How to Speak the Language of Leadership and Influence Skillfully
As a leadership performance coach, I am regularly reminding my clients that leadership is a “skilled-profession.” It has a language, models and frameworks that provide practitioners with tools that when used skillfully can create a positive impact on people, teams and organizations.
The challenge is in taking the time to learn this language and how to use it with what I call “conscious competency.” This involves knowing what you are doing, how to do it and why you are doing it!
The ability to speak any language requires learning some fundamental vocabulary.
As leaders we need “conversational leadership” language that is contemporary and that we can use ….right now!
Let’s get started with three important leadership concepts:
We Can Only Change What We Can See — So We Need Awareness!
In the world of leadership, as in life, we can only affect and change things when we have awareness of them. The concept of awareness involves understanding:
- how you show up,
- what it is like to be with you and
- how your behavior impacts others.
It sounds simple and straight forward, yet most leaders have low levels of self-awareness, despite their confident self-proclamations to the contrary. Why?
First of all, we all have blind spots. We don’t know what we don’t know, and if we do not get open and honest feedback, we have little opportunity or motivation to consider a change. With feedback comes an important entry point to consider making both a belief and a behavioral shift because something we are doing is either not working or perhaps it is working well and we can be doing more of it and achieving even better performance!
Second, we often disregard feedback from those whom we don’t respect, don’t like or who have a message we don’t want or are not ready to hear. We humans usually like our story, self image and may even proudly proclaim “This is who I am and it works for me.” After all, you may be a successful senior leader already in a prominent role. The problem here is that leadership today, first and foremost, is all about others and not about ourselves, so this story–if you choose to stick with it, has an unhappy ending for you as a leader. (Either directly or through the longer-term consequences of others choosing to opt out of working with or following you!). The “old school” days of command and control, hierarchical power and leaders as kings are over! It is now a world of collaboration, mutual respect and personal power over position power, if you want the best talent.
Third, without self-awareness most of the other tools in your leadership toolbox will just not work for you! It is the cost of entry to begin the process. Without it, you will not have the personal credibility to influence and inspire others.
So if your leadership mojo is just not working the way you want it to, check in with your current understanding around your own self-awareness as a way to jump-start your stalled leadership batteries! Start by getting feedback from those you trust.
Self-awareness is also the one of the critical components involved in building your emotional intelligence. Now fully accepted as that which separates today’s most successful and influential leaders from those who merely hold a title, emotional intelligence is a set of learnable skills and behaviors that everyone can improve with time, discipline and conscious practice.
Their stated curiosity to uncover blind spots, their vulnerability to openly seek feedback to improve performance and understand who they are and who they are not (yet) provides emotionally intelligent leaders with enormous leverage in getting others to follow them.
As a leadership performance coach, much of my work with executives and teams centers on skill building in the emotional intelligence area. What was historically dismissed as unimportant, “soft stuff” has now been validated in multiple research studies are the “really important and no longer underestimated stuff.” Not only has it become clear how work really gets done collaboratively today in teams and organizations, but also importantly, this “soft stuff” (or leadership skills as I like to refer to them) is really hard to learn and apply without practice and discipline. Those with a natural aptitude or appetite for emotional intelligence are often the graceful climbers of the executive ranks. The good news is, for those with the desire and ambition to become leaders at the highest levels, there is nothing that cannot be learned here with a little “RIGOR”!
For more learning on emotional intelligence and its practical business applications, check out the work of Daniel Goleman and Travis Bradberry.
How Leaders Achieve and Communicate ALIGNMENT
The ability to “execute with excellence” in any organization is dependent upon its leaders abilities to make good decisions and appropriately cascade the communication of those decisions across their organization.
Unfortunately, many companies fail to have transparent and effective decision-making and communication processes. Consequently, most leaders struggle with these skills and as a result, they often create more dysfunction and misunderstanding than clarity and closure. The resulting lack of alignment may inhibit organizational productivity and performance!
The word “alignment” in the context of leadership means having a team or organization all clearly on the same page, moving forward with focus and energy in the same direction.
Fundamentally, alignment is an output based on an input and throughput.
The decision making process by which a team or organization discusses, weighs in and evaluates a range of possibilities for solving a business challenge.
The consistent communication of the go forward decision that is cascaded across the organization by its leaders.
In solving a business challenge or making a decision, creativity and opportunity are born our of debating a range of options and then selecting the best one for the circumstances. The team and organization win when a wide variety of ideas are considered vs. the alternatives of groupthink or leader mandated solutions.
Possibilities and choices need to be identified, debated and examined through a variety of lenses. Through one lens, perhaps a functional department view, an option may look like a slam-dunk, while through an alternative lens, it might have significant downside risk. The power of productive conflict, or debate among trusting team members allows for an examination and determination of the best path forward for the organization at this time. It is not as simple as just making the numbers look good on paper. The complexity of business today requires understanding the dynamics around business conditions, life cycles and the competitive landscape, not to mention the possibility of a game-changing disruptive risk that you may or may not want to take at a particular moment in time. This takes an engaging and open conversation with team members demonstrating both VERITAS and listening skills!
Selecting one path forward obviously means that there will be options that are not selected despite them having potential validity as a solution and the advocacy from one or more passionate supporters. This is where the challenging nuance of alignment comes in. Alignment is the ability to agree to and fully support the go-forward decision, even when you have expressed an alternative viewpoint and your position has not been selected. Sometimes this process is referred to as “weighing-in” on the issue or decision. Having your chance to weigh-in and voice your point of view is most important and it is a critical step in achieving organizational or team alignment.
Individuals, teams and organizations run into trouble when they misunderstand alignment. Not being agreed with, being overruled and/or claiming to have “lost” a debate can be hard to take for some leaders and might be even tougher to “appropriately” explain to your team who might have been counting on you as their team leader to convince the organizational leadership of their preferred choice or outcome.
Here is where “leadership skills” come into play. Some leaders mistakenly turn a healthy opportunity to debate options for a best choice for their organization into a personal “win-lose” scenario where there are disappointments and a lack of willingness to support the ultimate decision.
Coming out of a meeting and appropriately communicating the decision outcomes, most importantly the “why” behind the choice, is a critical role for leaders to play. Skilled leaders openly express that the decision was thoroughly explored, acknowledging that different perspectives were shared and debated. They credit their teams and colleagues with broadly covering and passionately providing insights and rationale for the range of considerations. Then they share the decision outcome, why it was the one that prevailed and clearly verbalize not only their support for the go forward decision, but also state the expectation that their teams and direct reports will also support it. During the discussion they may empathize with the potential disappointment their team may feel; however, the key is to not break from the alignment with their leadership team (including throwing colleagues under the proverbial bus by claiming they still don’t agree) and to use the conversation with their team as a learning opportunity around the dynamics of organization decision-making and alignment. Taking the time to coach and develop your talent bench around these healthy decision-making and cascading communication dynamics is your job as a leader.
The challenge with alignment is not only getting your Leadership team to have the right understanding of how to move forward, but additionally, how to appropriately cascade the communication across the organization.
Alignment is fundamentally giving your heart and mind to the “go-forward” plan without second-guessing or undermining the decision. Anything short of this amounts to not being a team player. Without alignment, teams and organizations waste “blue dollars” which are people time and energy being thrown away having conversations about what “shoulda, coulda, woulda” been decided under different circumstances. Imagine instead all that could be achieved if that time and energy were focused on your go-forward plan?
ACCOUNTABILITY and The Role of the Leader
There is likely to be no organization in existence that would not like to increase the accountability they believe they currently have among their community of employees. Why do we experience such a disappointment across all industries, sectors and companies? One answer: poor leadership!
But, can poor leadership be the answer to accountability as well as every other problem an organization faces? Shouldn’t people just do their jobs and with that all will fall naturally into place?
Here is the hard truth, if you are the team or organizational leader, any problem you have has your “fingerprints” on it. You have either consciously or unconsciously created this environment or you tolerate it. Either way all roads lead back to you as the leader!
That being said, the elusiveness of accountability is something that warrants exploration. Most leaders and organizations fundamentally do not understand that accountability (like alignment in the previous section) is an OUTPUT resulting from a specific INPUT and a disciplined THROUGHPUT. Without understanding this dynamic, most leaders are lost and frustrated. So what are these magical “PUTS” all about?
The INPUT: Clarifying Expectations
The reason why accountability is elusive and leaders are continuously disappointed is because they do NOT take the time to establish clear expectations. This may sound simple, but most leaders fall into a few traps or rationalizations:
- Employees should just do their jobs
- They should know (or guess) what I want
- I don’t know exactly what I want; can’t you just figure it out?
Taking a moment to thoughtfully consider that what you are asking the other person to do can mean the difference between time invested in a worthwhile challenge or time wasted on a frustrating chase. With clear expectations, you and your direct report can differentiate between wants and needs to ensure delivery of what is really being asked for and eliminate what is not. This ensures that an appropriate use of time and energy is allocated to this initiative. There is also a relationship benefit here in that you both build trust and confidence in each other while securing alignment together.
An important part of expectation setting should also include ensuring appropriate support resources from other departments are in place to contribute to the work product. This may require the leader reaching out to other colleagues to ensure alignment of priorities across the team or organization.
The THROUGHPUT: Coaching for Performance
Most leaders, with coaching and encouragement, do get better at setting expectations. Unfortunately it is not enough to simply stand by and wait for the delivery of what they asked for, believing their work is done. The work of a leader continues with the throughput required to ultimately secure accountability, which requires “coaching for performance” along the way.
This is actually the hardest part for many leaders who want to delegate and simply walk away. High performance teams and organizations build capability and skills in their employees by actively coaching for performance by varying their leadership style and the level of engagement based on the confidence and competence of the colleague they are working with. While most leaders have 1 or 2 styles as their go-to selections (usually directing and delegating), the best leaders have 4-6 and perhaps even 10 different styles in their toolbox to use selectively based on the situation. These leaders know what they are looking for, how they need to flex to the needs of a particular individual and why a certain style will work better than another. This is leadership in action, on the ground and in real time! This is also what makes the difference between a high performance leader with a strong talent bench and a frustrated one with high turnover!
The OUTPUT: Shared Accountability.
Successful accountability is “shared accountability”. Setting expectations (aligning resources as well), coaching for performance and ultimately HOLDING accountability to the deliverable that was agreed upon sounds laborious to the leader who prefers to tell you what to do or delegate and dash away. To skilled leaders, it is a series of worthwhile conversations and interactive engagements that delivers quality work while also building the talent bench through trusting relationships, teamwork and community!
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