How Do I Adapt My Leadership Style as My Team Grows? | Coaching Real Leaders | Podcast

How Do I Adapt My Leadership Style as My Team Grows? | Coaching Real Leaders | Podcast

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[MUSIC PLAYING] ANNOUNCER: HBR Presents. MURIEL WILKINS: I'm Muriel Wilkins and this is Coaching Real Leaders, part of the HBR Presents Network. I'm a longtime executive coach who works with highly successful leaders who've hit a bump in the road. My job is to help them get over that bump by clarifying their goals and figuring out a way to reach them so that hopefully they can lead with a little more ease.

I typically work with clients over the course of several months, but on this show, we have a one-time coaching meeting focusing on a specific leadership challenge they're facing. Today's guest is someone we'll call Alex to protect his confidentiality. He's been working in a sales-driven retail sector for over a decade.

ALEX: So I started at the bottom and stuck with the same company for six years, slowly working my way up that food chain, and ended up in a general sales manager role which, in our industry, is commonly the second person in command in any one division. MURIEL WILKINS: A few years ago, Alex was given the opportunity to lead a division, and he significantly increased its revenue. That success led him to take over an even bigger division about a year ago where he now holds an executive role. It involves a very different skill set than what helped him rise up the ranks in the first place.

ALEX: Almost all of the entry-level positions in this industry are individual production-based, commission-based. What happens a lot is people get really good at earning for themselves. And the first typical 1, 2, 3 steps up the ladder of hierarchy are still individual production, just producing different results with different products, different people. And a big point of failure in our industry, or at least in my opinion in our industry is, when you get to the level when you're a manager of people, but all up until then you've been only responsible for your own production. MURIEL WILKINS: Alex has had success on both levels in his career as an individual contributor and also now as a leader of teams.

But he's wondering how he can keep scaling up that leadership and grow even more. I wanted to better understand how he'd made it happen so far. Let's dive in. As you have-- as you said, you started from the bottom and rose up-- kind of reminds me of that Drake song, "Started From the Bottom," now we're here.

So now you're here. ALEX: That's my life story. MURIEL WILKINS: That's your life story. OK. Now you're here.

What do you attribute to your rise and your success in your career so far? ALEX: I feel a big turning point for me was I took that role seriously about developing people around me and getting results through them, and was able to really slough off the, it's about me and what I can do mentality that, in my own words, just plagues the management in our industry. So that was a big turning point for a younger guy getting a shot at managing a small team, to really spend most of my time investing in developing them rather than just what I could produce individually. MURIEL WILKINS: And when you made that shift in terms of going from an individual contributor to a people manager and that differentiating you, what were some of the things that you focused on that helped you make that shift effectively? ALEX: I don't know if I have a great answer to that. I remember a conversation with a mentor of mine that had been with me for those first two or three steps. He told me, you have to think about the other person first, what you can get for them, then just watch the byproduct for you.

And that was a tough thing for me to rationalize being in an industry that's measured fiscally monthly on individual performance and try to think, man, if I work with this person and I see them really successful, I may not reap that benefit for a couple of weeks, months, maybe several months. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: That was a challenging thing for me, but that was one of the things I learned. MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. That's interesting you say that.

I often think about, particularly in an industry like yours where even being an individual contributor is very commission-based, it's sort of eat what you kill. ALEX: Exactly. MURIEL WILKINS: And then you move to a people manager role as you did and you think about the advice that your mentor gave you, and you really go from being a lone wolf, eat what you kill, to becoming more of a gardener where you have to cultivate and wait-- or a farmer and wait for the harvest not knowing if it's ever going to come. ALEX: That's right. MURIEL WILKINS: So it sounds like you were able to do that when you moved into managing this initial group. So fast forward to now, how many people do you manage? ALEX: So what my division that I lead, I have 113 employees.

They are not direct reports to me. I have five direct reports to me. MURIEL WILKINS: All right, so it's increased in complexity in terms of the number of people. ALEX: Significantly.

MURIEL WILKINS: Significantly. ALEX: Within those five direct reports, those are all separate departments with separate revenue streams that funnel up to the top. So it's definitely complex. MURIEL WILKINS: So here we are.

What is it that brings you here today? What is it that you wanted to work through? ALEX: What I really want to spend time working through is I seem to hit this same roadblock over and over in this role, and I need to give you a little bit of background on the difference in my last very successful position and the one now that is-- it is going relatively successful, but I have a thirst to be more successful. So in the last division, we doubled revenue and kept fixed costs and headcounts flat. And that was with a team of 50 in one brick-and-mortar building. So I tell everyone, that job, even though it's the same job I have now, is different because I could touch every employee in 10 minutes. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: And I could get involved with things at a much higher frequency.

So the ability to just handle most everything with those people was part of it. In this division, there's no possibility to be everywhere at once, and so I've got to manage through the direct reports. And I do consider myself a very effective delegator.

MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: I really have studied that. But where I hit the roadblock and why I'm interested in talking is I really have a thirst for learning. And so I like to be the best I can be in every area that I manage. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: The people that report to me are not necessarily as good as I am.

And I do think it is my role to cultivate independent thinkers and doers as a more executive-style role in this larger infrastructure company and with its complexity. But where I struggle is, I can delegate it well, I can paint really clear targets, hold people accountable for their primary job responsibilities, but there's a point in time where someone will say, let me get your input on this or how would you handle this? And I do have a good amount of self-restraint to say, well, return the question with a question. But it always ends up with me putting some layer or lens of my perception of how the problem should be solved or how the results should be achieved, and it detracts from their ability to operate independently and creates a real parasitic time situation for me because then they spend most of their time learning my way rather than developing their way, and all the while, the catch-22 is if they did it my way, yes, we would achieve the results, but I would have to constantly be a part of that, and I can't do that here and scale the business.

MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: It's not possible. MURIEL WILKINS: OK. I wish more people would come to that realization that you just came to, which is it's impossible to scale the business if you are involved at that level.

So just to replay, just to make sure I'm grasping where you're at right now, you are now leading a more complex organization. Not only has it grown in size in terms of the number of people, but even physically, it's a little bit more complex to handle. So it's difficult for you to try to have that hands-on approach that potentially you had in the past. And even though you effectively delegate, what you're finding is that your direct reports or some of the people on your team are still coming to you to seek guidance, and inevitably it leads to you providing your perspective, which tends to weigh on them heavily. Is that right? ALEX: Correct.

MURIEL WILKINS: OK. ALEX: Yes. MURIEL WILKINS: And so your hope is that you can get to a place where they can come up with their own solutions and act independently so that they're not overly reliant on you and it frees you up to do more of whatever it is that you feel you need to do? ALEX: That's right. MURIEL WILKINS: OK. So let's pick it up from there.

If this was not happening, if they were not coming and asking for guidance, do you envision you would be doing? Like what would that be replaced with? ALEX: I would be doing a lot of probably relationship-building with just all the staff, but then also vendor partners, and then doing things that are going to help us scale like recruiting or marketing our business to customers and employees. And then obviously measuring and testing results and targets. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. OK. And how much of that are you doing now? ALEX: I'd say a fair amount.

It's not as much as I'd like to be. MURIEL WILKINS: OK. ALEX: There's a big opportunity for people in my role to get in front of some new recruits and career path people and really build relationships and develop them, and I'm not able to do that because I am pretty parasitic drawn to part of production. MURIEL WILKINS: So I'm asking that question because I think it's important to understand and commit to what would replace the time that's now being spent with your team. If not, you just end up in a void and you just keep doing what you've been doing. So you have a clear sense of how you would be spending that time.

I mean, it's very concrete. You could even calendar it in so that what you're headed to. So let's explore what's happening now. What do you think is getting in the way of some of the folks you're dealing with independently coming up with solutions? ALEX: I think the first thing that comes to mind is I am always willing to listen and help. I may not always be available, but I will make time later or schedule time to help them. I think the second thing that's probably causing that not to happen is, I don't know, maybe I haven't specifically said, hey, doctrine of completed staff work style, you need to have this idea put together before you ask for my opinion.

Maybe I haven't cast that well. But other than that, I don't know what's getting in the way of them doing that. I could say also just maybe, like I said in the beginning, most people are individual producers and the individual producers become people managers and maybe they're thinking too narrow. Like what-- OK, what do I do? One of my direct reports has 40 employees of his own. I mean, you don't necessarily have to be a part of most of that at that level. So maybe it's some training-- or some education as to where-- what I'm counting on them to do or not do.

MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. I mean, Alex, I feel like you're coming up with your own answer. ALEX: I just felt-- I felt that way. [LAUGHTER] I felt that way.

It's because of your good questioner. MURIEL WILKINS: It's because of the question? Hey, I always ask the question. I often don't know the answer, but I like your answers. Like, what you've reflected here is, A, when you said, maybe I haven't said or cast that well that I need them to come. So the first is, have you set the expectation that that's what you want them to do? And then the second thing that you mentioned is-- I can't remember the exact wording, but basically like, are they capable of doing it? Do they have the skill to be able to come up with these solutions and present them to you in a way that then you can get into problem-solving? And then there's a third layer that I would add, which is, do they want to do that? Which is what we call commitment.

Let's take a pause here. It's clear to me that Alex understands what he wants from his team. He has some thoughts on how to approach them.

But he's feeling unsure about whether it's the right approach, and he's looking for me to give him the answer. While I could do that, my sense is that what will help him in the long run is to provide some framing to his thought process. A series of questions that will enable him to coach himself through these types of situations.

And the first thing for him to consider are his expectations. Because so many times, we expect certain results from others, and yet we've never told them what we expect. I was curious if that was the case with Alex and his direct reports. Let's pick the conversation back up as I explore this with him.

Nobody else can set the expectation but you as the leader. ALEX: Right. MURIEL WILKINS: So what is the expectation that you have or have not set as it regards to ultimately enabling them to be more independent and driving to solutions? ALEX: That's a really good question. I feel like I've done a very good job of letting everyone know where their level of empowerment was. I would say with some confidence that everyone knows what is a permission item and what's a forgiveness item. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm.

ALEX: I feel like I have not done a very good job of maybe asking or really clarifying when you have a roadblock on your plan or on the way to achieving the results we're counting on you to achieve, you need to touch these people or references and come to me with some potential solutions. Maybe that is what I need to work through. MURIEL WILKINS: And let me push that a little further. Let's say I'm one of your employees, and you're now giving me that expectation.

What would that look like for you? How do you think I can present it in a way that would be most effective for the exchange that needs to happen? ALEX: Well, I don't know if I could formalize that so quickly on the spot, but just casually I would say something to the effect of, I hear you have a problem. Who have you spoken to about this already? What material have you searched through? Have you looked at historical decisions like this and how they've gone? And then I would probably say, if the answer were no to one or all of those, so let's work on this together now. The next time I'm going to be counting on you to make sure you really vetted out everything you can possibly do before you tag me into the problem. Always willing to help, but I want to make sure we use the resources that you have first. MURIEL WILKINS: So when I asked you that, it was just for you to start getting some practice in terms of what's the template that you can set to underlie the expectation that you're going to ask around them being able to come to you with potential solutions? I mean, what you're really asking for is that you want-- I've heard this term used by one of my former client's bosses when he was struggling with the same thing, except the direct report he had was my client. And what he said was, I need him to be a problem-solver, not an issue-spotter.

And the issue-spotter are the ones who are like great at raising their hands and saying, there's an issue, there's an issue, there's an issue, without necessarily saying, oh, and I've also thought about, here are the three different ways that we could deal with this issue. And what I'm coming to you with, Alex, is three options for you to react to rather than putting the onus on you to actually come up with the solution. Do you get the differentiation there? ALEX: Yeah, that made a lot of sense. I just wrote that down.

A problem-solver, not an issue-spotter. MURIEL WILKINS: But in your role, what would be really helpful is to help them understand what that looks like in real-time. So it would be helpful to you to really clarify-- like think about past situations that you've been in where one of your direct reports has come to workshop a problem, what would have made that situation more helpful, more conducive to get to a place where they're using you to really react and get to the final endpoint rather than necessarily process through the whole thing? ALEX: So what you're suggesting is have whatever process, but just have some type of fundamental I can template onto everybody. Hey, when you have a problem, come with x, y, z, and that's just my thing. I always ask for. MURIEL WILKINS: I think you can come up with a framework that is going to help make those discussions more productive on both ends.

And what I mean by that is I'm going back to the goals that you articulated in terms of if this was in place, if this was not a roadblock, what would be happening? And what you said is, it would free up your time so you can deal with the higher-level executive stuff you have to deal with. And it would continue to build your direct reports' capacity to lead at the level at which they're at without overly relying on you. So there's basically scale being built on both ends. So whatever you come up with has to benefit on both ends. ALEX: I understand. MURIEL WILKINS: It's not just for your benefit.

And when I use the term framework, is really a guideline. It's not like-- it's like you've got to stick to this all the time, but it gives them some guardrails which support the expectation that you have. ALEX: OK. MURIEL WILKINS: All right.

So the first level is expectations. Then we go to this next piece that you brought up, which is around, what is their capability of doing this? What's the skill level that they have? When you look across your direct reports, how do you assess the level of skill and capability that they have currently to operate at the problem-solving level that you're expecting? ALEX: I don't know. I don't have a good answer to how to assess that. I mean, I suppose being more cognizant of how and when they approach me with problems. Is it very early on? Is it a little bit later? That's probably a good measurement, but I'd probably lean on your expertise to help me work through that.

MURIEL WILKINS: When I coach someone, it's not only about asking questions. Sometimes it's also about giving them a structure that they can use to think through their situation more concretely. That way, they're picking up a tool that they can use in the future and they don't have to recreate the wheel each and every time. In Alex's case, he keeps asking for my answer, or my expertise, as he calls it. But I'm not here to be an expert on his people.

He knows his people. What I can do is give him a little training within the coaching conversation. I realized that teaching Alex a little bit about the situational leadership framework and how he can apply it to his team would be really helpful to him. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard created the situational leadership framework quite a while back, but in my opinion, it still stands the test of time, and so I use it here to help Alex structure his approach. Let's jump back in now to look deeper at the expectations he has for his team and how realistic they are. The question in and of itself is something also that you need to pay attention to in anything that you're expecting of your leaders.

What is your assessment of where they are right now from a capability standpoint? Why? Because if you have an expectation and their capability doesn't match that expectation, something's got to change. Either their skill level needs to go up or your expectation needs to go down. Because when there's a gap between the two, that's where the frustration will ensue on both ends. ALEX: Mm-hmm. MURIEL WILKINS: So we've already calibrated what your expectation is.

Now you've got to look at their skill level and say, is it even realistic that they can meet that expectation? How do you do that? The first is, have they ever done this before? Not maybe exactly that, but do you have any line of sight in terms of experience that they've had in the past that gives you some evidence that they should be capable of doing what you're asking them to do? And again, it doesn't have to be exact, it can be analogous. ALEX: Right. So can I ask a clarifying question on that? MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: I want to go a little deeper on that. So back to how most people end up in these roles, is from being successful in individual production. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm.

ALEX: As you were saying that, I was thinking about the direct reports I have and what they're capable of doing. And I feel very strongly that all of them are the best of the best at everything their direct reports do. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: Maybe the capability is in actually the people management side. And that-- I don't know how to identify, have you done this before? And what if the answer is no? MURIEL WILKINS: OK. So the first is an assessment of what they have done, and in what way does it relate to what you're expecting of them? And it doesn't mean if they haven't done it that it's like, oh my gosh, that we're done.

Doesn't mean that at all. It just is one data point so that you can know what the baseline is. And if they haven't done it, then that's what we then call-- it's an untested area.

We don't know if they've done it or not. We don't know yet. And so you now have to provide opportunity for them to be able to flex their muscle in that particular area. So let's say one of them is in problem-solving.

You're not giving them the opportunity to even test out and grow in that area if you're swooping in and doing it for them. And you're not even swooping in, they're pulling you in. ALEX: Mm-hmm. MURIEL WILKINS: And so, again, number one, have they done it? Yes? No? No, OK, untested, now I've got to give them an opportunity. How do I do that? Next time they come to me and say, this is something I'm working through, goes back to what you said earlier, you might need to not be so willing. Not because you don't care, but for the sake of their growth and their development.

To be able to say, I'm happy to help, but not yet. I would like you to do this on your own. How does that land with you? ALEX: It feels very unfamiliar. MURIEL WILKINS: [LAUGHS] In what way? ALEX: Yeah, it feels like 20-grit sandpaper. Very rough.

I understand trying not to do too much and let them have a chance to try it on their own and encourage them to do that and stay out of it. What if what their plan-- maybe somebody comes to me and says, hey, I've got this issue and they are more capable, and they say, here's a couple of ways I'm thinking of solving this, what's your opinion? And we volley back and forth. And I let them-- encourage them to talk out which one they're in favor of and then support that.

So I don't just give them what I would do, I just help them like you're helping me evaluate their decisions and they come to the conclusion. What would happen if I know that that's not going to be a fruitful way of doing that? How would I handle that? I'll give you a real-world example. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: There is a direct report of mine who has an excellent track record, was with me at the other division, I've seen him grow and develop.

He definitely is committed, very capable. He is asking me to help him with solving a problem for the first time he's encountered it, and that is terminating an employee. He's never had to do that, but we're at the point where he's gotta do that. And he has pulled me into that. I really feel like you should be here. I got to have you involved in this.

And putting HR formalities aside, we have other people who could be there with him, but he has no experience doing that, and that's a pretty high-stakes problem to solve wrong. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: So how do I help them in really high-stakes situations like that by staying out of it? Do I put a resource with them that's an expert but it's not me? Or do I do the first one thing, whatever it is-- maybe not be terminating an employee, as serious as that, but do I do a little bit of it with them? Help me understand that.

MURIEL WILKINS: Once again, I think you're coming up with your own answers. I think there's a gradient, it's never going to be black or white. The critical thing that you said here, though, that I think you can hold is how high are the stakes? Meaning, how risky is this decision we're about to make? So as the leader of that organization, you are also the manager of risk. ALEX: That's right.

MURIEL WILKINS: So you can ascertain or discern or make a judgment call around what are the issues relative to risk that really warrant your involvement versus those where you can back off a little bit. So that then, you feel that you're creating development opportunities for them, learning opportunities for them where if things go wrong, yeah, it might hurt a little bit, but it's not-- it ain't that bad. ALEX: Mm-hmm. MURIEL WILKINS: But only you can make that discernment, and so you have to assess it.

And I think what we're coming up with is criteria for you to determine how involved you should be. One of them is, how capable is the person? The second is situational. What are the stakes of this situation? What's the level of risk associated with it? Well, the higher the level of risk and the lower the skill of the individual, the more of Alex we need.

ALEX: Right. But something where the risk and skill are matched, maybe just untested, but the risk and skill are matched, let them try it out? MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, why not? ALEX: If it goes wrong, it may sting, but it's not going to sting for super long, and that's the judgment call I have to make. MURIEL WILKINS: That's right. Because if not, what you're creating is a term that we call learned helplessness. I don't know if you're familiar with that term. ALEX: I'm not, until just now.

MURIEL WILKINS: What do you think it means? ALEX: Yeah, exactly what the two words mean, is I'm teaching them to go on about their day, and when they need something, come get me, and I'll do it for them. MURIEL WILKINS: That's right, that's right. And, I mean, how does that serve you, Alex, in any way? ALEX: It really doesn't, except for it creates a lot of unexpected upward delegation. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm.

Yeah. ALEX: And takes me out of doing important things. MURIEL WILKINS: Right. What's interesting to me is that that model worked for you in the past because, as you said, the scope was smaller.

It's probably where you drew a lot of your own sell value in terms of what you brought to the table to your team. But now, as your organization has grown, you're realizing, oh my gosh, what used to be comfortable is now uncomfortable because it's keeping me from adding value. So what was a value-add before potentially now is a value-drainer for you. So, it's not to say that you never help your people. Like that's not what we're saying at all. It just means that it looks different.

And as much as you have to level up, they need to level up as well. ALEX: I understand that. I really understand that. May I bounce the situation off of you that occurred recently? I'm listening to what you're saying and I feel like maybe the process I already understand, I just-- I'm not executing it at a high level every time. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm.

ALEX: I have a direct report and his direct report-- there's a couple of layers of management in that area-- have an issue with an employee that I would consider high-risk if they were to resign. I mean, a key player, A player. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: And they approached me and said, we know that we need to restore the trust in this relationship with this individual it's broken. We need to keep them on the team and we need to do it in a way that works for him and us. Can you help us understand how we would-- some best practices to do that with this individual? We set up a time, and I walked them through some good questions to ask themselves before going into that discussion.

MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: Help them learn just in general through my experiences, when people take things super seriously and when they don't, what does that language look like? What's the setting look like? And then said, well, why don't you all let me know when you're going to do that and then let me know how it went. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: And I feel like, reflecting on that situation, I did a pretty good job of assessing, hey, this is a pretty high-risk situation. These two individuals happen to also be very capable, so they really don't need me to do it, they may just need me to help them think through it.

Is that where you were going with that practice? MURIEL WILKINS: Well, I think it's kind of where you're going. Because what you just articulated there is didn't delegate fully, and you weren't super directive, you didn't tell them, well, here are the three things I need you to do. What you did is you coached them as a manager. Not coach like how I coach, but you basically were using coaching skills as a manager by asking them questions, by helping them process through it until they could come up with their own answer. And potentially you weighed in on that answer. And so, again, we can go back to this is very situational.

There is no one check the box, this is what I do every single time. Are they confident to be able to complete the task? And do they have a willingness? How motivated are they to complete the task? And depending where they are on either of those two levers is how you then approach them as a manager. So if they are highly capable and highly committed, what do you think you can do? ALEX: Just help them come to their own conclusion. MURIEL WILKINS: You just delegate it.

ALEX: Right. MURIEL WILKINS: If they a low capability, so low skill, but you have some level-- have a level of commitment, what do you think you need to do? ALEX: Probably teach them the skills or work with them to raise their skill level. MURIEL WILKINS: That's right. So you will be more directive. And then anything in between you are being supportive and/or you're coaching.

And coaching is what you described in that situation. So for you, what you need to be able to do consistently is assess, assess, assess. And depending on what you're assessing, that's how you approach it, rather than having a one-size-fits-all in terms of your approach. ALEX: That makes good sense. We've talked a lot about capability. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm.

ALEX: What about the situation where someone's capable but not committed? MURIEL WILKINS: So what about that? ALEX: How would you work with someone like that? I've faced that situation recently where it's, hey, I have this person and there's an issue and I just-- well, I'll just let them go. MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: Because there's so much apathy, and they know they could coach through it and work with them. How do I get them to that level? Is that expectation-setting? Is it-- MURIEL WILKINS: So let's work through that. So this falls in the realm of being more-- coaching them and being supportive. And so what is it that's causing them to not be committed? ALEX: I don't know.

I would venture to say they just do not want to deal with it because it's a problem. I don't think I asked enough questions. MURIEL WILKINS: What made you not ask those questions? ALEX: What made me not ask those questions, just, quite frankly, is this person very rarely even comes to me for assistance with anything and performs at a high level.

MURIEL WILKINS: Mm-hmm. ALEX: And my reflecting, which you are doing a phenomenal job of making me do, I think what was going through my mind is this, out of my five direct reports, this person is like the least of my efforts and they perform at a high level, they could just be having a bad day, let me just handle this for them, maybe like doing them a favor is what was coming through my mind rather than probing a little deeper. MURIEL WILKINS: And so what's your goal with your people? ALEX: I want to provide them with skill and experience and me with time. MURIEL WILKINS: So all I would ask is, is your action-- and we can look at that particular situation-- aligned with the goal? ALEX: Probably not. Actually, definitely not. MURIEL WILKINS: So it's not a right or wrong or a good or bad.

It's just alignment. There's nothing wrong with doing somebody a favor. But I think there were a lot of assumptions baked into that. So I'd say the first thing is check your assumptions.

I think the question that you said, like why don't you want to call this person? What's going on? What are you concerned about? So that you could understand what's at the root of what you're seeing or interpreting as potential lack of commitment. If you don't understand what's at the root of it, it's very hard to try to motivate the person. You don't know what you're motivating. So again, it's not black or white. You're literally having to discern and make a judgment call all along the way. What I want you to be aware of, though, is the actions that you can take in service of growing and developing your people, which is your ultimate goal so that it can also create some leverage for you, is the action that you're then taking.

What's the action that you're taking that's most aligned with that? ALEX: So back to just assess, assess, assess. MURIEL WILKINS: You mentioned, well, what happens if somebody is just not committed at all? Like you've tried to understand what motivates them. You've tried to motivate them and you just can't get at it. Well on the flip side, the skill, like you've tried to teach the skill, you've sent them to training, you've provided all the resources so that they can build the skill, and that skill is just not being built, then you have a decision to make. Is that person sitting in the right seat on the bus? Because that also is your responsibility. ALEX: Right.

MURIEL WILKINS: It's like when your kids choose a sport and then you're like watching them play that sport and you're like, oh my God. [LAUGHS] Not the right sport for them or an instrument. At some point, it's like, maybe the interest needs to lie somewhere else. ALEX: Right.

MURIEL WILKINS: Unless they enjoy it. They're highly motivated, that's great. But that's only going to get them so far. Just like skill is going to get you but so far, you also have to have the motivation. That's what you want to be constantly looking for over the long-term.

So far in our coaching conversation, Alex has made it very clear what his problem is and how he's been thinking about it. He's motivated to do better, not just at delegating, but it really scaling up his leadership. And we've talked through some specific scenarios as to times when he swooped in to handle something instead of prodding someone he manages a bit deeper and guiding them into finding their answers themselves. It's a classic move that leaders need to make to learn to level up. To shift away from directly solving problems themselves.

But as with any new muscle you need to build, there's some discomfort. To lead sustainably, he'll need to use this muscle on repeat rather than do it once and think he's done. But if he's not careful, he could let the discomfort get in the way. Let me ask you this, because when we first started talking about this, and I think I said, oh, you need to have these conversations, it was a specific conversation, and you said, yeah, that feels like-- I forgot what you called it, but like sandpaper, it felt rough, uncomfortable.

What was uncomfortable about it? ALEX: What's uncomfortable is hearing you say this. When I think about capable and committed, I already am capable and I'm already committed enough to do this, I just simply haven't been doing it. And when you said that, that's what felt rough to me, is as wow, I have known this all along and simply have not practiced self-discipline or enough restraint to execute at a high level. MURIEL WILKINS: So when you say that, it means that you have certain expectations of yourself. ALEX: That's right. MURIEL WILKINS: That you should have done this.

You're learning, as you said. You said you're thirsty to learn and grow. And so there is no "I should have known this" if you're a learner. And one of the things that you can model to your team members is what it looks like to be a leader who's committed to learning and growing, because that's what you're hoping they're doing. If what you model instead is that you already have the answer and you should know the answer, what do you think's going to happen? ALEX: They're going to come to me for the answer every time.

MURIEL WILKINS: And what is happening? ALEX: Exactly that. MURIEL WILKINS: Exactly. ALEX: Yeah.

That's funny. You said earlier expectations have to match-- what did you say? You expect-- your expectation-- MURIEL WILKINS: I said a lot of things, I don't know. ALEX: Yeah. You said your expectations have to match what they're able to do, based on their level of capability, and commitment I think is what you said, right? I hear a lot of people say to me, your expectations are too high, your expectations are too high. And I have those expectations for myself that are super high like you just said, and I think that's a good takeaway for me, is really assess that gap, because they're-- Part of the reason we're here today is the frustration that's coming from that gap.

MURIEL WILKINS: Right. OK. And frustration-- you might have heard me say this other times.

Frustration always comes from the gap between what you expect and the reality of what's happening. ALEX: Right. MURIEL WILKINS: And until you can come to terms with both, unless you're very well-managed, frustration ensues. Now, does that mean you just have to have low standards for your people or just say, oh well, it is what it is, this is how they're going to be? No.

You want to see them for where they are. Like you have to accept the skill level at which they're at so that then you can decide what to do. It's not just so that you can say, oh well, that's where they're at.

It's so that then you can decide what to do. You have to see it for what it is. And so that's one piece, and that's what's happening presently. And at the same time, as the leader, you have to hold the belief of what they're capable of in the future, and that's their potential. So where there is a risk of getting really frustrated is expecting them to be fulfilling their future potential today.

That's what we call magical thinking. ALEX: I do a lot of magical thinking. MURIEL WILKINS: [LAUGHS] don't we all, don't we all? ALEX: That's exactly where my frustration lies, is I expect everybody to hold themselves to the highest standards I have for myself, and so then I cast that on them and most people are just not-- can't think that way. MURIEL WILKINS: My sense is, Alex, that you probably want to see yourself as a leader who inspires, not intimidates. So when you-- ALEX: Correct. MURIEL WILKINS: And I'm not saying-- I don't get the sense from you that you intimidate in terms of your demeanor or your tone, but your knowledge might be so intimidating, your ability to have the answer might be unconsciously intimidating to people that they would rather come to you to the answer than risk coming to you not knowing.

And so what do you think you could do that would make others feel more comfortable coming to you not knowing exactly what the answer is, but willing to take a risk that they will suggest a solution? ALEX: That's a great way to put that. I've never thought about it that way, but that is exactly what is occurring, is people are coming to me because I'm such a wealth of knowledge, they are so afraid to think anything other than what I've already thought. And I think, to answer your question, maybe leading by example, like you said, and being maybe more visible about I'm working on or I'm learning or I don't know everything is important. Maybe encouraging them that I'd rather see them learn on their own then come to me with the answer. And if there's a rough journey to get there, that's OK. I'll be with them on the journey, but I'd rather them learn for themselves.

And just really make that apparent to them, that it's not-- I'm not grading you on your decision if you do not know. I'll be grading you on your level of commitment to learn. MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. So what you're talking about, Alex, is two things.

One is, you want to be explicit about creating some safety for them to learn, which is almost the same as safety for them to fail. And so what are the conditions that you can put in place or what are the things you can say, what are the things you can-- actions you can take that create an environment, a culture of safety for real learning to happen? Because real learning doesn't happen without mistakes, real learning doesn't happen without some missteps, some backsliding, et cetera. So that's one.

And you have to think about that from a cultural standpoint, what it is that you're doing in your organization. I think the second thing is that in the individual level, when you said, hey, I need to lead by example. And so the question for you is, how do you demonstrate to your people, day in, day out, that you also are a learner? That you don't have everything figured out all the time. And I think that's really a personal thing, because even here on this call, when we hit that one little piece where you were like, mmm, that's uncomfortable, and I said, what's uncomfortable? And you're like, I should have known that, I should have done it.

Well, you didn't. You're a learner. And so getting comfortable with not knowing something or not doing something is your path that actually demonstrates that you're learning, and the more you can demonstrate that to your people, the more they're going to realize, oh wow, like here's a guy I look up to, if he's willing to learn, maybe I can do that, too. ALEX: I understand. MURIEL WILKINS: You understand and? I hear a little hesitation.

ALEX: No, I still have that I should have done it in the back of my mind. But you're exactly right, I've got to start looking inside and providing myself with a little bit of grace and then be open about and vulnerable enough to express that so people feel more comfortable doing that around me. MURIEL WILKINS: Look, Alex, I think if you can actually-- rather than starting practicing that on your employees, if you can start practicing that on yourself, like treat yourself the way that we just talked about should treat your employees, you will have a much higher chance of being able to do it out there with them. You're going to have a really hard time cutting them some slack, extending them a little bit of grace when they don't necessarily meet the, quote-unquote, "expectation" if you're not able to do it with yourself.

And just because you cut yourself some slack does not mean you're not holding yourself up to high expectations. The two are not mutually exclusive. It's, I hold myself up and I hold my team up to high expectations, and I support the fact that they're learning. It's both. ALEX: That makes a tremendous amount of sense to me. MURIEL WILKINS: So let me ask you this.

What is one thing that you're walking away with from this conversation that you think you can start implementing immediately? ALEX: I think the most important thing I can start working on as a learner is the last thing that you just said, and that's getting comfortable with being a learner myself first. But the thing I could implement right now is starting to look at the reason we're on this call today through the lens of, do expectations match capability and commitment? And out of those three, if they're not all in alignment, where is the misalignment? And then attack it from that angle. That's something I feel comfortable doing.

I'll do it using that lens and I will be getting to that. MURIEL WILKINS: Great. Haven't been using it yet. ALEX: Yet.

MURIEL WILKINS: And you're going to start today. All right? Terrific. Well listen, thank you, thank you so much. I look forward to hearing how all of this goes for you. ALEX: I appreciate it. Thank you.

MURIEL WILKINS: When it comes to scaling your leadership, it's not just about the number of people you're overseeing or how much revenue you're responsible for or the processes you put in place. Those are the concrete things. But scaling leadership is really about scaling others, helping them build their capacity. Because if they can't take it to the next level, neither will you.

For Alex, he's been so used to figuring things out for his team that it'll take a real change in approach for them to start figuring it out on their own. But he enabled the dynamic, so he has to take ownership and responsibility, and helping them get there can build a team culture where being a proactive problem-solver is the norm. By leveling up his own leadership, he'll role model to his team how they can do the same.

That's it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders. Next time-- SUBJECT: As a senior leader, I've become disillusioned with an organization when I see the executive leaders not demonstrating the values of the organization, not living the values, not applying the values. MURIEL WILKINS: Want more of Coaching Real Leaders? Join our community where I host live discussions to unpack the coaching sessions.

Become a member at coachingreallead You can also find me and my newsletter on LinkedIn at Muriel Wilkins. Thanks to my producer, Mary Dew; sound editor, Nick Crnko; music composer, Brian Campbell; my assistant, Emily Sofa; and the entire team at HBR.

Much gratitude to the leaders who joined me in these coaching conversations, and to you, our listeners, who share in their journeys. If you're dealing with a leadership challenge, I'd love to hear from you and possibly have you on the show next season. Apply at And of course, if you love the show and learn from it, pay it forward. Share it with your friends, subscribe, and leave a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

From HBR Presents, I'm Muriel Wilkins. Until next time, be well. [MUSIC PLAYING]

2022-11-20 14:03

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