Over the past month, I’ve conducted five multi-day Leadership Development programs with senior-level leaders coming from a wide variety of organizations including Pharmaceuticals, Chemicals, Mining, and High Tech. During this time, I’ve noticed that a significant number of leaders are feeling more emotional and more frustrated than I can recall in the 25 plus years I’ve been providing business simulation-centric learning engagements. An example of this type of emotional frustration is demonstrated by the following quote from an experienced leader working in a very tough business environment that has been created by increased price pressures, commoditization, and an internal hiring freeze at his company:
“Everyone knows how tough things are these days. Our competitors are beating us on almost every deal and the entire business unit is in jeopardy. It’s like they don’t even care about their jobs. Where is the innovation? Where is the pride? Where is the caring about their accomplishment? I stood up at the last team meeting and challenged each and every one of them to step the hell up and get their heads out of their butts and get with the program.”
The room was silent for a good 30 seconds as the leader’s words hung in the air. The rest of the participants were either in shock at the emotional outburst, were digesting the comments, or some combination of both.
The training session went on and everyone walked away with new foundational Leadership skills and SMART Action plans to put them into action. But there was something about the leader’s comments that haunted me for a few more days until I could put my finger on it.
It was the “I challenged them” part of his diatribe.
In 2018, does this approach and mental model still work? Does “challenging” the people you work with to do their best work resonate in the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous global business world we live in today?
The more I thought about it and the more I’ve observed the best practices of companies that work well, the more I realized that the answer is no.
I propose that today’s leaders find ways of being challenged "by your team" instead of "challenging your team." By “being challenged” I am referring to direct reports who confidently and boldly challenge the status quo with new ideas and new thinking about ways of executing the strategy and achieving business results.
If you are a leader, ask yourself this question; when’s the last time a direct report challenged you with a new innovation that changed the way the business is run. If you are like the majority, then the answer is probably not in a long time if ever.
I did some research and dialoging with respected leaders I know to come up with some ideas to share for how to create an environment where your direct reports proactively and positively challenge you, the business, and everything in the business ecosystem.
Stop letting yourself “do their work”
The single biggest complaint most leaders share is that they feel they “have to do everything themselves” and that most of the time it’s just “easier to do it myself” than lead other people to develop the skills to do great work. Guess what? You don’t have to do it all yourself. Well, at least you shouldn’t. If you don’t have great people to do the jobs you are paying them for and you think you must do all of the work for them, then you have the wrong people. Your job as a leader is to create scale and empower great people to do great work.
Ask them to challenge you
The second suggestion is to simply ask them to do it. Ask them to challenge you. Let them feel you are sincere in supporting them and want them to come up with new ideas and new ways of thinking. Sometimes it’s as easy and straightforward as communicating to the team what you really want and not assuming they wake up every day thinking about ways of challenging you and the business as they probably aren’t.
The third step is embracing the idea of fail-fast-forward where people feel comfortable making mistakes, learning from them, and moving on to solving problems and challenging the status quo. The primary reason this doesn’t work is that people feel that will be blamed and ridiculed for making mistakes and it is your job as a leader to change that mindset and encourage risk taking.
In summary, times have changed and so have leadership best practices. Being challenged by your people with great ideas for doing things better is the recipe for long term success. Please feel free to leave a comment below on what you are going to do differently tomorrow to make this happen in your world!