Any crisis will accelerate and exaggerate what was already happening in a business and team. Over the last few months, we have been encouraged by feedback from the leaders we know and work with across the Channel Islands; they have been highly engaged and energized throughout this crisis.
Most tell us that they have enjoyed the fast-changing conditions, even though “enjoyed” feels like an inappropriate word to them given that the virus and lockdown have been – and remains – a challenging experience for many people. No one would wish for a pandemic, yet as uninvited as this has been, it has proven a catalyst for creative action, pulling leaders and leadership teams together to address a significant, shared threat.
Yet there is a problem with our companies. This creative, solving, initiating energy seems to stop at the leadership team. When speaking with our MDs, CEOs, and Directors, we hear a frequent observation; that those next in line for the top jobs have been – with some rare exceptions – unusually quiet when it has come to initiating change during this crisis. Our recent survey of leaders in the Channel Islands shows that over 60% highlight a lack of initiative and creativity in their company as being an issue to address.
As Guernsey has unlocked, we have observed this problem frequently across a wide variety of businesses and organizations. We believe that there are three ways that leaders can and must address this – and they are each the responsibility of the leader.
1) Make your expectations crystal clear.
Too often, leaders unintentionally set their people up to fail by not making their expectations clear. High standards and common-sense are leadership attributes to be encouraged. But the problem with common sense is that it’s only familiar to those who clearly understand what’s expected of them.
As with practically every leadership skill, there is a crucial nuance here. Being crystal clear is less about setting out every task like an overbearing micro-manager might try to do. It’s more about ensuring that the overall objectives and priorities are clear – where we are going – and the cultural expectations are clear – how we will get there.
Some indications that this might be your leadership problem include:
– Words like “surely” and “obviously” are frequently part of your vocabulary. Things that are sure and obvious to you might not be so to others.
– You have little time to explain things; conversations are rushed and end with phrases like, “Is that OK? While you’re nodding vigorously, thereby signaling that it should be OK and leaving little space for others to clarify expectations.
– You associate their position with tacit knowledge; “they get paid enough, they should know.” We see this especially in businesses that assume they’re recruiting the finished article, people that need little input and should perform from day one.
– You talk more about them (their underperformance) than to them.
– Feedback is superficial or non-existent. Your most recent catch-up conversation was months ago.
– You have too many priorities, leaving people uncertain as to what matters the most. They’re working hard, but not necessarily on the right things. The clue is in the word ‘priority’; spend more time negotiating genuine priorities and sticking to them, rather than making everything important.
2) Ask questions, even when you know the answer.
It is perhaps natural in a crisis for a leader to give answers and direction when presented with a new problem. People look to leaders for such solutions in a crisis and there is a place for this ineffective leadership.
However, when leaders become a decision-making vending machine, creativity will be lost. Rather than benefitting from diverse ideas, decisions end up at the top – and worse, solely with the CEO. This is a recipe for a future disaster; no one person has all the right answers.
We observed this as the islands emerged from lockdown. The leaders we spent time with were significantly occupied with flexible working. Their people were asking what the new flexible working arrangements would be, then waiting (and in some cases, pressing) for the answer. We encouraged leaders to ask their people for ideas rather than spend time discussing the merits and drawbacks of variable working hours and specifics like dress code. Some set up working parties to discuss, explore and recommend to the executive.
If you hear little initiative, ask questions openly (not interrogatively) rather than give answers – even (and especially) if you think you know what the answer should be.
- “What would you suggest?”
- “What have you tried?”
- “What do you think are our top three options?”
- “Who’s impacted by this and what do they think?”
- “How does this fit with our priorities?”
For some of our more high-control clients, we ask them to answer every question with a question until the other person concludes. While at one level that can seem irritating, this approach significantly helps raise critical thinking and initiative in any team.
3) Lead in your absence, not just in your presence.
Being “there” and present is undoubtedly essential in leadership. Many leaders that we work with have been especially present over the crisis, leading more meetings than usual, checking in with their people, more recently being physically in the office; travel restrictions have undoubtedly helped with this.
Outstanding leadership is also leading in absence. People make good decisions, using their skill and experience, and knowing that the leader is in support even when not in the room. This is, in fact, essential if up and coming leaders are to learn to trust themselves.
I would argue that this is now more important than ever. The pandemic crisis has caused some people to doubt their decision-making ability. Leaders that provide a comfort blanket – taking charge of every meeting, checking every report, calling the difficult client – affirm and embed that doubt.
Instead, good leaders will step back and deliberately be physically absent so that their colleagues can take the responsibility that is theirs to take.
Here are some tactics that will help:
- Good leaders tell others, “I trust you; you’ve got this” and let them take on the situation.
- Not sitting in on meetings that others can capability lead. Instead, checking in with them afterward for the headlines.
- When asked to review someone else’s work, either tell them that you’re confident that they know what they’re doing, and it doesn’t need your checking or ask them to point to the particular part that they feel less confident about. Don’t impose your style over their substance.
- Deliberately plan on taking time out of the office for a few hours in a week to focus on your strategic thinking. Let your colleagues know that you’re out, they can phone you if genuinely urgent, but you won’t be responding to emails/messages from them.
Creativity takes confidence and courage. It is the leader’s role to build confidence and encourage others; there’s no better way to inspire your people.