How aware are you of the positive impact of your leadership?
It’s 6.30 p.m. on a chilly Monday evening and I am huddled on a crowded railway station in central London waiting to get the train home. A man in his early 40s walks towards me and asks:
“John . Do you remember me?”
Feeling a bit uncomfortable, I reply: “Your face is familiar”
He rescues me, telling me his name and reminds me: ” You hired me into my first job when I left college”.
Then the memory came flooding back. I remembered the occasion very well. At the time, I had been responsible for recruitment in the Property Division of a Global Insurance Company. We had a vacancy that was proving very difficult to fill. It was for a property professional who would report to the Finance Director. It was an unusual role and we had struggled to find candidates with the right skills and qualities. Those who best fitted our spec had turned us down. The successful candidate. Let’s call him Graham, had an untypical academic and professional profile. He was initially rejected by the Finance Director. I saw in Graham, potential to grow into the role and eventually persuaded the company to hire him. It worked out very well. The Finance Director was delighted with Graham’s contribution. What’s more, Graham told me that she continued to mentor him as his career progressed in the company.
At the time I was pleased to fill a difficult vacancy, relieved to have solved a problem. Moving on to the next challenge I didn’t give it much more thought, far less considered the potential impact that my approach had on the career of our new hire.
Positive Impact of Leadership
Focusing on the positive impact we have on colleagues is not something we typically do.
In the media, it’s so often the negative effect of business leaders’ behaviour that grabs the headlines, whether it is flawed decision making or unethical behaviour, with consequences for employees, customers and shareholders.
Review of performance feedback often focuses on where we have not met expectations, on the assumption that if we replace what is missing we can achieve high performance. But, as Marcus Buckingham points out in a recent Harvard Business Review article: ” If you study failure, you’ll learn a lot about failure, but nothing about how to achieve excellence”.
Neuroscientific research on leadership development by Professor Richard Boyatsis found that: “..focussing leaders on their gaps doesn’t enable learning, it impairs it and that we learn best when we grasp what we’re doing well and how we might do it better”.
Discovering many years afterwards the effect that I had on a new hire’s career development, was a powerful reminder of how easy it is to not fully appreciate the positive impact we have on colleagues. Had I realised earlier, I would have coached more managers to be more open and creative in their attitude to hiring new talent.
Raising awareness of what you are doing well and building on strengths
For leaders, this is a major opportunity. Research over many years , has consistently shown that leaders’ behaviour is the dominant influence in shaping the climate across an organisation, levels of employee engagement and ultimately business performance.
So how can you really become more aware of what you are doing well as a leader and learn how you can build on these experiences to develop your ability to increase your positive impact on your organisation?
You could just ask colleagues for feedback. But the more senior you are the less likely you are to receive open, constructive feedback on your ideas, your behaviour and your strategy. So how can you discover what you need to continue doing and do more of to become a more effective leader?
Here are two practical suggestions that leaders I have worked with have found helpful:
1. Pay attention to evidence of the positive impact you are making
I had been coaching the Head of a European Subsidiary of a US owned Pharma company in his first year in the job. He had been concerned with major challenges associated with some legacy programs. Stress levels had been very high in some areas of the business and there were difficulties retaining key talent. He was very concerned how he and his team could “close the gaps”. The focus was very much on the problem and what was going wrong.
I encouraged him to look for evidence of what was going well, what he and his senior team were doing that they could build on. This was difficult as most of the measures in place were showing up negative.
Engagement survey provides useful insights
At this time, the results of the company employee engagement survey had just been published. Rather than focus on the low scores, we looked at the higher scores, particularly where there had been significant improvements in the past year. Key concerns had been employee stress and performance.
The survey results showed that employees were positive about the way my client and his team were leading, reflected in the following favourable ratings :
- 88% agreed ” I am able to balance work and personal responsibilities”
- 19% increase on previous year
- 84% agreed ” My immediate manager gives me regular feedback on my performance”
- 15% increase on previous year
- 89% of my client’s direct reports rated him as highly effective as a manager, which represented a score 17% higher than his predecessor
Building on good practice
There was a lot that my client and his team were doing that was having a positive impact on Employee Engagement. He decided to shift the focus of his team from “closing gaps in performance” to better understand the impact of their approach and what they could do to strengthen it. At the end of his first year the company had reported a loss and decline in revenue, mainly due to legacy issues. In the following year the company achieved consistent improvements, quarter by quarter across a range of measures and achieved budget whilst continuing to raise levels of engagement.
2. Ask colleagues to tell you what you are doing that is helpful.
When you do this, create a climate of trust to encourage them to be specific. Ask regularly and select individuals who are likely to represent diversity of opinion.
Many people don’t feel comfortable giving the boss feedback. Asking for positive feedback should help. To build trust explain that you need their feedback to learn how to be a better leader. When you get responses like:
“You did a good talk at the Town Hall meeting”,
follow up with something like; “What part of the talk did you appreciate most and why?”
or “What did you hear that stood out for you and when you heard that what did it make you think?”
or “Was there anything about the way we ran the meeting that enabled you to get most value from it”?
This is not about looking for more praise. The point is to clarify what you are doing well, so you can do it again and do it better”
Seeking feedback from a diverse group gives you a clearer idea of the impact you are making. What people don’t say can be as valuable as what they do say. If there are gaps and inconsistencies in what you’re hearing, it will give you some pointers about what you need to do differently.
As Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of “Positive Psychology” puts it:
“Working hard to manage weaknesses, while sometimes necessary, will only help us prevent failure. It will not help us reach excellence”
Rather we learn best, as confirmed by neuroscience research, when we grasp what we’re doing well and how we might do it better.