Evolve your leadership style

Today I’m going to dive a little into one of my favorite topics: leading people, teams, and project groups.

As I’ve said many times before, we are all leaders in one capacity or another. Leadership, like so many others, is a skill that needs to be developed. Usually, people go through three stages when trying to get other folks to do something for them:

Stage 1 | Supervising | Task-oriented

This stage is all about telling others what to do, when to do it, and then auditing the outcomes.

It’s where we all start, but quite frankly, it’s not very effective. For once, it requires you to know exactly what needs to be done. As you take on more responsibilities, new areas, or problem spaces, that will not be the case anymore – others will know much more about specific areas than you do. It also requires a LOT of time and handholding from you, meaning it’s fundamentally not scalable. Finally, it only works if you have authority over the other person – why else would they care about what you tell them to do?

New managers with small teams usually show that leadership style.

Stage 2 | Managing | Process-oriented

This stage moves the focus away from telling people what to do and towards establishing goals and processes.

The leader moves away from the tasks and towards defining the way in which things need to be done, as well as the specific outcomes that need to be achieved. This stage is somewhere in-between – hopefully, it’s a transition stage and not where you’ll settle. It’s still directive in nature but moves the focus from tasks to outcomes and processes. It still requires lots of auditing and falls short of genuine trust for the team.

This model provides relief for the manager as teams start to grow from the initial small group. However, it still falls short of unlocking the true potential in your team as it depends a lot on you setting the goals and processes and then monitoring and enforcing them.

Management is halfway down the path to leadership but not quite there. The next step is the hardest as it requires giving up control and ego.

Stage 3 | Leading | People-oriented

This is where the magic happens. It’s all about the enablement of others, not about what you do.

Instead of knowing everything, this stage acknowledges that the wisdom lies in the team and n unlocking that wisdom. Instead of defining the ‘what’ and ‘how’, leadership at this stage is much more about developing shared purpose, team values, and rules for collaboration.

It’s a tough stage, as it requires you not to be the smartest kid on the block and rather take a backseat. However, the impact is enormous as that approach opens up space for others to step up and contribute. The more you trust the team and have them lead the path, the bigger the overall impact will be. You have to check your ego at the door, and not every manager is ready to do that, but once you do, things will really take off. (If you don’t you will be stuck in the manager stage for the rest of your career.)

This might sound a little theoretical and maybe not applicable to your current situation. It’s not. We all apply leadership styles all the time – dealing with coworkers, running projects, leading teams, or just trying to manage our families and convincing our kids to make better decisions. You will achieve the best results if you can shift your interactions from supervising to leading. Sometimes you will need to start at supervising and go through managing to lay the proper foundation, but your goal should always be to get to leadership.

As you tackle new challenges, turn around the typical approach that you have been taught and instead follow this sequence to solve the problem:

People first, then process, tasks come last.

Engage the people you’re working with first. Then define processes together. Lastly, let them drive tasks the way they deem most appropriate.

Here’s a little back of the napkin drawing that I scribbled to visualize the difference for myself:

Managers prescribe, leaders encourage.

Managers are anxious, leaders trust.

Managers need to control, leaders look for positive surprises.

Be a leader in your interactions with others!

Once you’ve tried a leadership approach, you will find the other two pretty limiting and boring.


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

To lead means to ask good questions

I had several discussions this week about dealing with conflict situations or getting someone on board with a plan. It’s funny how similar leadership issues seem to cluster at certain times. Those discussions all ended up in exploring the importance and power of asking questions. So let’s dive a little into why asking questions is so critical and so powerful for us as leaders – and we all are leaders! We lead projects, we lead (virtual) teams, we lead families, we lead partnerships, and many more…

As a leader, asking good questions that guide deeper understanding is a critical skill. Of course, it needs to be paired with the patience and desire to ‘listen to understand’ (instead of listening to identify an opening where we can jump in with our own monologue). You don’t ask questions to show off – you ask questions to understand.

As a matter of fact, what usually marks the transition from a manager to a leader is the change in how they interact with their direct reports, peers, and bosses:

A manager gives direction; a leader asks questions and guides understanding.
A manager (thinks he) has all the answers; a leader knows what questions need to be asked.
A manager is the superstar; a leader develops everyone around her into superstars.

There are many benefits in asking guiding and insight-seeking questions instead of rambling about your opinions. Here are the three most important ones:

I. You broaden your understanding (Decision making)

Let’s start with the hard truth: You don’t know everything!

You may be as smart as they come – you still just can’t know everything. You won’t know all the details, you will miss the specific context, and you don’t have the specific perspective that others bring in based on their personal experience and background.

As a leader, your job is to make good decisions. So ask questions and LISTEN! Gather as much diverse data as you possibly can. Listen to what you hear, then think about the next good question to ask. Don’t try to shine as a superbrain by asking tough questions – listen, digest, and then ask for what additional information and perspective is needed.

Your goal is to gather diverse data that challenge your opinions and biases. Ask the right questions to gather that data and listen to what you are given back in return. A good answer is a gift that you should cherish!

At some point, it will be you who needs to make the call – try to gather as much unbiased information as you can before you take that step. However, once you do, it’s your call – allow for new information as you go along, but  don’t allow second-guessing of your decision based on the existing information.

II. You encourage thinking (Coaching)

By asking questions, you guide critical thinking. You point out areas that might need further investigation or reflection, or you draw out important additional information and insights that weren’t shared yet.

By doing so, you walk your partner through your thought models. You help them think about their own opinions from a different angle and more holistically. You help improve their thinking and decision making, leading to better plans and strategies.

Best of all, if you only communicate your grand plan, you will not teach your partner anything. They get a black-box solution and won’t understand what led to that solution. If you lead them to the rigth solution with your questions, you share your thought process and let them experience and practice it on a concrete example. Instead of giving an answer, you have taught a thought model. You showed how to fish, instead of just handing over the fish.

III. You are in control of the flow (Negotiating)

While the first two scenarios and reasons for being the one who asks the questions are more focused on finding a solution, this last one is more about being effective when you have a plan and just need to get it done against resistance.

Our typical reaction when we run into resistance is to defend our plan and thinking. The more resistance we encounter, the wordier we get. We get into the defense and dig a deeper and deeper hole for ourselves. As we are trying to explain our position, we are always a step behind – it’s easy for the other person to just question our opinion and keep us on our toes, explaining and defending until we doubt ourselves.

Asking good questions instead allows us to get out of the defensive position and take control of the flow of the discussion.

Instead of saying “…but I really believe that we should do X, as I said, we have looked at all the data…”, start asking, “Well, I would like to understand better why you think this won’t work. Can you walk me through the challenges you see and how you think we could overcome those challenges.”

Asking good questions and genuinely listening to what you hear are some of the most powerful tools to make you more effective and a better leader and collaborator. Practice and sharpen those tools whenever you can!

And here’s a quote from Jack Welch in closing:

When you are an individual contributor, you try to have all the answers. When you are a leader, your job is to have all the questions.” – Jack Welch

PS to the quote above: I actually don’t think YOU have to have all the questions. Your job is to make sure all the right questions get asked – no matter whether they come from you or from your teammates. You foster those questions. You don’t have to provide all of them.

More great quotes on the importance of leading with questions: https://leadingwithquestions.com/latest-news/my-top-ten-favorite-leading-with-questions-quotes/


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Ownership

One of the things that define how Amazon runs its business is what they call the Leadership principles. These principles are treated like religion. They define daily business processes, project priorties, how decisions are made, and apparently, they work really well for the company’s success. Those leadership principles are also widely regarded as operational blueprints for many startups. Over my time with Amazon, I learned to love some of them, see the value in others, and realize that a critical one was missing (I’ll tell you that secret over a beer if you’re interested).

Since those Leadership principles are universally applicable and useful, I will pick a specific one every now and then and share its official description as well as my personal take and experience. As always, I would love your thoughts, feedback, and differing point of view.

Ownership

Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.”

To me, ownership is probably the most important one of the leadership principles. It is so important because it defines how we approach our jobs. Are we just in to tick off hours and collect a paycheck, or do we deeply care about what we’re doing and want to positively impact our field, our customers, and our co-workers?

For that reason, in my mind, ownership is also closely linked to the three pillars that drive job satisfaction (purpose, autonomy, and mastery). If we don’t step up and take personal ownership, we will not feel any control over these three pillars either.

Ownership means caring about what we do. Ownership means not waiting to be told what we should focus on but proactively assessing our space all the time and moving forward with the things that matter most. Ownership is the difference between looking at the clock ticking away versus looking at your customers and thinking through how you can improve their lives.

Ownership is also about being in control, which again, is one of the key drivers for job satisfaction as well as one of the key things that cause burnout if it’s lacking. If you don’t show ownership and take control, someone else will fill the void for you and tell you what to do.

Always remember:

Ownership is taken, not granted!


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Effective communications – The Why, What, and How

Effective communication is one of the most important skills as we advance in our careers and lives. The more senior we become, the more we need to achieve things through others. To do so, we first need to convince them to follow our lead. Even if we’re not on the brink of a CEO promotion, we need to convince our peers, managers, or spouses of our ideas.

Communication happens in many different channels, in writing, in meetings, or in 1:1 conversations. The principles of effective communication are always the same: 1) active listening, 2) maintaining a laser-focus on the topic, and 3) a clear thought structure that our partner(s) can follow along.

Today I want to talk about 3) – structuring our thoughts and communication in a way that makes it easy for the recipient to digest, follow along, and buy into our logic. The magic is to always explain the Why, What, and How – in that order!

The Why, What, and How are critically important to convey any idea or suggestion. In presenting ideas, we need to remind ourselves that while we have all the context, causation, and details, our communication partners most likely don’t. Don’t assume everyone has as much context on the topic as you do! – If they did, they would have brought up the idea to you, not the other way around.

If you don’t re-create the full thought context with your communications partner, you cannot expect them to come to the same conclusions that you came to or to agree with your proposal.

The Why

This is also affectionately called the ‘So What’.

Everything starts with this. Tell me why I should care to listen and follow your thoughts. Why does this matter? Why does it matter to me? Why is it important, and why should I care?

If you can establish why a particular topic is important or why a problem needs to be solved, you have already won have the battle. On the flip side, if you don’t have a Why it will be hard to gain support for your idea – there are so many things that already have a strong Why established and thus will take priority.

The What

Ok, you got me with the Why. I know that I need to pay attention, now tell me what needs to be fixed or created.

Don’t get ahead of yourself; don’t jump to solutions. I’m not yet ready for that. I’ve signed up for your cause. Now let me know where I need to direct my attention. If you can get me focused on the right what, you have practically won, and I will crave to learn what I can do for you.

The How

NOW is the time to get to what you wanted to start with. Not a second earlier. For you, this is a long build-up to something that is crystal-clear to you – for me, it’s essential for being able to follow your thoughts.

How can we solve the issue we identified in the What and established as a priority in the Why. Tell me what you want to do and where I can help. What is your plan, where do you need input, where can I help. Be specific, precise, and concise.

Well…?

Let’s put some meat to the theory with an example. Let’s say you want to sell the idea of establishing a weekly metrics review meeting for Ops tickets (totally made up).

A bad communication would be:

“Hey, I want to identify key metrics for the ticketing systems. We should change some of the ways we measure them and then have a weekly review meeting with the Ops team.”

Most likely, my (unspoken) reaction as a recipient would be either “???”, or “sure, now leave me alone, I have important work to do”.

A better Why/What/How approach could be:

“I noticed that we are really slow with certain tasks while onboarding new employees. Often they don’t get proper access to their systems for more than two weeks. That delays their onboarding, and we’re practically wasting their resources for the first month.

I looked a little closer at the process, and it seems that Ops tickets are a key contributor to those delays. However, we don’t have good metrics for tickets right now, and so we can’t really diagnose where the problem lies or how to fix it.

What I would suggest is to establish a consistent way to measure the performance of such tickets. With that, we can identify key bottlenecks, brainstorm potential improvement areas, and measure if those improvements have the desired impact over time. What do you think about establishing key metrics and reviewing them with Ops leaders every week?”

You would have caught my attention on the second one, as no one likes employees who are eager to contribute but are constraint by systems or processes.

Bonus tips for emails

  • Spend time and energy on formatting – White spaces and paragraph breaks emphasize the structure and flow of your thoughts! Nobody wants to read a solid blurb of text and re-engineer the logical structure.
  • Re-read your message twice – Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. If you have no context at all, does what you wrote still makes sense?


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.