This week I have found myself in San Antonio, Texas facilitating an offsite for a client who has brought her leadership team together for the first time in nearly 18 months. The leaders came in from across the USA, a few from Europe, and one from Israel. For many of them, it was the first time they had met in person, and it was great to be a part of this company milestone.
While I have been coaching a few of the leaders for the past 6 – 12 months, I hadn’t met all of them, so I decided to kick off the first morning with an activity which would help me get to know them better … as leaders.
I shared a slide which contained three questions.
- Why did you want to be a leader at [my client’s company]?
- What have been the major influences on you as a leader?
- What is your ambition for the team you lead?
I then asked them to break off into pairs and work through each of the questions. After 20 minutes, they would have the opportunity to introduce each other to the team.
This was not only a chance for me to learn more about the team I would be spending the next three days with, but it was also a way for them to practise deep listening. After all, they wouldn’t be introducing themselves. They would be introducing a colleague – perhaps someone they were really getting to know for the first time.
As it happened, there was one leader whose flight had been cancelled and who would only be arriving after lunch so there was an odd number of leaders in the group. Rather than joining in on the activity, my client (the CEO) asked if I would be OK pairing up with one of the leaders for the exercise instead.
In a forum like this, I would normally have spent the 20 minutes listening in on the different group discussions, but in this case I was happy to take part in the activity.
I ended up being paired up with Miguel who had some very interesting responses to the questions and after he had shared his answers, he said, “So now it’s your turn, Paul”.
To be honest, even though I had planned for the exercise to be run in groups of two, I certainly hadn’t planned to have to actually answer the questions myself. And now at the 10-minute mark, Miguel was eager to hear how I would respond (to my own questions)!
As I share my own responses here, you might want to think about how you might answer these questions for yourself. Regardless of how long you have been in a leadership role, reflecting on these could be an interesting exercise for you, too.
I first became a leader in the mid-90’s. At the time I wanted to be a leader quite simply because I was ambitious. I had seen the impact many of the leaders at my first place of employment were having on the direction of the business and I wanted the opportunity to make a significant impact on the company, too. I wanted to be able to shape the organisation’s strategy and culture.
Whilst I had witnessed some horribly toxic examples of leadership early on in my career, I had also seen a few examples of leaders who definitely inspired and motivated their teams, creating productive and highly engaged workplaces. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to build high performing teams; I wanted to empower others and help cultivate a culture of excellence.
I would be lying if I didn’t also admit that another reason for wanting to become a leader was the external recognition that came with it. I had seen bosses get invited to speak at conferences interstate and overseas. And I wanted that, too.
When Miguel put this question to me, I told him that rather than answering what had been the major influences on me, I would rather talk about who had been the major influences on me as a leader – and in particular two leaders and the impact each of them had on making me the person I am professionally today.
I shared three brief stories.
I remember walking to meet a new client with my boss. I’d been trying to get into this particular company for a few months and my contact had finally agreed to meet. As we got into the elevator my boss casually said, “I’d like you run this one, Paul”.
I could feel my heart start to race and I’m sure she could see the sweat starting to appear on my forehead! I must have looked mortified, but she then said, “I’ll be here if you need me, but I trust you 100%”.
I can still recall everything about that particular meeting. How it played out; How terrified I’d felt walking into the first ever meeting I would take the lead on; And how excited I’d been when we were asked to formally tender for the business.
“Well done, Paul. You were great”, my boss said as we walked out of the building. “Are you up for the challenge to take the lead on the proposal too?”
I was on cloud nine. She trusted me.
A few years later (and in another business), I had experienced my first stint as a team leader looking after two new employees in the business. I’d been working really hard, and I had come pretty close to burning out. I came back to the office from a meeting one afternoon and there was a Kit Kat on my desk next to my keyboard.
My boss had written a note that simply said, “Have a break. (Have a Kit Kat). And please see me when you get back”.
He shared some really encouraging feedback with me and told me he was giving me a few days off (and not taking them out of my annual leave) as a thank you for my efforts over the previous three months.
“I can’t have you burning out, Paul. We really need you. And I’m going to tell the new guys not to disturb you at all for the few days you’re away”.
I’ll never forget that gesture.
Over the years I have also learned that ‘being perceptive’ is a very good trait for any leader.
One afternoon back in 2005 the same (Kit Kat) boss and I went out for lunch, and he asked me how I was feeling about things in general. We’d always had a really good working relationship and I had no problem letting him know that I was feeling a bit “too comfortable”.
“I’ve definitely sensed that. [pause] So how about a move to Hong Kong?”
That question was the catalyst for one of the most amazing adventures in my leadership career.
Sometimes it’s important for a leader to help their team members’ careers progress even if it means a major move (or perhaps even parting ways completely).
I had a very brief response to this question, and it was something that I shared with anyone who ever joined my team on their very first day.
My role was simply to always ensure that when (not if) they ever left my team or my company, that I would have helped them become a better professional than when they first joined me.
That was it.
“I really like that”, Miguel said just before I called “time” on the group exercise. “Are you OK if I share that with the group when I introduce you to the team?”.
“Sure”, I replied.
Remember, hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders remember why they wanted to become a leader in the first place, and why they should always have an ambition for the team they lead.