This week marked a point in my career that I gave some thought to aspects of working with people and teams that I have found to be important. We know a lot about how technology choices, process choices, people choices, budget choices and such have an impact on how teams perform. The following are my beliefs around aspects that I tend to hear less of.
Building genuine relationships is hard, but it’s also the most important thing you can do. Understanding that people are different, but each one will probably do some one thing better than you will help. Find it, nurture it and learn from it. This is not to say that you need to be best friends with everyone on the team, but that you should be able to build enough of a relationship so that it is grounded on respect – allowing you and the people around you to be themselves. This is the only way we can have a culture founded on openness and honesty. And that is the fundamental tenet of a high performing team.
Ask people questions about their experiences, interests and ideas. If you find yourself speaking more than listening you are doing a disservice to yourself. Listening is a great learning tool. I have people around me who constantly remind me if I hoard a conversation – be careful of that – especially if you are a manager. The risk there is that if you speak first and too often contrarian views are muted as there is a muted assumption that your manager knows more than you. Listening is also a good way for you to bide your time and get to know people better. This helps to build relationships.
One of the most difficult, but important aspects of leadership is how you portray yourself in public. It’s really easy to falter under the scrutiny of situations – especially the ones that you disagree with. Your expressions sometimes get the better of you and people are very perceptive. What makes it even harder is to do this every single time. One approach to this is to get into a habit of internalizing everything you hear and see and wait for a pattern to develop and an opportunity to calmly respond to situations. Many times it’s best to just listen and not react because many people express thoughts more to be heard than anything else. Many times your reaction to an opinion or idea wanes with time. Allow it to wane before you surface it. I keep getting surprised by how often my initial reaction can be wrong.
Success through failure
Sometimes it’s best to let the team fail. Many of our solutions to problems stem from experience. The solutions might be plain to see if you have been through that journey before. But the time might not be right. When a team fails together they have a reference point that the team can look back upon and use as learning. Many times this is more valuable than succeeding the first time round – and trying to every time. Judging the value of a fail is what makes this hard and of course our inherent belief that it’s bad to fail.
The wisdom of crowds
Failures are yours and successes the teams. A lot of anti-behaviors that we notice are borne out of insecurity and an unwillingness to admit that empowered teams make better decisions than individuals. Gather feedback and socialize ideas so that you can guide teams using better judgement borne out of conversations. Ideas come from everywhere so make sure you give people the avenue to express them. The strongest teams are those where people have the confidence to speak up, be heard and share ideas.
The power of words
Be careful of your choice of words. This starts with avoiding small words like ‘I’ and phrases like ‘my team’ and “works for me”. I also take umbrage at the word “resource”, but that’s a fight I will never win. Avoid phrases that imply a top-down dictation when you don’t mean it and avoid anything that implies ‘push’ when you really want a culture of ‘pull’. There will be instances when you don’t need to say much – in those cases don’t say much. Being a leader doesn’t mean you have to always bring your full oratory skills to the fore all the time. Knowing when to is hard.
Always always respond – to email, to conversation requests, to hip chat and text. Even if you ignore a single such conversation opportunity you have failed as a leader. Ideally respond to all such requests without delay. Its amazing how the busiest of leaders I work with respond without fail and when you realize the impact that such a response has on you, you will realize the impact yours have on others.
Face to face conversations trump a video chat trumps a phone call trumps instant messaging trumps email. If someone who is close enough to you sends you a message never pass up the opportunity to walk over and chat. It won’t take as long as you think and you have had the chance for one more meaningful conversation – usually avoiding miscommunication.
Never use a public forum to socialize an idea unless you have had multiple private conversations and buy-in well in time. It’s human nature to be skeptical and that skepticism increases as the gravity of the idea increases. Take your time and talk to people and make that public event a non-event. As you build relationships this gets easier, but be aware that teams you join new need time to build that trust.
All of my learnings come from the teams that I have worked with and for that I have to thank them for giving me the opportunity to be part of change.