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3 Lessons for Modern and Tenacious Leaders

Steven McConnell
Steven McConnell

Leadership keeps evolving, but you can't go wrong with these three principles.

The lines begin to blur

In 2015, when Ukrainian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature, she was a genre buster. While other writers have captured political turmoil in gripping works of fiction, her work is devoted to real people's stories. Her art isn't literature, per se. It's journalism.

Last year, another genre buster won the Nobel Prize for Literature: Bob Dylan. His win was a big surprise around the world. Not because his lyrics aren't poetic, or even poetry for that matter, but because Nobel laureates are thought to be the ultimate leaders in their field, each one a divining rod for cultural transformation. So literature lovers everywhere were left wondering where these two nontraditional, non-literary choices might be leading us.

The answer? To uncharted territory. And whenever I find myself somewhere new without a map, I ask myself ...

What's the lesson?

That leadership can no longer embody the status quo.

Whether or not song lyrics and journalism qualify as literature isn't the point. The point is that leadership is about embracing change. Constantly.

Whether you're an artist, a scientist, a politician or a corporate executive, being a leader in today's 24/7 culture requires flexibility, tenacity and a willingness to explore the unknown. This means that what got you where you are today won't get you where you want to go.

Speaking of where you are today, chances are you're a leader due to one of two scenarios:

  1. You were a superstar individual contributor, so, to engage you, you were promoted to manager. But you haven't had much formal leadership training.

  2. You set out to be a leader and you've been managing people for years. The leadership development courses you've taken have been instrumental in your success.

But regardless of which leader you are – and even if you're a senior executive – you have one thing in common: Your employees rely on you for coaching.

And as management trends move from command-and-control to servant leadership, from "telling" to coaching, tackling tough situations with aplomb is now more dynamic than static.

Here are three ways you can keep pace with change as you coach your team.

1. Feedback: The good, the bad and the ugly

A former boss of mine used to say that feedback was a gift – as long as she was the one giving it.

Kidding aside, effective feedback is essential to coaching like a pro, but it can be the trickiest aspect of the game.

Communicating negative messages toward a positive outcome takes practice and preparation. Remember to be timely with your feedback, but resist the temptation to lash out in the moment or to criticize in front of others. When you do coach on weak areas, heading out of the office for a change of scene can defuse some of the personal emotion.

Unsure about whether to involve HR in a sticky performance conversation? Ask. A good HR business partner will know from experience when they need to step in, and they can roleplay with you as part of your prep work.

On the flip side, be just as mindful of how you deliver positive strokes. If you decide to praise one employee verbally in front of others, make sure it isn't creating another performance problem for you by alienating a different team member. If you're praising an employee in writing, make sure you have all your facts straight.

Positive or negative, don't put it off. Strike while the iron's hot.

2. Growth: What goes around comes around

According to Gallup, the global employee engagement statistic is hovering at a shockingly low 13 percent. Providing career growth options to your team can hugely impact how much skin they have in the game. But it's also hard work. So, why aren't you spending more time, money and energy providing growth opportunities for your team?

These are the most common excuses:

  • I really want to, but my team is too busy with their day-to-day work.

  • Our training budget was sucked up by operational costs.

  • Oh, and did I mention how busy I am?

Lack of time is the worst excuse imaginable when your employees are looking to grow. Not defending your training budget to the leaders above you is a close second. Consider that there will be much less time to spend on employee development when people start leaving for other opportunities. Take their development seriously now or regret it later.

Finding growth opportunities for your people doesn't have to be costly, and the outcomes can be of tremendous value to your business. But remember, your employees are unique. Developing their skills can't be a one-size-fits-all approach.

Word to the wise: as their coach, keep your needs out of it. Their growth should not be about making you look good (more on that later). Take the time to learn about their strengths, weaknesses, dreams, desires and passions.

The simple truth about coaching is that it doesn't have to be fancy, but it does need to be consistent. If you're not already, incorporate career growth discussions into your regular one-on-one meetings with your direct reports. Once you know what makes them tick, you can sync up their aspirations with projects that will give them a chance to shine.

Side benefit? Even though you did it for them, it's good for you. Your reputation as a leader will soar, as will your team's.

Side effect? You may realize that your manager needs to give your career aspirations some love and attention. A new Gallup poll shows that only 35 percent of managers are engaged. Ask for what you need. You deserve it.

3. Motivate your stars – and your understudies

Keeping your lead players passionate used to entail putting them in the "upper L" of your nine-box grid at year's end for the 6 percent raise versus the 4 percent everyone else is getting. (I'm bored just thinking about it.) With many HR departments trending away from traditional performance evaluations, it's time to start looking for creative ways to reward key talent.

What about a high-potential program, you ask? Not all are created equally. Proceed with caution.

Shoehorning your stars into a program that rests upon a narrow or vague definition of potential is nearly played out. Just as HIPO programs are walking hand in hand into the sunset with annual evaluations, the Harvard Business Review is marching in like the cavalry with a cover story titled "Let Your Workers Rebel." The premise: encourage your best people to break the rules and watch their potential transform. Francesca Gino, Harvard professor and author of the story, asks us to look deeply at our inner rebel. These innovative approaches are the future of star talent retention.

And finally, what about your low performers? Is it really all their fault? If you haven't already exhausted their development possibilities, consider applying steps one and two as an experiment before you throw in the towel.

Above all, don't ignore the problem. Great coaches don't allow issues to fester. And they always take accountability.

While we're on the topic, I'll leave you with this insight on coaching from Yogi Berra: "It ain't the heat, it's the humility."


Image Credit: Ilyafs/Shutterstock
Steven McConnell
Steven McConnell Member
I'm a digital marketing wingman to bootstrapped startups; I specialise in helping them grow from $100K to $5m in revenue. Currently, I'm the Marketing Director at Arielle Careers and the business has grown on average 350% every year for the past 4 years.