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Communicating as a Leader

Growing Leaders in Professional Service Environments

Catherine See asked:

Simply speaking, leadership is about supporting people and teams to be successful. If you apply that to a professional workforce, the first consideration is around what constitutes success? Obviously, there are some hard measures around achieving targets, meeting budgets, producing outcomes for clients on time and to set specifications; but there are also some less obvious notions to consider around supporting staff to be ‘happy’ in their roles (wanting to stay working with and for you); providing stretch and opportunity to high performers; building strong relationships with stakeholders and modelling the right behaviours.

One of the tricks is that this picture of leadership – to many observers – is all about ‘soft’ people stuff. Yes it certainly is about relationships but also seeks to apply some hard thinking about the sorts of skills we need to develop in leaders to deal with those things that cause most damage and frustration in work situations – issues that involve people, communication, poor expectation management, conflict that remains largely unresolved and so on. One of the reasons that I think we dismiss the ‘soft’ skills (a term I find troublesome) is that we are so lousy at applying them – particularly skills around conflict management, difficult conversations and assertive communications. You’ll be relieved to know that for most people that’s true outside of work as well as at work!

With the best of intentions, we’ve created mediocre leadership development and leadership training programs for some time and have thrown money and energy at leadership training that has achieved limited results. We continue to look for simple solutions to complex problems and – in many cases – it’s pretty easy to predict that there will be no positive outcomes. Yet at the same time the appetite to invest in very challenging leadership growth is sometimes not there, particularly when asking senior leaders to actively play a part!

So how do we support the growth of new leaders?

Here are a few simple discussion points for us to consider

1. Choose leaders well and for the right reasons

Across the professions, there’s a history of career progression equating to a management or leadership role – the best physician becomes the Director of Medicine / the best lawyer becomes the Managing Partner. We reward their professional expertise by putting them in charge and then ask them to do things that don’t relate to the expertise that got them there.

While there’s nothing wrong with that in itself, we need to be clear when appointing people into leadership roles that they understand the content of their work will be different. Their focus in enabling the success of the firm or their team will be through other people and will focus around communication of vision; strategy development; resource management; relationship management; team development and not primarily around the subject matter expertise in their professional field. If their heart isn’t in leading, they’ll be ordinary (at best).

2. Ensure new leaders are ‘volunteers’ not ‘conscripts’

You need to want to be a leader to be a good one – that’s not the same as wanting to be the expert in the firm or the highest biller or the nicest person. Napoleon noted that leaders are primarily ‘dealers in hope’. If we have people in leadership roles who simply are unhappy, their chance of being optimistic and generating a mood for success within their team is pretty grim.

3. Be the leaders you want new leaders to grow in to

Without doubt, leadership creates culture and sets the tone for how any organisation will move forward. You can not outsource this. Leaders must model the values they truly believe are critical to the organisation. It is the ‘unwritten’ rather than the written ground-rules that people will remember and new leaders will model.

4. Ensure synergy of your organisation’s ‘people’ systems

Fantastic leadership requires support of the people systems that your leader will need to access as their primary tool kit. If you want leaders to give clear expectations to staff, to achieve synergies across the workforce; to enable knowledge management and learning, to reward high performers and to engage and develop teams in achieving excellent results don’t tie their hands behind their backs by giving them systems that don’t support that.

5. Support the ‘personal’ learning journey in the transition to leader

Leadership development is an inside-out process. It starts with an individual building self-awareness through an understanding of their own style and preferred behaviour and then learning about how to best relate to others in their teams and then their organisation and broader client community – much like the layers of an onion. Strong self-awareness and an ability to understand and relate to others is key to success in achieving anything else as a leader.

6. Support capability development through ‘real’ learning

Adult learners want to learn things they can use. They want things to be immediately relevant to their practice. Learning is also inherently an uncomfortable process as we are challenged to ‘shift’ our thinking. We should remember this in the design of any leadership development.

In designing leadership development programs for new leaders, our premise is that capable people use their competencies in novel, unfamiliar circumstances as well as the familiar. This level of adaptation requires the person to be able to work in teams, know how to learn, be creative, have a high level of self-confidence, and have appropriate values. Thus our programs are highly experiential and are grounded in reflection on practice; action learning and achieving sustainable change. We also encourage the participants to become story-tellers, supporting them to build relationships through sharing of ideas and experiences. Not rocket science but amazingly powerful with the right ingredients.

In short, try simple approaches to supporting new leaders to be their best in a world of complexity so they personally can be successful and can enable the success of others.

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