purpose, our gifts, our own knowledge, and our experience base.
As leaders, we move around to different teams, functions, divisions and businesses, each of which has different scale, scope, contribution and expertise. When we accept leadership of these different groups, the members of the groups instantly form expectations of us as their leader. [Note: they don’t instantly accept us as their leader.]
From there, our actions as the leader create a social dynamic that accelerates and augments the performance and behavior of that group. We walk around, assess, investigate, question, challenge and get clear about what is and what could be. As leaders, we aren’t outside the process, observing from a distance or receiving secondhand reports; we are acting out the process. It is both subjective and objective. But we bring who we are, what we’ve experienced, what we have learned, know, and believe to this process. We also bring our feelings and emotions, our ambitions and our sense of what we want to have happen: our why we want to lead.
Leadership doesn’t start with a need to be in a certain role or have a certain title. It starts with bringing our full self to an opportunity or a problem. It continues with our capability to articulate that opportunity or problem in a way that inspires and engages others (and enlarges the podium). It is accelerated by our ability to think through and target the right innovations that move an opportunity or problem to a different level. It is focused by our skills in organizing people to achieve that opportunity or problem. It is then enhanced by our sense of self: our character and presence, our wisdom and courage, our commitment and focus. Leadership is not a collection of competencies and skills. It is a set of commitments we make to ourselves and others to become the best leader we can be!
What experiences have shaped your personal “why,” and how have they impacted your ability to lead your team?
Executive coach Richard Leider is widely recognized for his work helping leaders discover the power of purpose. His sage advice about finding purpose gives us the opportunity to look inward; to discover new things about ourselves—and to lead differently.
We’re thrilled that he’ll be joining us again as co-chair of our Global Institute for Leadership Development®, October 1-4, 2018 in Palm Desert, CA. He will help our participants tackle big questions like: “Why would someone choose to follow me?” and “Am I on a path to becoming a purposeful leader?” Here, he shares the important and often overlooked distinction between being smart and being wise as a leader.
“When there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do no harm.” —African proverb
The ultimate test of wise leadership is this: Do you serve the common good of others? Do you have a purpose larger than yourself for leading?
Most of us have a keen awareness of wisdom when it is present in our leaders (and in ourselves). And, we have an uneasy feeling of distrust and disengagement when it is absent.
To become a wise leader, one must be “people-wise.” They must have a feel for people—their hopes, fears, passions and purposes. Second, becoming a wise leader means understanding why things are the way they are, like Aristotle claimed. To him, a smart person knows a lot about what and how, but a wise person understands why.
But how do you get to the why? Have you recently heard your inner voice whispering things like:
“I don’t think I can do it.”
“I’m not enough.”
“What if I fail?”
This is the enemy from within speaking to you—the one that creeps in when we need to step outside of our comfort zone. It’s the voice of fear. We all hear it occasionally—it’s part of being human. The answer is not to kill it or suffocate it, but to dive headfirst into it! Identify the voice with choice, curiosity and courage.
Why? Because what you resist will persist. There’s one story in particular that comes to mind when I think about the iconic leaders in history who have found their why.
Nelson Mandela’s decision to take action in what could have been a very tenuous situation reflected the truth about what it means to become a wise leader.
When Mandela became President of South Africa on May 10, 1994, he faced countless challenges outside of his comfort zone. And, he faced his inner voice of fear. Upon his release from prison, he was greeted with banners reading, “Mandela, Go Home to Prison” and “Hang Mandela.”
He effectively channeled his people wisdom to take a stand for what he believed in—to serve the common good of all others. To become the leader that South Africa needed, he chose to embrace the national rugby team, the Springboks.
The team was popular with Afrikaners, but to most blacks, the Springboks represented the apartheid system that they despised. Nevertheless, Mandela chose South Africa to host rugby’s World Cup the following year with the slogan “One Team, One Country.”
As the Springboks began to win in the fierce World Cup competition, the mood in the country shifted. When the players (all but one of them white) showed up in public, they were greeted not just by Afrikaners, but by black people as well. The Springboks made it to the finals. They were to play the New Zealand All Blacks, considered one of the finest rugby teams in history.
Five minutes before the game started, in front of 65,000 chanting and singing fans, Mandela walked into the stadium wearing a Springbok’s jersey, the very symbol of apartheid that so many hated. With millions more watching on TV or listening on the radio, the crowd of mostly Afrikaners went wild with a deafening chant of “Nel‐son,” “Nel‐son!” In that moment, the country was united—“One Team, One Country.” It was the moment that many people realized that this country could work.
Mandel showed that he could forgive and become the wise leader they wanted. The Springboks won the thrilling championship game in overtime. Mandela’s stand embodied what it means to be “people‐wise.” After decades of apartheid and 27 years in prison, it would have been natural for him to focus on the wants of his black constituents at the expense of the broader interests of the country.
But, Mandela had become a leader with a people‐wise view. His actions toward the Springboks served as a powerful symbol of what the new South Africa might be like. They reflected his wise awareness of how others very different from himself would react to changes accelerating around them.
Nelson Mandela’s story has two critical things to teach us about becoming wise leaders. First, “becoming” means clearly understanding the difference between being smart and being wise—they’re not the same. Wisdom demands insight and effectiveness with people. A leader can be very smart without being smart about people.
Second, becoming a wise leader means understanding why things are the way they are. Aristotle claimed that wisdom comes from our understanding of why things are the way they are. To him, a smart person knows a lot about what and how but a wise person understands why.
We like to believe that our leaders are smart people. But, as Nelson Mandela showed us, being smart is not enough in the long run. So, how does one go from being a smart leader to becoming a wise leader? Start by seeing the world differently—from the inside out. A wise leader is constantly becoming more self‐aware. Without self‐awareness, it’s very hard to move out of smartness.
The late Warren Bennis wrote: “The leader never lies to himself, especially about himself, knows his flaws as well as his assets, and deals with them directly.” Even though Bennis mentored CEOs, taught countless soon‐to‐be leaders while teaching at Harvard, MIT, and USC, and advised U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, he never pretended he knew everything. He wrote, “To an extent, leadership is like beauty: It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”
Do you see it in yourself? Do others see it in you?
In a recent New York Times piece, Black Rock CEO and influential investor Larry Fink stated that business leaders need to do more than make profit—they need to contribute to the greater good in society. It seems like media, investors, consultants, businesspeople and society at large have been enamored with doing good—and with the term “purpose”—lately.
Searches for the terms “purpose” and “purposeful” have been on the rise, peaking in 2017. Justin Bieber even has a Purpose Tour! Although, he canceled it partway through—perhaps his planning was not so purposeful?!
My friend and GILD cochair, Richard Leider, has dedicated his life to studying purpose. He says that at its most basic level, purpose is about a few things:
Growing and giving: Improve yourself and then pay it forward.
Identifying a place where your gifts (what you’re good at), values (what matters to you) and passion (what gets you excited) intersect.
Developing a sense of purpose for yourself, you can apply your purpose to others.
While this is a good start, the reality is that purpose means very different things depending on whom you are speaking to. Let me give you some examples.
Purpose is about performance
Indra Nooyi, legendary CEO of PepsiCo, launched a corporate platform called “Performance with Purpose” several years ago that has been pivotal to their operating model. The goal of this initiative is to “deliver sustainable long-term growth while leaving a positive imprint on society and the environment.” The company stock has gone from roughly $70 to $120 during that same time period. Now investors might say, that’s about the same movement as the DJIA or S&P500. Sure, but it’s around twice the growth of Coca-Cola over the same period. Maybe performing with a purpose has something to it?
Wait, what about profit?
Milton Friedman would say free markets don’t and shouldn’t care about social good. Maybe they didn’t before—but they do now. Peter Drucker would say the purpose of business is to create a customer and to create profit and shareholder value. He also wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices: “in modern society there is no other leadership group but managers. If the managers of our major institutions, and especially of business, do not take responsibility for the common good, no one else can or will.”
Profit is good, and much good can be done with it. I would argue, in fact, that profit is a noble purpose—so long as it has a reason. (What are we going to do with this profit? How will it help us? Our clients? The world?) I would also suggest that all the profit in the world is worthless without a purpose. And all the purpose in the world is meaningless if your corporate accounts are empty.
Or…is it philanthropy?
When I read about purpose, or impact, I also see philanthropy getting a lot of attention, and for good reason. Purposeful philanthropy is about finding a worthy cause that is aligned with your personal purpose and organizational aspirations. Just like profit, philanthropy is a noble purpose. Do you think, however, that Larry Fink will stick to his missive to not invest in companies without a social impact plan if those philanthropic companies are not creating an active return on an investment?
That said, philanthropy is not the only valid purpose of an organization. And there are innumerable causes out there making a difference in our world, and I support many of them. At Linkage, we give about 10 percent of our EBITDA to philanthropic causes each year. We’re excited by philanthropies that align with our mission and our passion. And, there’s an important distinction here—I think that many have confused being philanthropic with being purposeful.
So at the end of the day, it all boils down to this: Larry Fink’s focus on having a social mission is good. It’s great. And it’s only a start. The world doesn’t need more people doing just what the markets and popularity contests demand—it needs more people who know what they’re here for—more people going after that relentlessly. Being Purposeful. The performance, profit, social mission—those all come when leaders stay the course on purpose.
When Time magazine named the Silence Breakers—those brave individuals who courageously took a public stand against the men who used their power to “have at” what they wanted—as their 2017 “Person of the Year,” 150 women had yet to take the stand and address Larry Nassar in court.
The fact is that women are standing up to sexual harassment in droves. There is courage and strength—and needed confrontation happening to bring justice to victims. We know that standing up to abuse of power brings self-efficacy and personal empowerment. The time is now to channel this same kind of focus, courage, voice and steadfastness to take on the hurdles unique to women that perpetuate inequality in the leadership ranks.
The reality is that bias—and the other hurdles to leadership advancement that many of you have heard me talk about—may be unknowingly impacting us. The good news about the hurdles—and the realization that I have had over the years developing women leaders—is that these are hurdles we can control. Navigating these hurdles can become our springboard to advancement, and require only our own behavior change.
The proverbial ball is in our court. We can confront felt bias. We can get clear about what we want. We can ask for more help. We can take charge of our brand. We can get masterful at selectivity and stop over-rowing so damn hard and fast. We can build and leverage a powerful network of relationships. We can convey confidence from a deep place of knowing our worthiness.
I’m not suggesting that we do this to the exclusion of men. We can and should work with and learn alongside the aware and supportive men in our lives. And, let’s be clear—the hurdles I share represent unique obstacles for women. Some, perhaps, because they altogether don’t apply to men; and yet, while others may apply, the impact on a man’s career trajectory is mitigated for any number of reasons.
What’s behind the metaphor?
I am not a runner. I am not a hurdler. I actually thought hurdles were jumped by the runner. I was wrong. I understand now that one doesn’t jump over hurdles; one runs over them. This newfound knowledge didn’t come my way because I decided to take up track and field in my 40s. That would have been more painful than admitting that I call myself “honey” when my Inner Critic gets loud and super mean and focuses her energy on one of my many shortcomings. No, I didn’t physically hurdle. I researched hurdling. And watched a few videos so that I understood the metaphor—hoping to support my theory that women leaders can succeed if they “jump” the seven hurdles to advancement.
What I learned: there’s a reason that the hurdles are considered running events, rather than jumping events. The ideal hurdler runs while taking long, gliding strides over each hurdle. The runner spends as little time in the air as possible. They’ll get their feet back on the ground quickly after clearing each hurdle. They then continue running with consistent strides so that they can clear the next obstacle just as smoothly as the last. Oh—and a hurdler-in-training will start with low hurdles and raise the hurdle bar until they reach competition level to learn how to scale an obstacle while running full speed ahead.
It starts with you
But what if you aren’t a runner? What if you don’t see the hurdle? What if no one clued you in on the presence of hurdles to begin with? What if once you realized there were hurdles, you felt alone and confused or even ashamed because you had no idea how to take “long, gliding strides” while you run at full speed? Insert mental image of me—nearly 6 feet tall—jumping (not gliding) over a hurdle more than waist-high and crashing, full belly-flop, on the ground. My goodness. Just the very thought of this makes me wince.
Many of us were never aware of or believed that we had (or would need) a support system to advance into positions of greater leadership. We didn’t ask for these hurdles, and we often can’t control how high or low they are as we learn different ways to clear them (gliding strides seem exhaustively daunting.)
Most women I know who aspire to positions of leadership have drive, intelligence and the will to work their asses off. They believe that performance—the ability to get it done—will usher us into the positions of leadership that we know we’re capable of. In fact, our data shows this: women leaders, in our database of 10K+ multi-rater feedback, are more often than not seen as “willing to take calculated risks to accomplish results.”
Here’s the problem: we as women aren’t advancing nearly at the rate we want to or that our organizations want us to. So we need to assess our situation. We need to fearlessly size up the hurdles to our own advancement, and take decisive action. Why? Because once a hurdle becomes visible and it is named and talked about, once we allow ourselves to share our experience about it and learn how to “clear it,” we begin to see progress for ourselves and can help others navigate hurdles as well. We can be intentional—and on purpose—as we glide.
What has been a hurdle for you in your own leadership journey? What steps can you take to make it visible and help others learn from it?
The beginning of the New Year is a time for reflection, collaboration and renewed focus as we dive into 2018. What accomplishments are you most proud of from last year? What are you most excited about this year? What fell off of your to-do list? What are your goals for the coming year?
For the editorial staff of our blog, it’s a time to take a look back and see what resonated with our readers, and how we can plan to better provide you with what you want to read. As it turns out, topics like purpose, coaching, and resilience were top-of-mind for you—so, without further ado, here are the top five stories of 2017:
Not Sincerely, but Purposefully Yours.
Great leadership is ours—to be, to follow, to find, to create. Our recent research has shed light on the five key commitments that great leaders purposefully make and keep. What we found was startling—leaders and leadership are not always truly successful by being strong or powerful.
Are You a Resilient Leader?
Resilience is critical to thriving in today’s ever-changing environment. As leaders, we must role-model these behaviors if we hope to have an innovative, engaged and adaptable culture. Here are a few ways to get started.
We’re naturally curious about people—and how leading purposefully can help each of us create lasting impact on our teams, in our organizations and in the communities around us. Stop any member of our team in the hallway, and chances are good that they are reading something focused on helping each of us move forward in our own journey to greatness. We’re eager to keep challenging ourselves so that we can guide the thousands of leaders we work with each year, like you, on your leadership journey.
So as we enter 2018, we wanted to share some of the books that we read in the last 12 months that have impacted us in meaningful ways and challenged us to think about the world of leadership differently. This year’s list covers a variety of topics—from managing change and driving results to self-awareness, belonging, and emotional well-being, to name a few.
Knowing who we are and how we are poised in the world allows us to truly answer the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This marvelous book walks readers through a step-by-step process of identifying five core skills, four values, and one passion that combine together uniquely to author a Story of Difference. By helping us articulate our personal point of distinction, the authors help us gain the clarity we need to establish a personal vision for success.
I still think that this is the best book on the “Be” element of leadership. This book and the principles it outlines are a fine combination of doing it right and doing the right things.
From Susan Brady, EVP, Global Programing Strategy & Development:
I reread On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis. It grounded me again in some basics, and helped me to get clear about how I wanted to contribute to the RIGHT NOW dialogue on “becoming” and how I want to be sure to lead—purposefully. Warren believed that only three things matter to followers. They want: 1) direction, 2) trust, and 3) hope.
Despite the great and very real suffering these men have each been through, they have found ways to transcend these experiences; not in the way of avoidance, but in the purposeful choices they have made for managing their mindsets to create and live in states of joy. Reading this book helped me get more clarity on how the choices we make—about our mindsets, our reactions, the voices in our heads, etc.—shape so much of what we create as external realities—and that we can make purposeful decisions on how we engage and respond to people and situations that allows us to be at greater peace and feel greater joy, each day.
My perception of the content of this book before I read it, and the reality of it once I read it, was strikingly different. I picked up a book I perceived to be about building community and “belonging” with others when, in fact, the twist is Brown’s theory is that we can’t actually create community and true belonging with others until we “belong” to ourselves entirely. This speaks to self-awareness, clarity and truth, and in our Purposeful Leadership language, the idea of “becoming” a purposeful leader is about the ongoing, never-ending learning journey, awareness and honest appraisal of the self as both individual and leader.
From Mark Hannum, SVP of Research & Development and Danielle Lucido, Linkage Network Director:
Mark: This is a fun book to read—the pages practically turn themselves. The stories in the book are painfully accurate and unfortunately, universal. And the book pulls it all together with a great framework for becoming a better leader, a better teammate, and a better conversationalist.
Danielle: My favorite book this year deals with purposeful feedback via the Radical Candor way. The author is Kim Scott, who has held executive leadership roles at Google and Apple. I strongly identified with her advice to both “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly,” though it might seem like a paradox, and have personally struggled at times with the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” concept. But that mentality can actually backfire for leaders, both by fostering superficial culture that falls short of bringing truth to the forefront, and hindering the growth and development of your individual team members.
The message of this book centers around improving team efficiency. It is an elegant reminder that it takes a village, not just a villager, to do great things. Also near and dear to my heart are a lot of great (albeit hidden) messages in this book about efficiency, productivity, decision making, and harnessing great talent.
The Nameless King should be standard reading for all aspiring leaders, and can serve as an inspiration to those searching for a life of purpose and meaning. Artemios Miropoulos shows how a powerful story is the path to purposeful leadership.
From Maureen Graney, Director, Strategic Accounts:
Lots of hard-won (yes, people’s lives were at stake and mistakes were sometimes made), contrarian advice about psychology and moving forward with difficult negotiations and situations. I listened to the audiobook and now want to go back to annotate my hard copy of this valuable, insightful book. The stories of hostage situations are gripping and the negotiators (sometimes) found brilliant solutions.
From Mariya Paliy, Fractional HR and Performance Coaching:
This book looks at how to handle 108 situations in the corporate world from Buddha perspective. It is unique because it combines spirituality with best practices in leadership to solve work-related situations all can relate to.
From Jill Hauwiller, Principal Coach/Consultant, Leadership Refinery:
First of all, I love everything these clever brothers write (Switch, Made to Stick, Decisive). Their latest book is as entertaining as it is powerful. Through stories and research, they make a compelling case for everyone to create more extraordinary moments in our life and work.
This is an amazing book about self-control—behavior, emotions, and attention—and how it influences our personal and professional lives. The stories the author shares are taken from experiments and examples from her very popular class at Stanford University, “The Science of Willpower.” There is something in this book for everyone who understands the neuroscience of self-control and has a desire to make improvements in their own lives.
From Allison Wilkinson, Principal, MetaView Consulting & Coaching:
This book is an opus of hope for me. It was written by an expert in personal fulfillment and positive psychology, Rosamund Zander, and her husband Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. By connecting their perspectives as leaders, communicators and passionate performers, they share inspiring and actionable practices for inviting more possibility into our worlds. They teach that when humans radiate positive purpose and meaning, they create powerful ripples of opportunity, compassion and imagination across all aspects of their lives. You will feel uplifted after reading this book.
As a leadership coach, I am often asked to decode leadership presence with my clients, and I hand them this book. Kristi Hedges takes us on a journey to communicate with increased impact and intention, showing us how anyone can build a strong and inspiring presence. In a departure from a typical book on improving communication, she connects the powers of language, emotion and actions and paves a clear path to becoming a more authentic and confident leader.
From Tara Padua,Associate Director, Executive MBA Career Management, Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell:
As many of you know, 2017 has been a big year for the Linkage team. We shared our findings from the largest leadership research study we’ve ever conducted in our 30 years of business in: Rethinking Leadership: The Power of Purpose.
Ultimately, our data revealed that purpose differentiates great leaders from the rest and is best defined by five commitments that the most highly rated leaders make to themselves, their teams and their organizations.
What enabled Charles Martin IV of Martin Guitar to reinvigorate guitar manufacturing in the United States? How did Maxine Clark of Build-A-Bear execute a retail growth strategy that fundamentally repositioned her company within the toy industry ecosystem? Why has Oprah Winfrey been so successful at building a multibillion-dollar, multimedia empire? And what differentiates these great leaders from the average leader?
Questions like these have kicked off countless lectures at business school campuses around the world for decades. But the big surprise is that after all these years of giving props to the likes of In Search of Excellence (Harper and Row, 1982) and Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001), it turns out that the traditional models of leadership long held up as paragons have all too often gotten it wrong…
What an incredible week! 800 leaders from around the world convened for our Women in Leadership Institute™ in Dallas, TX for a journey of growth and discovery. From keynote faculty presentations and competency-based learning sessions to small-team discussions and wellness sessions, this year’s attendees were challenged and inspired like never before.
Together, we explored the six leadership competencies core to the advancement of women leaders worldwide—and the seven hurdles that we face as we climb the leadership ranks. We were inspired to think in new and different ways about how we show up—in leadership and in life—and were surrounded by a remarkable group of leaders dedicated to creating greater impact on their teams, organizations and communities. Click here for a summary of some of the highlights.
There were countless moments that left us inspired, but we’ve boiled it down to 10 that serve as reminders of where we’ve been on this journey and the possibilities that lie ahead.
Leadership is a journey from execution to empowerment. Give up the role of executing—you can’t get to second base when your foot is still on first base. Read Wall Street veteran Carla Harris’ blog post on inspiration.
Live in a place of curiosity without judgement. Start by asking really great questions to help others solve problems and explore new possibilities. WIL faculty member Susie Kelleher explains in her blog post.
When you are at base camp, you can’t see the summit. On your personal leadership journey, define incremental success and celebrate along the way. Use this roadmap to guide your thinking and develop a go-forward plan.
Don’t put it off. Ask for what you want. According to WIL co-chair, Susan MacKenty Brady, having a compelling vision for who you want to be as a leader will help you stay focused when asking for what you want.
What’s even more important than how we’re different is how we’re the same. Diverse perspectives can drive innovation and have a positive impact on your team. WIL faculty member Karen Cvitkovich explains.
Purpose drives inspiration. Communicating a vision and creating an inspirational picture of the future starts with uncovering our purpose. Use these reflection questions to guide you.
When we think about how we connect with others, we have a greater impact. Facilitators from Second City challenged us to think differently about how we connect with others. It’s about connection, curiosity and clarity.
Gender equity is a competitive advantage. Businesses perform better financially when women are better represented in management and on corporate boards. Mandel Communications’ Beth Boone shares more.
Organizations that advance women do two things. They take active steps to improve the environment for underrepresented groups, and they provide women with opportunities. WIL faculty member Jill Ihsanullah explains.
Check out leadership insights and quotes from our outstanding faculty and memorable moments from our participants on Twitter using the hashtag #LinkageWIL (or on Facebook and LinkedIn).
Which moment resonated most with you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, and mark your calendars for 2018. Join us November 12–15 in Phoenix, AZ for your own journey of self-discovery and growth. I hope to see you there!
When I became a new leader years ago, I was lucky enough to attend new leader training for a week every six months for two years. I learned situational leadership, hiring and interviewing, leading vs. managing, and much more. Later in my career, with continued leadership training, I learned the skill of coaching. While all of the knowledge was useful, this was by far the most impactful leadership skill I learned, and also the most gratifying.
So what is coaching? Well, it isn’t the definition most leaders think of. It’s not me telling you what you are doing right and wrong and how to do it better; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Leaders often feel they need to have all of the answers; that’s why we were promoted, right? Wrong. Leaders need to have great questions and live in a place of curiosity without judgement.
Engaging leaders are excited about igniting the potential in others. Purposeful leaders know that others have great insight and ideas, and by uncovering those ideas in others, they not only get better solutions, but also increase discretionary effort of those they lead.
How do they do this? By asking really great questions to help others solve problems and explore new possibilities, instead of trying to solve the problems for them. Leaders often suggest the wrong solution or a less effective solution to the wrong problem, as they have only part of the information. Few leaders coach others well, as it hasn’t been foundational teaching in the past. But the ones who do create tremendous success for organizations and individuals.
What, How, When, Where, Tell Me More
When someone comes to you with a problem, question or opportunity, ask questions to help them gain clarity on the issue (not for you to gain clarity, but for them). Questions that start with what, how, when, where, and tell me more. For example, when someone walks in your door and states a problem to be solved or an opportunity to be seized, simply say, “Tell me more about that.”
Then, listen with authentic curiosity as they talk. You likely aren’t getting to the core of the problem with just this one question, so in the words of Michael Bungay Stanier, follow this with: “And what else?” Let them continue to talk and tell you more. Stay fully in question mode; don’t jump in to solve. As they share more you will be tempted to offer a solution, but stop yourself. Follow the last question with another, like “What have you already tried?” Often, they will be grateful for the chance to talk through their thinking. And any suggestions you make are likely things they have already tried.
When coaching individuals, spend about 50 percent of your time helping team members get crystal clear on the real problem. Then, spend another 20–30 percent of the time flushing out possibilities by asking questions. This is how you give your team space to look at the same problem from different angles and take new perspectives on situations. Ask questions like “What else is possible here?” and “What is another way we might look at this?”
Over the years, I’ve noticed that if I’ve done a good job coaching, the person seeking an ear tells me, “Here is what I need to do.” They come up with the solution, are excited about the solution, and are clear on what they need to do and why. They are fully bought in on the action they need to take. It’s their idea, after all! And this takes only 10 percent or less of the coaching time. Too often, leaders start with action before there is clarity on the problem, missing the opportunity to explore further possibilities.
Lead without Solving
As you embark on this new way of leading without solving, here are a few traps to be aware of:
Coaching Trap #1: Asking questions to lead them down a path you think they should take. Be careful to stay in a place where you are truly asking questions to help them get greater clarity on the problem and generate new possibilities.
Coaching Trap #2: Asking questions to get more information so you can be more informed to solve the problem. Pay attention to what you are saying to yourself during the coaching, and catch this if it is happening. Your questions should be in service of them finding the solution, not you finding the solution.
Coaching Trap #3: Moving to action too quickly. The longer we stay curious, the more likely they are to come up with an action step they are truly excited about for the RIGHT problem.
Coaching Trap #4: Ego takeover. Don’t let your position or insecurity get the best of you. Leadership is about empowering and enabling others to do extraordinary things for the sake of everyone’s success. Truly inspiring leaders lead from this place. Sure, there are times you will offer ideas, but since this is most leaders’ current default, I would encourage you to refrain fully from that for a bit to create some new habits.
The Coaching Habit
To get started on your coaching, I highly recommend Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. He has a very simple formula you can follow, and does a great job expanding on why and how coaching works.
I can tell you as a recovering, constant advice-giver, it’s much more satisfying to coach people to find their own solutions, rather than simply handing out advice that often is misguided.
If the leaders inside your organization learn to coach rather than solve, you will exponentially increase the potential and engagement inside your organization. Start with a simple “Tell me more,” followed by “And what else” in your next conversation. I think you will be surprised by what you learn and the results that will be generated by others.
Women face a myriad of obstacles in the workplace that serve to disproportionately hold them back from growth and advancement, especially when it comes to leadership. Some of these obstacles include: getting selected during the hiring and promotion processes; fitting in with organizational cultures imbued with masculine values; tokenism; challenges in obtaining desirable assignments; difficulty with relocation; and fewer opportunities for networking/creating social capital, all of which contribute to a significant and well-documented disadvantage.* Widely available data on the lack of gender parity in the number of women in leadership ranks, as well as in their pay, speaks to the quantifiable impact of this disadvantage.
Given these numbers, any call to action for improving the situation for women in organizations seems clear and obvious. Yet, efforts to advance women leaders often face resistance before they are ever launched. Companies that are most effective at advancing women these days recognize that it isn’t enough to build a business case and strategy. They must also be able to compassionately and effectively address stakeholder concerns about reverse discrimination. If leaders in these companies hear employees complaining about the potential unfairness of special opportunities for women, they are aware the concerns likely stem from an uninformed assumption of starting-point equality. What are actually fast-paddling efforts to try to “catch women up” to opportunities provided to men (or at least move women in that direction), are inaccurately perceived or portrayed as initiatives designed to put women ahead.
What can organizations do? In addressing concerns of any majority group, it’s always hard, of course, to ask the kid with the biggest pile of marbles to give up a few. An effective leader must show the child that, in this case, they won the game with help; the floor was slanted. But then, the best leaders and companies also effectively demonstrate how much more fun and engaging the game is for all to play on an even surface.
Unfortunately, even resounding success in building an appetite for diversity and inclusion still isn’t enough. Companies that demonstrate the best results in advancing women leaders: 1) take active steps to improve the environment for all members of underrepresented groups and 2) provide women with specific opportunities, skills and tools to help them overcome unique obstacles.
Is Your Organization Serious about Advancing Women?
How would you describe the culture of your organization when it comes to women in leadership? Are there women in important and respected leadership roles? Do executives signal confidence in these women leaders? Companies working to build a culture inviting to women generally have specific initiatives in place. These may involve coaching for senior executives around symbolic action (e.g., reinforcing messages of inclusion), unconscious bias training for employees, and active policies that ensure women are treated with respect. Hallmarks of an inclusive culture may also include a tendency to celebrate the uniqueness and diversity of ideas, and a focus on the quality of employees’ work (versus, for example, the number of hours worked).
What is happening right now in the culture of your organization?
What about systems? Is your organization working to ensure that its systems and policies are fair and flexible? Do women have the same opportunities as men to be recruited and hired? Are women being promoted at the same rate? Are the processes your organization uses transparent and fair? Organizations serious about advancing women often engage in creative, diversity-focused recruiting initiatives. They take a careful look at their people processes to ensure they are minimizing or eliminating bias in the system, which can involve decision-making training for leaders of people. And they put effort into “changing the rules” around human resource policies, practices and benefits to maximize flexibility and family-friendliness.
What is your organization doing to ensure women want to stay, engage and have opportunities to advance?
Is your organization providing specialized leadership development for women? Does your organization recognize that women face bias and other unique hurdles in the workplace? Does your organization provide training, development and other growth experiences to help women overcome these obstacles? Organizations serious about advancing women make a differential investment in developing their women leaders. This may involve internal training, assignment of strategic growth projects, coaching and feedback, and/or external opportunities to develop, network and build skills.
What is your organization doing to develop women? Is the effort focused on the skills and competencies most important to helping women advance?
What about the executives in your company? Have they articulated a clear goal around advancing women? Are they taking action to fill the pipeline with women leaders? Are executives personally working to support, strengthen, develop and retain women leaders? Companies serious about advancing women have executives who talk about it, create specific goals or visions for it, and often launch powerful sponsorship programs for high-potential female talent.
When it comes to advancing leaders, what executive-led initiatives are going on in your organization?
What about metrics? Metrics matter. While human resource departments in most organizations can easily capture the retention and promotion rates of women as part of larger diversity and inclusion efforts, those measures tend to be lagging indicators. Organizations serious about advancing women use “leading indicator” metrics to help focus their work and evaluate the impact of all initiatives. Publically available dashboards to showcase the movement of numbers toward the organization’s specific numerical goals for advancing women are also popular.
Has your organization identified and made available leading indicator metrics for advancing women?
What about you? Where is your passion? Are you creative? Results-focused? Intentional about culture? Interested in systems? Great at developing others? Focused on numbers? Are you an executive? How can you contribute to your organization’s efforts to advance women leaders? When it comes to increasing opportunity, every action counts!
* Eagly, Alice H. & Carli, Linda L. 2007. Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.