There is little doubt that being a leader offers many challenges and rewards. Being close to those you lead via proximity and emotionally provides the opportunity to meet the challenges and feel the benefits and rewards.
Leaders who are present and accessible concentrate on more than simply having an ‘open-door policy’. They build relationships and understand their employees as individual people.
As we begin another year, I have found myself reflecting on the past 12 months. There are often trends and themes that emerge when thinking about my clients and the coaching environments I have been exposed to over this period. One of the over-arching themes for last year was the challenge between available time (perception and reality…but that is a different topic for another time) and the willingness/ability to develop effective relationships in the workplace.
Initially, too many of my clients view the connections between themselves and their team members as negotiable or secondary to their ‘real work’. Relationships and connecting with your employees is a cornerstone of leadership. They are actually non-negotiable if you truly want to lead.
Being caught up in the ‘doing’ is a major part of the reason why so many of you feel time poor. You must invest to get a return. The decisions and investment made in your employees now has a greater pay off than continuing to do what you have always done…and being frustrated or disappointed in the results.
Relationships matter to all of us, both in and out of work. Being a leader is much more than just possessing the skills and attributes. It is also about being present and personable. Connecting with people is a major strength if you wish to influence and much of leadership is based on being influential. Developing a relationship is not the same as a friendship. It is more relevant to be trusted and trusting; honest and vulnerable; self-aware; respected and respectful; and other related attributes.
This does confuse some people. In fact, I have had discussions with a couple of senior leaders over the years who categorically state that it is impossible to maintain close relationships with those you lead. Maybe, but not always. Oversimplifying or generalising misses the points about relationships needing to be individual and personalised.
Amongst many important skills, to lead is to influence and inspire. To do so, you need to know more about your team members than you think. You must connect and understand people to make relationships impactful.
To influence and inspire requires a mindset that other’s ideas, opinions and thoughts are at least as important as your own. Understanding people matters. To do this well, you need to know your team member’s as individual people.
The many, many challenges that can occur in the workplace and within relationships can be best met and overcome through solid relationships. When you trust the message deliverer you are more likely to actively listen and buy into the point being made. This includes those times when the message is a positive one; a challenging conversation; or of mutual benefit. Of course, the need to develop trust works both ways. Essentially, you need to earn the right to have whatever conversation is required. Without a trusted relationship most conversations feel challenging. They can also be stressful and do more harm than good, exaggerating the lack of trust that exists in the first place.
It is difficult to influence from afar. How can you lead and influence people if you are rarely available? If you don’t know each team member personally and are unaware of their motivators, values and similar traits you will miss the mark.
Maintaining effective relationships also helps with decision-making, particularly when considering employees for promotion; assessing performance; or, thinking about filling secondment vacancies. Identification of core employees, their strengths and potential is more accurate and effective when you know your people. The benefits of getting this right are many, for all involved.
Nothing here is intended to replace the foundational work of leadership development. Higher levels of engagement, greater entrepreneurialism, and a more inclusive culture are less quantifiable but no less valuable benefits. (2)
Having the foresight to tackle any leadership needs in a proactive way is the first and best step you can take. A recent survey conducted via SmartBrief shows that leadership challenges are the biggest concern for business people when they think about 2018. Spending an appropriate amount of time focusing on developing the next generation of leaders, before they are promoted is a rare strategy. Yet, it remains amongst the top challenges and concerns for business leaders and owners.
Searching for the next generation of business leaders represents one of the biggest headaches for any organisation.
Most, in our experience, rely on development programs that rotate visible high fliers, emphasising the importance of leadership attributes such as integrity, collaboration, a results-driven orientation and customer-oriented behaviour.
Many, understandably, also look outside the organisation to fill key roles despite the costs and potential risks of hiring cultural misfits.
Far fewer, though, scan systematically for the hidden talent that often lurks unnoticed within their own corporate ranks. Sometimes those overlooked leaders remain invisible because of gender, racial, or other biases. Others may have unconventional backgrounds, be reluctant to put themselves forward, or have fallen off (or steered clear of) the standard development path. Regardless of the cause, it’s a wasted opportunity when good leaders are overlooked and it can leave individuals feeling alienated and demotivated. (2)
The relationships that you form with each of your direct reports are central to your ability to fulfil your three core responsibilities as a manager: Create a culture of feedback, build a cohesive team, and achieve results collaboratively. But these relationships do not follow the rules of other relationships in our lives; they require a careful balancing act.
You need to care personally, without getting creepily personal or trying to be a “popular leader.”
You need to challenge people directly and tell them when their work isn’t good enough, without being a jerk or creating a vicious cycle of discouragement and failure. That’s a hard thing to do.
When you can care personally at the same time that you challenge directly, you’re on the way to successful leadership. The term I use to describe a good manager–direct report relationship, and this ability to care and challenge simultaneously, is radical candor. So what can you do to build radically candid relationships with each of your direct reports? And what are the pitfalls to avoid? (3)
- More productivity, less place
More leaders have teams who are remote some or all of the time. If you have worries about what people are doing when they aren’t nearby, it is time to let that go.
In most cases, people are more productive when they have fewer of the distractions that naturally occur at work.
Focus on your productivity and supporting the productivity of your team, wherever they may be working.
- More influence, less power
For far too long too many leaders have tried to play the power card as if it was the only card in their hand. There is an inherent power imbalance between you and those you lead, but there is far more to leadership than just using your power.
Focus your development on being more influential; working on skills and relationships with individuals to create an environment where people choose to follow.
This is related to the last item on this list, and it is too important to overlook!
- More trust, less micromanagement
You don’t want to be led by a micromanager, and neither does your team. While a lack of trust is far from the only reason leaders micromanage, it is often the biggest perception your team has of this tendency. Work to build your trust in your team members – you will be rewarded in many ways, and likely you will feel less need to micromanage too.
- More coaching, less “annual performance review”
I have far more to say about the annual performance review than can be shared here, but the fact is that you need to coach more frequently. If your organization requires an annual performance review, it will be far easier and far more effective if you are coaching regularly. When you do that, most of the stress goes out of the performance review; and performance will improve and improve sooner.
- More intention, less routine
Routine helps us navigate our world, but doesn’t allow us to change. Routine is the worker bee of the status quo.
As a leader, you must expect more of yourself and your team than the simple status quo. This means you must be more intentional about what you want to accomplish and about your behaviors and choices.
Don’t rely solely on routine; re-examine them to make sure they are serving your best interests.
- More “us”, less “them”
I challenge you to change this in your thinking, and one way to test it is in your words. Read your emails, read your memos. Listen to what you are saying. Speak more inclusively and with more personal pronouns. This shows your ownership and shows your team where they stand in your mind.
- More listening, less talking
You know this is important and it is pretty simple. Talk less. Engage with your team by listening, not by talking. Ask questions, then be quiet. When you listen, you can learn. When you really listen, you show people you care about their message and them.
- More commitment, less compliance
You want commitment from your team, right? If so, you need to lead differently, be more intentional and focus on influence. (4)
The question remains: how can you genuinely identify the next group of leaders for your business if you don’t have relationships with them, or those they report to?
Personality based decision-making and biased judgment continues to be a major point of failure for many organisations. Additionally, promoting team members based on the fact that they excel in their existing role is often fraught with risk also. But, organisation’s make this same mistake every day.
The importance of relationships cannot be overstated. In our personal and professional lives most of us want to feel connected to people we care about and the things that we do. Our observations working with many organisations and coaching hundreds of people in recent years has highlighted the importance of trusted relationships. So, consider in your team and organisation, how well do you meet this need?