Britta van Dyk (Org Psych)
Leaders play a key role in setting the culture of an organisation through their behaviour. The COVID crisis may have faded into the background, but the leadership challenges keep growing. ‘Digitised’ social connection and the rapid acceleration of AI, global economic fluctuations and associated employment prospects, rising environmental upheaval and the ‘loss’ of other established societal norms, to name a few. How to keep people engaged and performing in this landscape is the greatest challenge of all.
Human beings are social creatures,our success has always depended on the power of the group. We are not well equipped to survive on our own, let alone to thrive. And as we continue to face greater environmental challenges and rapid change, the need to draw on the group becomes more and more a necessity.
Bringing this into the real-time experience of working life in organisations, the trend is clear. Authentic relationships and conscious leadership are necessary to improve the collective strength of your teams. The fabric of organisational culture is reliant on these factors to create a thriving environment in our contemporary world.
These ingredients can be cultivated through practices which we have tested again and again in organisations. This includes developing mindset, skills and behaviour at the individual and relationship (including team and leadership) levels to maximise both wellbeing and performance, and ultimately achieve strategic aims.
What this means for you as a leader
Even if you have one direct report, that makes you a leader of people and responsible for enabling and supporting the wellbeing and performance of that human being. It’s vital to lean into this so you can continue to evolve yourself and your impact on other people’s success, which is ultimately what great leadership amounts to.
What skills do I need?
Before we answer this question, it’s important to realise that ‘skills’ are only part of the picture. At IECL, we take a ‘whole system’ view of leadership. Any individual is part of a broader system, and if you want to make a change (the outcome of the learning, e.g. increase collaboration in your team, or lift performance by X%), all 4 parts of the system need to be taken into account and addressed for this change to happen.
Relationships - conversations build relationships and relationships build cultures - building relationships requires curiosity, empathy, vulnerability and a desire to ‘be with’
Mindset - what is going on in your inner world and how you ‘show up’; self-talk, developing self-awareness and awareness of impact on others; developing a practice for tuning into and managing your mindset
Structures - the overt disciplines and practices you set up for yourself and your team, including a structure for what conversation to have when and how (IECL’s Organisational Conversations structure)
Skills and Behaviours - what you actually do and how well you do it - for this you need to PRACTICE and keep learning through feedback and reflection (Growth Mindset - full circle back to mindset)
Relationship before task
Leaders, especially those who are new to leadership, often think that demonstrating their competence is the way to earn respect and be listened to. However, this is only a small part of what people will pay attention to, and not a mobilising one when it comes to employee engagement.
Emotional intelligence, tuning into the relationships between you and others, is what propels both performance and wellbeing.
Mary is a senior leader in a consulting firm. She wanted to know how people were responding to her leadership style, so she sought feedback from a number of stakeholders. Whilst she was effective in many ways, and was seen as commercially astute, the consistent message about her leadership style was that she was ‘too task focused’. People felt she ‘cut to the chase’ quickly in meetings without spending time getting to know or connecting in any way with the person or people she was meeting with.
Mary admitted she was focused on the job at hand, and had thought that others would respect this, but realised that it was only part of what would help achieve her goals. It wasn’t an ‘or’, it was an ‘and’, putting the relationship first would mean that people would then be ‘warmed up’ to the task.
She decided to use relationship before task as her mantra, to remind her of the order in which to do things to get people on board, and would chant this in her mind before every meeting. Her behaviour subsequently changed, to taking an interest in others and what was going on in their professional and personal worlds, and sharing more of her own. Without needing to ask for specific feedback, she noticed people became more relaxed around her and noted more commitment to tasks, including providing their own ideas for how to improve things.
It’s a simple example, but a very common one, and it brings to life what is so fundamental to motivation and commitment - human connection. To move beyond compliance into performance, and from existing to thriving, we need strong relationships.
Everything you do as a leader sends a message
Whether you intend to or not, everything you do, and don’t do, sends a message to others about how to behave, and how to ‘be’ in the organisation. This phenomenon is closely connected to your mindset as a leader. Whatever attitude you bring into your meetings, your verbal and written communication, and your approach to business planning, feedback, people development, etc(!), will reveal itself in the way you come across in those tasks. And people will notice these subtle indicators.
Consider Mike, the CEO of a tech company, who frequently cancelled internal meetings, particularly with individuals and groups at lower levels of the organization. He also repeatedly cancelled the executive coaching sessions that he had signed up for to show that he was committed to his own continuing professional development.
He was surprised to find out that attendance on workshops for a leadership development program he had made significant investment in, was very poor, with people often cancelling at the last minute. Without realising, he was sending a message that unless you were working on client work, it wasn’t worth doing, which unfortunately is a simplistic, one-dimensional view of organisational success.
Back to mindset then: being able to reflect on your intentions, the outcomes you’re seeking, your reaction and approach to challenges, and the impact you want to have on others, helps you to focus on and embody much more than can be listed. For example, your body language, tone, choice of language, framing of a meeting, questions you ask, what you listen for, how you guide a conversation or respond to an email, and how you deal with unexpected reactions from others, will all be influenced greatly by the mindset you are in. And you have control over your mindset, or at least you can have, as it takes practice.
Take a coaching approach to leading people
At IECL we have developed a way for you to lead people which works on both the performance and wellbeing dimensions. When you take a coaching approach to leading people, your mindset, behaviour, and the way you structure your interactions, enables you to tune into relationships to get the best out of the relationship and the person. Essentially what you are able to do through this approach is build trust and commitment, and develop the mindset, capabilities and performance of the people in your teams.
Anton is a General Manager in an engineering firm. His leadership epiphany came when he realised the power of asking open questions. As a critical thinker, he was used to asking challenging questions to problem solve. However, when it came to leading his team, although he felt very comfortable setting direction and performance goals, and giving feedback, he found his team middling on performance, and there was little ideation or critical thinking coming from the team.
He decided to go on a coaching skills workshop to see if there was anything worth adding to his leadership toolkit. He quickly realised he was leaning too heavily on being the expert and not giving his team the opportunity or encouragement to step up. By engaging his team through a mindset of curiosity and the belief that they have something of value to offer, he began asking more open questions (and follow up questions!) to empower his team. The change was remarkable. People were more engaged, their contributions developed into more collaboration in meetings, and the performance of the team lifted significantly over time.
Six principles for a coaching approach
There are 6 fundamental principles for leading people with a coaching approach. These all reside in the way you ‘show up’ with people in every interaction. The quality of your interactions determines the quality of your relationships which ultimately create the quality of the organisational culture and what is able to be achieved:
Tune into conscious intent: If you are a leader who works with conscious intent, you are aware of your actions and decisions and understand how they impact your team, and attend to your own mindset to influence the interaction positively.
Believe in their potential: Believing in the other person’s potential helps them realize their full capabilities. Here you need to provide guidance AND space, support AND challenge, and the resources to help team members achieve their goals.
Ask vs. Tell: This is about getting the balance right between directive, or ‘push’ behaviours and empowering, or ‘pull’ behaviours. Experiencing the power of questioning to help your people think critically and come up with their solutions is key to this. This approach not only empowers the team but also fosters creativity and problem-solving skills, and most importantly enables them to learn how to learn.
Deep listening: As an effective leader you listen actively and empathetically to your team members, trying to understand their perspectives, needs, and concerns. By doing so, you build trust and create a culture of open communication. This means listening beyond the words, and requires your FULL attention and interest in the other person.
Support AND Challenge: You need to provide support and guidance but also challenge your people to grow and develop their skills. The tricky part is getting the balance of this right for every person uniquely. If you do this well, it grows the capacity of not just individuals but the whole organisation. Being able to push your team members outside their comfort zones from a firm foundation of trust and support, helps them achieve their full potential.
Be authentic: Authenticity is critical in leadership. If you are a leader who is genuine, honest, and transparent with your team members, you create a culture of trust and respect. You lead by example and inspire your team to do the same.
This is all about the mindset you bring to these interactions, the interest you take in the other person and what you do with that to create a dialogue that enables you to collectively set, track and achieve goals, support performance and development, and solve problems.
So how do I develop these leadership skills?
Get support - whether you work in an organisation with sophisticated learning infrastructure and resources, or are doing this for yourself, there is a lot of support available. If you’re unsure about where to start, speak to someone in HR or someone you know who has experience in this. A Google search will bring up hundreds of options, which could be overwhelming, unless you have a preferred provider of Learning content as your go-to. The critical point is to ensure you sign up to something that is credible, demonstrated through long-standing reputation; credentials backed by an internationally recognised governing body; and strong academic rigor.
Some development options will be more academic, whereas others will be more experiential, so be clear on what you want to achieve. At IECL we pride ourselves in our Organisational Coaching expertise, both in the development and accreditation of Professional Organisational Coaches, and Leaders as Coaches. So if you are really serious about the being AND doing of coaching as a leader, we can help you with that.
Start small – when it comes to trying out what you are learning, choose situations where it is easy to start building a habit. Making small changes can have a big impact. You don't need to completely change the person that you are in order to have some solid positive results, and it can be overwhelming to try to do too many things at once. Also, once you have had some successes and you’re not so ‘rough round the edges’ you can push yourself to lean into more challenging situations and people, with a baseline of skills under your belt.
Practice, practice, practice – if there is one thing we cannot emphasise enough, it’s the more you do something (and reflect and learn in between), the better you get at it. Some of what you'll read may sound quite simple in theory. So you may think, “oh, I already know how to do that” and that's great, you've already got that in your head. But then when you actually come to do it and in different situations, it’s a very different experience, sometimes it can feel quite strange at first until you practice and practice and it becomes a habit.
Reflect - reflection is an under-recognised yet vital component to adult learning. Before, during and after anything that you do as a leader, you should be aware of and working on your inner processing to be conscious of your intentions, behaviour and impact. This will help you to learn to refine your approach to get the best outcome. If you embark on formal leadership development, a good program will build in structures for reflection and encourage you to seek feedback and reflect.