As I’m on the verge of starting a new executive role, leadership has been on my mind a lot.
It played heavily into the interview discussions I had, because great leadership is going to be critical in guiding the company’s next phase of growth.
So, I thought a lot about my “take” on leadership, which has evolved a great deal over the past ten years or so. Here’s where I’ve ended up.
Share the Credit.
Harry S. Truman once said “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
I believe in this wholeheartedly, especially when you’re in a leadership role. Credit for success should always be shared as liberally as possible, especially from leadership to the teams and people that help execute and realize strategies. I think a leader’s most significant responsibility is to acknowledge success when it happens, share lots of kudos when they’re earned (and do so publicly).
A rising tide lifts all boats, and my legacy as a leader will always be demonstrated in the success of my team, not in how many things I personally take credit for. At the exec level, nothing you do is only because of you. Ever.
If you’re working with a team of people, annual performance reviews are often a necessity (and I loathe them personally, but understand why they exist).
The key is that nothing that appears on that review should ever come as a surprise to the people on your team. If you’re consistently communicating, sharing feedback and having candid conversations along the way as things happen, the performance discussion at the end of the year is much more of a summary discussion and an opportunity to set goals for the future (vs some thing to be terrified of when you wait for the other shoe to drop).
Incidentally, that goes for me too. I ask for feedback from those I work for, and the team that I work with. I can’t do better if I wait until the end of the year to do some big formal 360 process. I’d much rather create an environment where people feel comfortable giving me that feedback along the way.
I’ll admit that’s been my biggest area of growth in my career. Feedback and criticism always scared the pants off of me. I took it so personally. But that has changed a lot, and I’m now eager to hear it — good, bad and ugly — because that’s the only way I have the opportunity to provide an apology if needed, say thank you when warranted, and do something to change things if required.
Emotion Is Not a Character Flaw.
I don’t know where we got the idea that leaders have to be these emotionless automatons that never show joy or fear or frustration or excitement or anything remotely resembling human feelings.
I’m a human. Being a leader doesn’t automatically remove my emotions from my brain.
My filter (provided I get it right, which I’m certain I don’t always) is to make sure those emotions are constructively, respectfully presented at all times. I’ve screwed that up plenty of times. But as time goes by, I’ve learned to become less reactive and give myself time to breathe before I speak to make sure what I want to say is given the buffer of a bit of reflective thought.
But I think it’s very important for my team to see that I’m real, approachable, and fallible. I want to see that from my boss, too. I don’t trust people that don’t seem to feel anything one way or the other, or that shield their emotions so much from everyone. How on earth do I know where you’re coming from or what your intentions may be if I don’t know how you feel about something?
So I’m a big fan of incorporating emotion into my work, and my leadership. Humanity and vulnerability builds trust, and if I trust you and you trust me, we’re way ahead of the game.
Keeping Humor Part Of Work.
Unless you’re saving babies from bombs in your day to day work, you’re not.
I work in an industry where people’s lives are not in jeopardy. At best, we might have some kind of glitch in business process – which could certainly be significant – but at the end of the day, we’re talking very profitable businesses that will likely not live or die by that glitch if it were to happen.
So, let’s not take ourselves too seriously.
I’m dedicated to my work, I expect my teams to be dedicated to the work we do together. I prize strong work ethic in the people I work with. But sometimes, you have to laugh, blow off some steam, let a conversation wander ridiculously off course, or send the latest cat gif to your teammates.
Those moments of levity can sometimes recharge the batteries when the workload and pressure are intense.
Set Big Goals, and Believe Them.
I’ve never been inspired to meet some kind of incremental number on a strategic plan.
But I have been inspired when a leader sets out a clear vision in front of me — preferably one that’s just a little bit audacious but not ridiculous — and continues to reinforce that vision to me over and over again in our work.
Lots of companies get derailed because the teams within them lose sight of that big vision, that greater purpose, and are never given the proper context to understand how their work ties into those things.
But give people something big to shoot for, help them connect the dots between the company’s success and their own daily work, and motivation goes up by a lot.
Get Shit Done.
Process bloat and decision-by-committee are two of the more toxic things that have invaded the world of work in the last generation.
We’re so busy covering our butts that we over-engineer, over-direct, and need 12 people’s input before we make a decision.
I’m a huge proponent of collaboration in the right circumstances because, when done well, it improves outcomes by a landslide. But not every decision needs a team. Not every process needs 10 steps and signoffs. Sometimes, the answer is just to roll up your sleeves and do what’s needed.
That’s especially true in lean teams (and who isn’t these days) where you have BIG goals and not a lot of resources. That kind of situation needs resourcefulness, creativity, and action above all. Which means empowering people to do what they’re good at, setting standards and clear expectations, and allowing people to be accountable for their own part of the recipe.
It’s not complex, but it’s hard, because in general people struggle to let go of control.
I used to be a terrible delegator because I was convinced that if I needed to get something done, I personally had to be involved otherwise it wouldn’t be good enough.
What a dumb way to work.
I can’t spend the time on the things I’m good at if I’m micromanaging the things other people are doing. As a team, we should be a well-oiled machine with a system going in which everyone has a role, there is little overlap, there are simple checks and balances, and that we’re all aiming for the same goal together. That requires everyone to lift their load, do their job, make decisions, and know when to get input to check their direction.
Now that I’ve learned better, I love to give people a flag in the sand and say ‘go get it, and see me if you get stuck’. I feel like my job as a leader is to remove as many obstacles as possible that my team is dealing with, and continue to provide encouragement and inspiration that the direction we’re going in is the right one. Note that nothing in there tells anyone how they should get to the goal. If I’ve hired the right people, they’ll figure that out for themselves, and our measurement and accountability checkins will tell us whether it’s working.
Be Willing to Turn Left.
The truth about leading in business or marketing today?
You have to be prepared to put aside everything you think you know and respond to what the market is telling you. If you think you have the most brilliant content strategy on earth but customers aren’t responding, you need to do something differently. You have to be watching the movement in the market in regard to the competition, M&A, how business needs are changing…and be willing to change right along with them.
Marketers tend to be incredibly risk-averse, finding the “tried and true” path and walking it over and over and over again and then blaming circumstances outside their control when their effectiveness wanes.
But there is no tried-and-true when the entire discipline is being disrupted left and right.
You’ve got to be willing to spy that fork in the road and turn, even if you can’t cite a zillion case studies about someone else who’s done it before. After all, leading and following are different, and if you want to be on the leadership end, you can’t wait for someone to prove your theory. You have to get out there and prove it yourself.
What Did I Miss?
I wrote this rather off-the-cuff so I’m sure there are big things missing (and it’s a topic I could go on at length about, really, given how broken I think a lot of modern leadership is, especially in marketing.). I don’t think this is particularly groundbreaking material, but I DO think it’s exponentially more important in a business environment that’s changing so rapidly to emphasize these things and to drop the fluffy leadership mantras and Successories stuff on the walls.
We have heavy work to do in the next five years and I want to be sure I’m up for the challenge.
Is there a question you have about how I’d tackle (or think other leaders should tackle) certain things? Do you have thoughts on what makes a great leader in a modern, fast-moving work environment? What are the traits of the best bosses you’ve had? Do you think today’s marketing leaders have higher expectations, and why?
I’d love to hear more from you in the comments.