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As a leader, it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know’

In every business across the world, employees are looking to their leaders for guidance, for advice and for the comfort of security in their world. Minds are wandering from inconvenience, through genuine worry and finally reaching panic. They are looking to those who keep them informed, inspired and safe every day, to guide them through whatever we are currently facing.

In every business across the world, leaders are looking for how best to guide, for the right advice and for the way to deliver security to their teams. Their minds are wandering too as they realise we don’t have all the answers. In fact, we have very few of the answers and seem to be getting mixed messages from all sources.

So how do you give good advice when you don’t have the answers?

First of all, it is OK to say, ‘I don’t know’. I am pretty sure your team know you are not a scientist. They are not looking for you to have an antidote for the virus. However, they are looking for an antidote to their own mental state. It sounds counter-intuitive, but when the most consistently informed person in the room says ‘I don’t know’ during a crisis, it actually gives comfort to those around them. As long as it is followed by the word ‘yet’. It tells people they are not crazy or stupid for being unsure or concerned. It also says, I am working to find out and give you the security you crave. I am still being the person I have always been for you. Trust me.

More likely you will feel you have some facts. It is important you think these through before imparting information. Ask yourself these questions:

Is it true?
Is it relevant?
Is it useful?

Only communicate after answering the 3 questions

The urge to have some information for an ever-pressing audience of employees might push you towards giving them something, regardless of whether it has answered the questions above. Don’t. If you still don’t know the important stuff, don’t hypothesise or deliver irrelevances to fill an information vacuum. What you can do is to speak about past experiences of negative circumstance and unexpected challenges. The message that comes across is that you are still here. You have been through tough things before and survived. This gives comfort and confidence.

Many of you will have been working as managers or owners through the sudden downturn of the 2008 recession. Although not the same in terms of emotional reaction to a global pandemic, it was economically a huge blow and you survived. Referring to this with a calm and measured approach, will help your employees who are struggling now to feel there is light at the end of the tunnel and that you know the way out.

‘‘Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles. It takes away today’s peace.’’ Randy Armstrong

The other thing people crave in a time of uncertainty is the need to feel they are doing something positive. To feel they are taking action, rather than awaiting their fate in stasis. Give people advice on what they should do now. Give them small projects with regular bursts of achievement available. Keep them close to the core activities of the business in order to feel useful.

Give your teams positive options

If you do work in a business where the majority of your income is reactive, maybe it is time to give people a chance to be creative. Ask them to write, or design, or plan what the business will be doing in future. Ask them to embrace a different challenge. Keep them engaged within your working world in order to give them the positive feeling of action they require.

I don’t know what will happen over the next few months. I certainly can’t predict the economic circumstance we will find ourselves experiencing when we get there. What I do know, is that how we act to inform, support, inspire and lead those around us now, will be the most significant factor in managing our speed of return to safety.

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Set Yourself Leadership Metrics

Our performance as a leader is rarely assessed on a consistent basis, if at all; yet we expect our managers and teams to be held to account regularly; monitoring a range of KPIs, OKRs or bespoke metrics that give us a performance picture. If you are leading as part of a larger organisation, you will certainly be measured against the output of your teams. It is unlikely however that you are receiving constant feedback or benchmark on your leadership input. As a leader of your own business, time taken to measure your own performance may well sound like a luxury you cannot afford.

Great leaders are always looking for opportunities to learn. Adding to the lessons from your own experience by embracing the advice of others is key to personal development. However, without a point of measure we can’t really understand whether what we are doing is working, needs improvement or needs to be left alone altogether. So how do we create a level playing field that ensures we are all following the same model?

Perform – Measure – Learn – Realign – Perform

Firstly, look at a sensible time frame to assess. I have discussed previously how you are allowed to have bad days as a leader, so a daily measure will likely bring too much contradictory information. Always best to stay in a consistent pattern with those in your teams and their feedback. Most companies look at weekly review as being a timely interval for assessment before planning the next week’s activities and input. As a leader I have always found this to be a useful point to reflect.

Only taking the binary approach of asking whether you have had a good week or a bad week, will miss key factors and mislead you in reaction. The results may have implied a good week, yet your own leadership input could have been below par. Alternatively output may have been low but the leadership investment you have delivered across the board has been superb and will lead to future successes.

The key is to break down the components of leadership into the areas you believe will ensure you are delivering consistently in your role as leader. You can choose your own measures as you will know what works best for you or where you need to be held accountable. However, here are some suggestions of core leadership competencies that should be considered:

1.Coaching & Mentoring

How many people did you help this week? As a leader your input is valued and your time a precious commodity. Others realise this and will not only benefit from the specific advice you offer but be motivated by the fact you have taken the time to do so.

2. Personal Development

What did you learn this week? Every leader must be committed to ongoing learning and development for both themselves and their teams. Assess your learning in two categories. Proactive learning: where you choose to read, attend a course or study a specific subject. Reactive learning: where you learn from your experiences; both positive and negative.

3. Behaviour

Did you consistently behave in a way that reinforced the culture you believe is right for the business? Were you authentic? People follow you for a reason. They choose to be influenced by you and your behaviours are a visible example of how to ‘be’ at work. Your consistent leadership behaviour will echo throughout your business.

4. Communication: Listening

Have you listened to those around you? Knowing we have been heard inspires us to think more, create and speak again. As a leader your listening skills are not just for understanding content or context, but as a catalyst to further input. Search out the opportunity to hear the voices of your teams.

5. Communication: Message

Have you sent out clear information around direction, strategy and action? Your clarity of message is vital for your business. You help with understanding, realignment and reassurance in direction of travel. Don’t be silent.

A magnifying glass studying every area of a sheet of different shades.
Be accountable for each area

Build a model (simple is fine) where you can record your weekly scores. The idea is firstly not to miss anything. As leaders, time runs away and reacting to situational challenges pulls us from the proactive path of our choice. Secondly it is about building the habits of good leadership. If you know you are going to hold yourself accountable for each area at the end of the week, you will start focusing on these components without having to think about it. Finally, a weekly measure allows you to look at where you need to develop your skill set further. Specific assessment of your leadership input and output will allow you to choose areas for personal growth and keep you moving forward.

Of course, there are many other components to consider when developing as a leader, however those mentioned above, if measured and worked on weekly, will consistently move you forward in your leadership role.

Anita Roddick, Founder of the Body Shop. Profile picture.
Anita Roddick, Founder of Body Shop

“You have to look at leadership through the eyes of the followers and you have to live the message. What I have learned is that people become motivated when you guide them to the source of their own power and when you make heroes out of employees who personify what you want to see in the organisation.”
Anita Roddick

One final note. I have always been of the opinion that leadership is a behaviour not a job title. If you are an aspiring leader or unsure whether it is for you, these metrics are a useful guide. If you find yourself doing most of these things naturally in your week, you are a leader, regardless of your current role accountabilities. If you believe they are things you can and want to deliver, you have a leader inside you that you must now feed.

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This is your leadership legacy

A man alone reflecting

The harsh reality we must face is that the current situation is bad and may be terminal for some businesses. There will be financial implications for many that will cause upset and hurt, both personally and professionally. People will lose jobs through the need for a business to survive. The economy will slow, and work will be challenging on every level.

We may well lose in the short-term. In fact, without profiteering, we probably will. But we are not here for the short-term. Our ideas and dreams and creations were never going to be finished this year. This is a turn in the road we weren’t expecting, yet the destination should remain the same.

Leadership in the calm with a following wind is easy. Leadership in a storm, such as the one we are currently facing, is the toughest challenge you are likely to encounter during your tenure. But it is not forever, and we must ensure we come out of the other side as the same people we were when we went in. What we must not do in the meantime is forget the responsibility we have to help. To help staff, to help suppliers, to help our clients and to help our communities. Not for commercial gain, but because we know it is the right thing to do.

‘We are all in the same boat, but some have better life jackets’

Look around with the eyes of your business and find those who you can help rather than be angry or jealous of those who are more secure. The aim is to navigate without reaching the extremes of blind optimism or catastrophizing. Be informed, be measured, be calm. In a time of stress and uncertainty, all eyes are firmly focused on your every action and reaction. Be the voice of common-sense and optimism, not the doomsayer.

A man looking at a compass. Getting information before deciding which way to go.
Be informed before choosing direction

What you will have when the dust settles and we rebuild towards the new normal, is your integrity. And of all the challenges currently facing us collectively, maintaining that integrity is the one to prioritise.

Your decisions and actions over the next few weeks and months will be your legacy; not the profits you made or the empire you built. You will be remembered for how you reacted when people needed you most. It’s time to be the leader you hope your grandchildren have, if they find themselves in a situation such as the one we face today.

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Actively listen for the voices of your introverts

Introverts article featured image.

Sadly, it is a common misconception that introverts are chronically shy individuals who would rather quietly go about their day without interaction or request.

One of the most important skills for any great leader is the ability to listen. For an introvert, this is a natural way of being. They don’t have an endless desire to listen to the sound of their own voice. They don’t feel pressurised to constantly be spouting forth supposed wisdom, but instead focus on really hearing the voices around them. Talking for the sake of talking is a waste of time in the mind of an introvert. They will often observe others communicating without feeling the need to interject. If they don’t have anything useful to say, then nothing is said. Maybe something we could all benefit from assessing when we are holding court sometimes.

As you gather for your senior leadership team meetings, do you ensure every voice in the room is heard? Too often the same individuals hold sway with the available airtime, maybe starting with points of relevance, but rarely maintaining useful levels of input throughout. An introvert will watch, listen and digest information carefully. They will listen with the intent to understand rather than to reply. And by removing that pressing need to interject, so often the curse of the extrovert, they are able to gather and assess all relevant information in each circumstance or topic.

Quiet by Susan Cain book cover

In her seminal work on the subject of introversion, Quiet, Susan Cain not only gave confidence in their numbers to the less gregarious amongst us, but also managed to raise awareness of how to communicate with and fully appreciate introverts in our work and life. She weaves a narrative that highlights successful introverts and how they have navigated their paths.

‘If we assume quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the more forceful people always carry the day’ Susan Cain, Quiet

As with most of our human groupings, we like to take a binary approach to introversion. You are either an extrovert or an introvert, because that way we can justify our classification and adapt our behaviour accordingly. Yet so few of us live in the extremes, making such simplistic labelling a misguided banding. If you analyse your own behaviour, you will likely find traits from both sides of the scale. Susan Cain also talks about the introvert/extrovert spectrum rather than one or the other. As she combines this with the shy/stable axis for the rest of the description, she is able to explain that not all introverts are shy and not all extroverts are naturally confident. Introspection is the only true method for evaluating our own position on the graph.

The Introvert / Extrovert Scale. Unstable.Stable. Introverted. Extroverted.
The Introvert/Extrovert Scale

Developing awareness of your own leanings towards introversion, if it is not your dominant characteristic, is a starting point for developing a better foundation for making more measured decisions for your team. You don’t have to be first out of the blocks with an answer. Consideration or consultation before proffering an opinion is a respected skill.

Another much undervalued skill mastered by those with an introverted nature, is that of timing. Where many will push their point home or argue their case just because they have recently reached their own conclusion on a given subject or issue, the introvert will wait until the point of maximum relevance or until finally invited to offer their opinion. They often have the solution without having been able to share their opinion, which is the number one reason for ensuring you provide the quieter amongst you with a voice.

Leaving time to think about your opinions before sharing doesn’t necessarily make you right, but it does mean ideas have had time to develop beyond conception stage. That said, most good decisions come from shared opinion and discussion. Partly because different viewpoints have been considered but often more importantly, because every stakeholder feels their voice has been heard. If you don’t invite the thoughts of the introverts in your team you also risk a lack of collective buy-in to your chosen action.

Introvert standing on front of a team meeting of 6 people.

As a manager or leader, you have the obligation and opportunity to ensure every voice in your team is heard. Understanding the need to actively ensure you hear everyone is a result of developing strong emotional intelligence. Not having the natural triggers to making yourself heard, means a leader recognising and supporting you through this challenge, receives your wholehearted support and undoubtedly your finest work on top of your considered and relevant input.

Surprisingly many introverts are attracted to roles in sales. Unsurprisingly, considering their listening skills, focus on relevance and thoughtful nature, many are extremely successful in this sector as individuals. Great sales also require great process and consistent habit, which are again skills mastered easily by those amongst us who have the ability to work with quiet focus. What they don’t do however is to use every opportunity to tell everyone what they are doing and how good they are at it. And we’ve all had to endure those individuals.

The introvert’s greatest challenge is to find a team where their contributions to collective decision making and success are not just heard but actively sought. For this to happen there needs to be available space to contribute, which in many sales teams is sadly lacking due to the dominant nature of one or two hot air infused extroverts dominating. Another responsibility for leaders in fully realising the potential of their introverts, is to reign in the often ill-considered or ego-based spouting of their loudest team members. If you make the space available, your introverts will be drawn to the opportunity to engage, eventually without the need for invitation on each occasion.

Look around you today and see who you think might be an introvert with more to offer than the current environment or platform allows them.

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Before you judge, do you know the backstory?

leadership blog post featured image

Leaders pride themselves on their ability to quickly judge a situation, assess the likely impact and then make a decision. Yet how often do these decisions fall short due to not fully understanding the circumstance? Most important decisions we make are those relating to people. We need to accurately assess and understand the mindset of each individual we are electing to place our trust in.

When we refer to people we work with as having good judgement, it is a compliment and refers to their ability to exercise the act according to dictionary definition, ‘the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions’. We accept that this good judgement at work will almost always have included an assessment of the human element of the equation. People are the most important part of any project, exercise or creation. Therefore, it is essential that their skills and attitude to the task be assessed beforehand. To be judged. Unfortunately, we rarely pass judgement on an individual based on all the facts. We want to make decisions quickly, to be efficient and keep things moving forward at a pace.

As a result of this, we are often drawn to extreme positives or negatives that are observed only briefly when we happened to be present. These are good or bad traits, habits, skills or behaviours that are easy to classify. We believe we can immediately place a clear judgement on the situation because it was obvious. This is known as the ‘horns/halo effect’, where our desire for speed and clarity overcomes our core belief in fully assessing the situation. We see good and want to praise it. We see bad and want to criticise it. The mind sees this opportunity as a shortcut to accurate judgement and requires sometimes only one repeated event for the judgement to now be seared in the mind of the observer.

Photo of man pointing finger

How many times have you as a manager been frustrated by the fact that your best performer decides to behave inappropriately, or be distracted by irrelevance, just as a member of the senior leadership team appears in the room? You know it is going to require some constant undoing as the ‘snapshot’ of your best performer is what the leader will take away as the consistent character, rather than the other 8 hours a day. You know your team member works hard, supports others and epitomises the desired character for the business, yet unpicking this brief encounter will be your job for the foreseeable future.

We all have a responsibility to take the time necessary to fully understand the context of all our relationships, at home and at work. Yet the desire to be quick, or right, or knowledgeable, circumvents the process. We judge too quickly.

I spent many years guilty of the ‘shortcut mindset’, that convinces us we can make faster and better judgements than others based on our intellect and experience. That we know better and we know it faster than anyone else in the room. It took a very intelligent and passionate friend of mine to stop me in my tracks on an occasion where my snap judgement of a person was, in their opinion, wrong. They asked me a very powerful question which I use to this day, as many of those I coach will recognise. ‘What is the backstory?’

In film and fiction, the word is used to describe the unfolding or revelation of information relevant to the plot. It is the things we don’t know on first meeting, the unseen context to the narrative. And as a way of describing the lack of understanding we have of a full character or situation in our everyday life, it is perfect.

The business owners I work with who have teams of under 10 are all very aware of backstories. They have daily interaction with everyone in their business and as a result, gather a detailed picture of their whole team. They make decisions with empathy and rarely misstep based on a lack of context. As the size of the business increases, daily interactions are reduced and there is that moment when an owner sits up and thinks, ‘I don’t really know everyone who works with me’. The same challenge faces anyone moving into a leadership role in a new company. How do I get to know everyone who works with me, so I can always be a fair judge? And yes, the answer is to always be aware of the need to understand and appreciate the backstory. Practicality dictates it cannot always be you who has the time to know everyone in the business and their story. However, your influence and embedding of a culture where this is a ‘leadership habit’, will ensure decisions across the business are made with as much of the available information as possible. As a leader, questioning others when they snap judge a situation or person, is the key to opening minds; to look for all the human information available before making judgement.

Speaking of backstories, there is one other we haven’t discussed yet, and that is yours! Your own backstory is as important as those you are engaging with. Without a full understanding and appreciation of your own context, you are unable to accurately assess incoming information. That back story may be the last hour, a few days, or months of frustration, regarding a personal challenge. It might be that your back story has led you to be disproportionately happy; to be distracted or disengaged; or has in fact led you to have a slanted negative view of a person or situation based on a past experience. All of these factors will have an influence on judgement you make. Acknowledging them and considering their impact on your assessment of the information available is essential when making your decisions. This self-awareness will lead you to appreciating that your own backstory is as important to fully understand as the backstory of those you work or live with.

Looking at the sky photo

Judgement is not only acceptable but necessary. However, what will reassure you that you have made every effort to ensure your judgement is as fair, honest and accurate as it can be, is the understanding of the backstory. Yours and theirs.

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Roll With It – You are allowed to have bad days as a leader

leadership article featured image

You are a calm and measured leader. You have high EQ and pride yourself on the relaxed nature you bring to your high-pressured role. You understand that leadership is about inspiring and supporting those around you to reach their potential. Yet here you are displaying an ugly character as you over-react to a circumstance that would normally cause you to do no more than raise an eyebrow. You go home and reflect on your day, possibly ignoring all the positive things you contributed, instead focussing only on the single moment you lost your cool.

So how did it happen?

Your position incorporates a wide range of responsibilities across a broad spectrum. The mental dexterity required to keep all these plates spinning, whilst giving the impression of serenity to the outside world, is often likened to the very different views of a duck when observed above and below water. Add to this the likely draw on your time that challenges your world at home, and you have a recipe for an occasional, very understandable, slipping of the mask. Don’t beat yourself up over a bad day as a leader. The pressure that builds as you attempt to maintain a consistent, fair and measured approach to those in your leadership duty of care, can be intense.

Let’s assume your leadership style did not perform a complete 180 and see you throwing furniture at an unsuspecting trainee for the slightest of faux pas. More likely you are experiencing a tough week. You have many issues requiring brain space and time pressures are rising. This morning has seen further additions to your workload that you have not had the chance to delegate yet. As a result, a relatively small issue may well cause an unexpectedly strong reaction from you. Frustration at the possibility of unnecessary addition to your workload briefly drawing an unacceptable emotional display to the surface.

What the recipient of the outburst, or over-reaction, does not see is the cumulative effect of everything on your mind. They are unaware of the four other situations in the last few days that have served to heighten your internal tensions. And nor should they be. These challenges are for you to digest and manage internally and not a set of justifiable excuses you can wave openly at any point to excuse your behaviour. Recounting in your defence, the list of pressures or events that have caused such a reaction, serves only to suggest you are not suited to your leadership position and the associated responsibilities.

broken plate image

How should you react to your own outburst?

These unexpected, and initially unwanted, displays are in fact the window to your passion, character and personality. You are human. You make mistakes. The key at this point, is that you acknowledge your emotional spike or inappropriate interaction and return to the consistent leader everyone knows well. When I say acknowledge, I am not saying you necessarily apologise unreservedly. Although in some circumstances an apology may well be appropriate, it is best to consider the reason for your reaction and whether there is benefit to expanding on the source of your irritation.

If it is not your normal behaviour, people will recognise that. Many will empathise if party to an emotionally charged incident or conversation. Providing you reflect and acknowledge, thus reassuring those who witnessed your character switch, that is was just you ‘being human’.

One of the most common reasons for a disproportionate outburst, is the cumulative effect of one individual consistently pushing your buttons. Whether it be their attitude, their performance or your disappointment that they consistently fall below the standards you set, the likelihood is that they will be the first to receive a disproportionate reaction. It is almost as though you have been waiting for this opportunity to show your emotions and really let them know how you feel. If when reflecting you realise this is the case, now is the time to proactively deal with those frustrations rather than risk further unwarranted outbursts.

Responding rather than reacting.

 Our natural human emotions have often been perceived as being separate to any cognitive process in our brain. However, in 2017 this theory was challenged by Professors Joseph LeDoux and Richard Brown from New York University and City University New York. [‘A higher-order theory of emotional consciousness’] The encouragement we can take from this theory is that we have some control over our emotions through the cognitive process. What this means on a daily basis, is that we do not have to surrender to negative spikes but instead allow ourselves a few seconds to assimilate the circumstance and then respond rather than react.

This process is made considerably easier if you regularly reflect on situations or individuals that are causing unwanted levels of negative emotion. Imagine your own negative reaction to a likely culmination of this emotional pressure and how it might manifest itself. Work through better scenarios and how you would choose to behave on each occasion. By pre-stressing, you are able to set yourself up for those few seconds that bring response rather than ugly reaction.

The measures you can take to lessen the likelihood of a leadership slip are certainly not a guarantee you will avoid that day where you end up disappointing yourself with a disproportionate reaction or emotionally charged decision. A leader with human flaws who embraces and learns from their mistakes, is an inspiration to those around them. The leader who maintains a rigid veneer of perfection, lacking visible emotion, leaves their colleagues distant and disengaged. If you have got it right every time, you are not a great leader, you are a lucky one. If you set the right moral benchmark and learn every time, you are on the road to becoming a great leader.