Leadership In The Age Of Chameleon

How do you learn and grow? You mimic the people around you. Since you were a little child you observed the people around you and tried to mimic their behavior. You saw your mother speak on the phone so when she finished you went, picked up the phone yourself and started mumbling into it as that is what your mum did. You saw your grandfather read newspapers so you took them and started pretending to read it exactly as your grandpa did. You were faking it, until you were actually able to read yourself or to be able dial a real number and actually talk to your friend over the phone.

Remember your first job?

You were a bit shaky and clumsy. You watched how others around you are dealing with a particular tasks, you tried several approaches until you figured out a way that works for you. If you had no one around you to learn from it probably took you several attempts to get things right. If you had a mentor it was most likely way easier to get the job done and get confident doing it. Why? Because you could mimic approach taken by someone else.

First time being a manager?

When you got your first formal leadership or management position you were suddenly faced with a whole new world of problems and challenges. Suddenly you were not responsible for yourself only but for lots of other people who looked up to you for guidance, mentorship, help. You were most likely wondering whether you are ready, you were not particularly confident and it was visible also to the team. I talked about some of the fears in 6 Fears Of Leadership.

So what do you do in this case? You are humble, willing to admit you don’t know everything but at the same time you exude confidence that you will figure it out quickly. You find a great mentor or at least look around what other leaders are doing and you do the same. It will feel awkward at the beginning but eventually your will learn and build your own unique style.

One of the top characteristics of a good leader (at least in a Western world) is authenticity. Being authentic is highly valued as it makes you more human, more accessible for your team and helps you build better rapport with people around you. The problem with this is that when you are pushed to a new role that requires different approach to dealing with problems you need to change and for some time you will feel (and others will most likely see it too) that “it is not me”. This is just ok and it happens all the time when you are getting to more senior leadership positions. Expectations and the job description are simply changing and you need to. I would suggest to be rather open about it when approached by someone who feels you are changing and explain why you do some things differently now. The one thing you need to stay true to are your core values. As long as these are untouched you can mimic others.

Be a chameleon while being yourself

Not particularly useful advice, huh? So what does it mean? It means finding the right balance between being able to admit that there are things you don’t know, learn fast by observing others, while appearing to be in control and knowing what you are doing.

A good way to tackle this is to follow these three basic steps:

  • Observe the world around you. Look at others who excel at a particular skill, or are successful at the particular job. Watch, listen, ask, and try to understand all the details and reasons why their particular approach works
  • Mimic what you see. Don’t be afraid to try to behave the same way. It will most likely feel awkward at first but if you persist you will get better and better and develop the new skills or styles of work
  • Internalize to make it part of yourself. This is where you are getting back to yourself. You take the skill you learned and make it part of your repertoire. You will adapt the approach to performing that particular task in such a way that it fits your overall style. You already know how to do it, you just need to tweak it so you are comfortable doing it and it will become part of you. Now you are authentic again.

The next time you are faced with a new and challenging task that stretches your abilities and requires a new approach look around how others has dealt with it… and be a chameleon.

 

How do you deal with new situations? If you are in a leadership position and being faced by tasks you have never done how do you approach it? How do you lead people and have the confidence to inspire them when you’ve never done it before?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

The never ending learning

It is a dream of many kids who have to go to school every single day. They sit in the class rooms and dream about holiday or possibly about getting out of school and be like grown-ups and start working, make money and never need to learn anything again. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. In fact when you get out of school the real learning just starts. We have to learn every single day and if we want to be successful in our professional careers and keep up with the brave new world we live in, we need to spend some conscious effort in learning new things.

It is not HR’s responsibility

Over the years I’ve been managing teams I heard very often that “HR should provide some training”. When I asked what are the developmental needs of that particular individual the response often was “I don’t know, just tell HR to give me a list of training and I will pick some.” The implication here is that I don’t really know what I need or what I want, just give me something… anything. I will then go and sit through some class that will most likely be irrelevant, boring and bring me nothing except of the feeling that the company “gave me training”. This is the most common waste of money many companies would do.

HR (Human Resource) departments are here to provide tools and guidance. They are not the almighty beings who will just miraculously push the right knowledge into your head.

It is not manager’s responsibility

So if not HR, then I guess it should be the role of the manager, right?

Wrong. Manager, who works with you on daily basis, understands what skills you have today, what is required for the job and what skills you may need in the future. Your manager is in a unique position to help you identify the skills gap that you need to bridge. The manager is here to provide you with opportunities so you can learn on the job. The manager can provide regular feedback and course corrections and can work with HR group to provide the tools or training you need.

However, even the manager can do very little when you are not willing to learn.

It is your responsibility

It is a responsibility of each and every of us to take ownership of our own personal development. You cannot blame the HR or your manager that you are not growing and not learning anything new. It is your responsibility to provide the effort, seek out new opportunities to learn and go above and beyond your current duties. Learn on the job, learn from colleagues, learn from external mentors, and learn from books or articles in the magazines and on the web. Let me give you two examples from my life.

When I started by career as a software developer in 1999 I would buy any book I could get my hands on that could give me better insight into technologies I worked with (C++, PHP, Perl). I would spend nights browsing (and often contributing) to various community forums for developers, learning from others and sharing my knowledge. I would spend weekends digging into the technologies, building small apps to test the limits, trying new things and figuring stuff for myself. I really wanted to be good at what I did. I didn’t need a manager or HR department to “send me on a training” and I didn’t expect them to.

And then I moved to management and as a professional manager and a leader the learning started all over again. I would read tons of books on leadership, I would enroll to MBA, I would enroll to coaching and leadership training courses, I would spent time reading what other leaders say about managing people, I would even experiment with my teams (lucky them) and try different ways how to manage people and I would volunteer for new managerial challenges to learn on the job and to push the limits of what I can do. I would keep open mind and really dedicate myself to be as good professional manager as possible. And I still do it even today. And that takes effort, willingness, dedication and perseverance.

What to learn?

So where should you spend your time and effort? What are the things to learn? In majority of the jobs it is always a combination of different things but in any leadership role it boils down to these five skills:

  • Company basics (you really need to understand the culture, the values and what the company stands for to be able to lead other people and achieve company goals)
  • Technical (you need to have the necessary technical skills related to the function of the group you are heading; for example finance, HR, IT, sales, operations, R&D)
  • Management (another sort of technical skills, this time focused on getting things done through other people; for example project management background is pretty handy for most of the management jobs even if they are not directly project management related)
  • Communication (every leader needs to communicate, in fact that is the major part of the job so invest your time in improving your communication skills or even language skills when in international environment)
  • Leadership (this one is the most difficult to learn and will take time to master, in fact it is a life-long journey; leading people, influencing others, inspiring teams is more art than science and thus needs to be continuously improved and adapted and cannot be learned on any training course; the only way to learn it is by continuous everyday practice)

Some of them are easy to get from your boss or HR, some of them will need a mentor, some of them a good book or hands-on experience and some of them just the right mind-set and lots of patience and perseverance.

Just remember that whatever help you get is always just a beginning. For example, you participate on a training focused on improving presentation and public speaking skills. It will give you the theoretical background, if it is good it will also give you a chance to practice in safe environment and provide you with some feedback so you know what to improve. But if you want to really improve this is just the first step and then you need to regularly get in front of people and talk. That is the only way you will really develop the skill and ensure the training wasn’t just waste of your time and money.

Twitter type summary: “It is a responsibility of each and every of us to take ownership of our own development and never stop learning.”

How do you learn? And more importantly why do you learn?

Allow your team to fail

As a leader using coaching approach to managing people you need to be comfortable with the concept of failure. We as human beings are not perfect and each of us makes mistakes that may lead to failure. If you follow some of the thoughts presented in “Don’t manage. Empower!” and “Mentoring by telling stories”, when you guide your team by asking questions, giving suggestions and mentoring without giving too much specifics you need to understand that people will fail… and that it is fine.

Allow failures

This is very easy to say but may not be that easy to do. At each level of management structure we have certain responsibilities that correlate to our abilities. If if you are an individual contributor and you fail at your task it probably won’t bankrupt the company. If you are the CEO and you fail it may well lead to big problems for the company. At the same time you are better equipped with the necessary knowledge. It is always an equation of risk versus benefit. Just remember that risk means not only direct risk of not achieving the goal but also indirect risk (or opportunity cost) of you not being able to focus your time and energy on other things that may bring even bigger value. This also means that you can allow for failures only in a team that has the right people in the right positions. If you have a team member who lacks the skills necessary for his particular role than allowing for failures can be dangerous as that person won’t be able to realize that there is a failure in the progress.

Recognize them fast

Recognize that something doesn’t work and stop doing it. One of the human’s traits that make it especially difficult to recognize failures fast and stop doing them is our believe that we know what we are doing and if only we put more energy into it we will succeed. This leads to behavior that instead of stopping something that doesn’t work we double our effort and do more of it in hopes of getting different results. Let’s be realistic. If something doesn’t work don’t be afraid to admit it and try to limit your over-optimism and self-confidence. If your current efforts don’t lead to desired outcomes just stop it and try something new.

Learn from them

Even when you admit a mistake and stop doing a particular activity that led to the mistake you still need to figure out the root cause and learn from it. There is no point of stopping doing one thing that doesn’t work only to replace it by something else that tackles the problem in pretty much the same way. If something doesn’t work, stop it and try something completely different. Not just slightly different. Start from completely opposite direction and use completely new approach.

For example, if your recruiter have consistently troubles finding a specific skillset on the job market and you know you will need lots of people with that skillset in the future what do you do? You can get second recruiter (meaning doing more of that what doesn’t work), or you can change the recruiter (getting someone else who will be doing essentially the same mistake) or you can approach it from completely new angle and train your current team in using different techniques, tools and channels. The first two approaches are just postponing the inevitable and are essentially preventing you from failing fast. You will still fail, it will just take you longer.

And forget

You need to create environment where people won’t be afraid to take risks and that means once they fail and learn from it they can be certain that you won’t be reminding them of that particular failure for the rest of their lives. This is especially important in performance management as you need to carefully consider what failures and how you want to punish. If you reflect every failure in the performance review and you cut bonuses for the team they will be more risk averse in the future. They will not act next time.

The one failure you shouldn’t allow

Not acting may be sometimes also a mistake that leads to failure. The problem is that this is very often type of failure that is not immediately recognized and thus you will not learn anything from it. It is the type of failure that may lead to bad performance in couple of months so it is difficult to spot and correct today. Typically, it would be failure to deal with low performing employee, failure to develop your team, failure to lead. Because things are looking fine today you may even get your promotion for job well done, but in reality you are failing miserably. You are failing to act. It is not something your boss will see. In fact, the moment you start to act would be the moment when you make it visible that something is wrong and you may not earn your promotion today, but it will prevent issues in the future. You as a leader need to recognize situations like these and appreciate people who fail fast in failure of not acting.

To sum it up you need to be comfortable with the fact that you or your team will fail from time to time. The important aspect is not to worry about failure, be comfortable with it and use it as a learning opportunity. To use the positive side of a failure you need to ensure one thing. If you are going to fail, then fail fast. Fail fast, learn from it and move on and tackle the problem again from different side armed with the knowledge you just gained.

Twitter type summary: “It is fine to fail. Just make sure you fail fast. The only thing you shouldn’t tolerate is a failure to act.”

How do you see failure? Do you see it as a disaster that cannot be taken back or as a learning opportunity? How do you deal with people who failed?

Want to be a better leader? Travel!

If you want to be a really great leader it is important to see things in perspective. And to see things in perspective you need to be able to see the big picture and compare. And to compare you need to have something to compare your current reality with. One of the tools that will help you with that is travelling.

You should travel to see new things, meet new people, hear new perspectives and to learn how life looks like in other parts of the world. Always try to pick destinations that can bring you new perspective on life. And when you are on the trip, fully concentrate on your surroundings and let go of your life back home, your email, your blackberry and your problems.

  • Listen – listen to the world around you. Listen to the sounds, to the language, to the way people treat each other.
  • Watch – watch the environment and the people. Look at adults as well as children, what do they do? How do they look? Look at their faces and into their eyes. How do they approach their work and their lives?
  • Experience – experience some life. Don’t stay locked in a gilded cage of a five star hotel. Spend some quality time in the real world. Try new things, new activities, taste new food and meet new people.
  • Understand – try your best to understand the things you see around yourself. Why are the things the way they are? Why do people in this country or culture behave this way? What does it mean? Never assume anything. Ask, research, and then understand. You are a tourist so don’t be afraid to be a bit nosy. But keep an open mind and don’t judge.
  • Compare – compare how does this world differs from yours? What are the similarities, what are the things that are different and why? But again, don’t judge. Only because someone lives his life differently it doesn’t mean that it is better or worse, it is just different.
  • Learn – what did you learn from this experience and the comparison that you can take with you back home? How does it changes your perspective on things?
  • Implement – and don’t stay just with learning. Implement the new thoughts and observations in your own behavior. From each trip you take you should return a bit different and hopefully a bit better.

Let me give you example from my life. I love travelling. I usually go to places that are as much exotic for me as possible. I want to see something really new, experience things I couldn’t experience at home and meet people who are really different and live their lives in ways I couldn’t imagine. The part of the world that left the biggest impact on me was without doubt East Africa. Being a person from the heart of Europe with all the technology and consumerist style of life I was really surprised by what I have seen. I spent a month in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, travelled to bigger cities, climbed mountains, went to a low budget safari and saw people in the villages living their daily lives. It was amazing.

I walked through some of the small and poor villages, I saw people going an hour for drinkable water, living of the dry land, not having much but still have smile on their faces, joy in their lives. I saw people who welcome visitors with curiosity and open hands. Seeing this had a really profound impact on me as I realized that there are other ways to be happy than just pursuing wealth and fame in fast-paced societies like in the western cultures. In the western culture we take too many things for granted, but seeing the real happiness of small kids in the heart of Uganda who could spend half a day around you just out of curiosity and would get ecstatic for a small gift or a from you really changed the way how I look at the world and at myself. You learn to appreciate small things and that makes you resistant to stress. You learn to understand diversity and that makes you a better people manager and a leader.

When I came back several people told me that I changed. And I felt the change myself. I started to be a bit more attentive to the small daily wins, appreciate bit more what I have and also created a rather low patience with people who complain about their material well-being while living in consumerist society and enjoy richness way above what most of the people in the World can even imagine. It allowed me to help other people around me to see these small daily wins, to focus their attention to the good in their lives, and complain less about things they cannot influence. I strongly believe this single trip made me a little bit better leader and in fact a little bit better person.

Twitter type summary: “When travelling, listen, watch, experience, understand, compare, learn and implement to become a better person and a better leader.”

Have you every traveled to a place that had an impact on your life? Have some experience during your travels changed the way you see the world?