Thursday, November 5, 2009

First Time

The below is the first in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.


So, it’s your first leadership position. Whether you are the new shop foreman, the lead nurse on the night shift, the junior vice president of the smallest division in the company, a platoon leader, or a division officer on a ship, you are now ‘in charge.’ What does it mean?

First, there is now a gap between you and the ‘rank and file.’ No matter how much you may want to deny that fact, you are now ‘in-charge’ and everyone will recognize it and will treat you a bit differently. Don’t revel in the difference. Despite what others may say, your real role is to make sure your people succeed, and that means you have to help them. In a very real sense, you work for them. The first time I heard that said out-loud it made me stop and think. You are ‘in-charge’ so You Work For Them. Your task is to make sure they ‘win;’ to make sure that they have everything they need to do their job, execute the mission and succeed.

How do you do that? ‘Easy.’* You provide Guidance, Support, and Motivation

That’s what you do: you provide guidance where there isn’t any, you support all the people who work ‘for’ you (SEE ABOVE), and you motivate them when they are not fired up about the job. How do you do that? In some sense, that answers is completely job dependent; the guidance will change, the support will change, the motivations will change. Being a ‘junior exec,’ no matter what the organization, can always be a challenge. You don’t get a real say in the goals of the organization (you may not even agree with some of them), your boss will provide you a framework of guidance within which you are free to act (and it may be confusing and restrictive), and you will certainly be given real limits on the assets – the stuff – you need to do the task at hand. In many cases you will think you have been given lemons. You need to turn it into lemonade.

So, first, don’t get discouraged: get on the bus! Accept the goals of the organization as a whole and move on to your own division goals. Now, you may have already been given goals: sales or productivity or readiness or whatever. You need to look at that goal and find a meaningful challenge that can be used to motivate your people. How to do that?

The key to all your success is going to come from one thing: Communication.

But, in one sense, the answer is always the same: Communicate. Talk with your people. Note, not to them or at them, with them. Communication isn’t a one-way street. In fact, it isn’t even a two-way street. Real communication requires that you not only talk with them, that you listen and understand, but that you also understand what they are saying to each other, both individually and in groups, that you come to understand their level of emotional commitment to the tasks at hand and to each other individually and to the team. Great leadership takes individuals and makes a tightly integrated team. And that comes from understanding individual motivations and connecting those individual motivations with the team’s – your team’s – motivations. And that all begins with communication.

While communication can be difficult, there is no magic here. It begins simply with talking and listening. A few minutes of ‘shooting the breeze’ before the morning meeting, sharing a cup of coffee, are great ways to begin this dialogue. One spectacular leader I know, who rose from the ranks to be the Fire Commissioner of Philadelphia would, as Commissioner, stop at a different Fire House every morning for a cup of coffee. While he learned a great deal about what was going on in the ‘ranks,’ it also presented the firefighters the opportunity to ‘hear it from the boss’ and, perhaps most importantly, it let them know that he was looking out for them. This idea of loyalty and honesty is the very glue of good leadership. And it all begins with sincere communication.

* I am reminded of the Vaudeville line: How do you make a statue of an elephant? Easy, get a big block of stone and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.


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