So You Want to be a Leader
Back in 1991 I began my journey as a leader of not only a function within an organization, but also of people. For a computer science grad, that was a bit of a shift. But you know, it has been the best embedded pro-D I could imagine. I must admit, I seem to embody the “learn from my mistakes” model because when I reflect, I’ve made many and learned many lessons along the way. What I’ve learned is that leadership for me is envisioning a better future, and carefully working through others to get there together.
I attended the annual CIO Executive Summit in Vancouver last week where I had the pleasure of hearing several accomplished leaders speak. These leaders, CIOs (chief information officers) of large sophisticated organizations such as WestJet, UBC, lululemon (also heard from Chip Wilson, the founder), and Best Buy, shared their success, challenges, and advice. A reoccurring message for success included investing in people, process, and technology with the priority being people. Unanimously, they advise hiring great people, enough of them, with the right skills, into the right positions, much like the wisdom in Jim Collin’s Good to Great. I agree with this sentiment however the rules of the game differ for different organizations. For example, in public sector organizations, hiring practices are often quite constrained and there is insufficient flexibility to meet that test. This makes the leadership in that context a little more challenging for sure.
Our helpful online oracle, Wikipedia defines Leadership as such:
The key thing about leadership is that leaders must accomplish their goals through the work of others. People who make the transition from employee to formal leader, have to make the shift from doing to influencing, from follower of direction to crafter of the future. It is a highly rewarding experience when you’ve made this transition but can be a frustrating journey getting there. Leaders have to stop spending their time working the tools and move to helping people in their success focusing on the activities that will take them to the future that the leader wishes to arrive at. This is where influence comes in and leaders need to bring people together into a shared view of where they need to go.
Leaders set a direction, have a personal vision of where they want to go, and goals they wish to accomplish. They need to enlist the hearts and minds of the people they lead to be most successful in achieving their vision, making it a shared vision. Cheryl Smith, SVP & CIO for WestJet says “people are the #1 priority and their skillsets determine what you can accomplish”. In other words, where you have people with the right skillsets, and I would add, with the right perspective, you can achieve your goals quickly and successfully. I wonder how common this “perfect” combination exists in organizations. I’ve found in my experience in several different public sector organizations, varying degrees of this type of fit. The public sector unionized workforce context can increase the complexity significantly. This reality, I believe, makes public sector leadership more challenging than those in private sector might experience. However, not having led in the private sector, I can’t really be confident in that statement and would be interested in feedback from experienced private sector leaders.
Leaders are generally change agents. In my experience, most people do not like change. When you are not changing things, calm often pervades the workplace. Alternatively, when you are trying to change people’s practices, conflict inevitably surfaces. My work context is a public sector school district with 3,500 employees and 32,000 students. The group I formally lead consists of 35 staff working in a variety of technical roles. As a District leader, I also initiate and lead changes that often affect all employees, students, and in some cases, their families. You can probably imagine the conflict this can create. I’ve learned to accept that it doesn’t matter how you design and communicate a change, there are people who will love it, those that will accept it, those who will reluctantly comply, and those that will actively work against it. Leaders need to believe in the change, deal with the flack and negativity, and press on. Carefully crafted, thoughtful, understandable, and timely communication is very important in helping people with the change. Great and timely communication can be the difference between most people getting on board vs actively resisting. Leaders must also weigh the value and benefit of many variables at once. Making the right decision is often elusive. A simple example I’ve experienced involves setting and sticking to standards for technology and trying to address a requested exception. If I side with the exception, which may make perfect sense for some, my own staff who are working hard to stay true to standards will feel alienated and abandoned. What do I do, support the “customer” or my staff? Not always an easy decision. Conflict is a strong possibility for any decision I might make in this case.
I experience a host of emotions as a leader of people and of change including fear, frustration, anger, satisfaction, impatience, excitement, and it can churn and mix at any time. It’s often exhausting. On the negative side, people might lash out at you, make it personal, talk behind your back, “unfriend” you, etc. But, on the positive, once you achieve success, you can smile and reflect on yours and others accomplishments knowing that they wouldn’t have likely occurred if you hadn’t initiated the change and persevered. Leaders need to be courageous!
Someone I read regularly is (@leadershipfreak) at Leadership Freak. In this post the author says “Say the right thing the wrong way and you’ll disconnect.” This is especially true in a low trust environment. I’ve learned that the absolutely key factor for success is TRUST! “Trust, according to Megan Tschannen-Moran (2011), is one party's willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, reliable, competent, honest, and open” (Kindle 1359), The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age. I’ve made mistakes in my role as leader where I’ve lost the trust of my staff. In the past, I’ve not always been completely open and honest. I’ve acted politically, and have worked against the rules to accomplish my goals. This has not served me well. I strongly advise budding leaders to be open and honest, and to not push the boundaries with organizational rules. Don’t make promises you can’t or don’t intend to keep. Don’t tell people what they want to hear, tell them the way it really is or will be. “Trust is formed when people do what they say they will do” (Kindle 1366) and “Trust is the result of a combination of shared values and repeated desired behaviors” (Kindle 1382). Losing trust creates a long term uphill journey back. It is not simple to regain. So, if you take away anything from this post, protect the trust of those you are entrusted with to lead. That will serve you, your team, and your organization well in all aspects of your role as leader.