Leadership is something that only gets better by doing it. In many ways, I still can’t believe I passed my interview for my first manager’s job at IBM. I met with my manager’s manager, Russ Schalk, and he asked me if I would be able to fire people.
“Yes,” I said. “But I don’t think I will ever have to.”
He laughed and wanted to know more. I explained what I believed — that everyone is just looking for a chance to contribute, and I would be working hard to help everyone achieve his or her best.
OK, so I was in my 20s and a little naive. And, unfortunately, over the years I’ve learned that not everyone puts his or her best foot forward everyday. At first I didn’t know how to react to that. I did handle turmoil very well. I did not stay calm when things went awry and overall, I managed by fear. I was able to inspire, and committed to do so, but I could also be tough. I cared a lot about commitments and when people didn’t live up to them, I became angry and intimidating. It was a different time, when command and control was an accepted and expected leadership style. But still, looking back, I’m not proud of this behavior. It wasn’t cool. And, I soon learned it wasn’t the most effective way to lead.
As I became more successful, I found myself surrounded by better and better people. They were so talented, and they taught me to be better. I had always practiced coaching and mentoring, but there were a number of “butt kicks” as well. My methodology evolved with my career growth and the wisdom that comes with age. I also gave up caffeine, which had a profound effect at taming my temperament. I discovered and engaged in practices that felt right to me — and that elicited great results.
I love leading in times of growth, where my job is to be inspiring and I can encourage the team to find the answers and determine the decided direction. I most enjoy leading through encouragement. But unfortunately, when there’s a crisis — when a big customer threatens to leave, a site crashes, a product doesn’t gain traction — a different kind of leadership is necessary. This style is more hands-on and more maniacally focused, but it doesn’t have to involve invoking fear. I’ve learned that situations can change in an instant and as they do, I have to alter the intensity of my leadership, but many of the practices stay the same.
The strategies in my arsenal to lead with inspiration instead of sheer will:
More mentoring: Spend more time validating, cheerleading, and coaching. Praise in public, but coach and critique in private. Never make someone feel bad in front of his or her peers.
Paint the picture: In my earlier days. I used to tell people what to do. Now, I try to inspire them with what we should do rather than tasking them to do it. It’s much more rewarding to orchestrate a masterpiece than assign them to paint by the numbers — and the results speak for themselves.
Ask more questions: Great inspirational leadership means operating on a level that’s more than transactional. This means asking questions to get others engaged and invested. I often ask, “How do you think about this?” “Is this doable?” “Why do you think that’s a problem?” “Have you thought about this, or what about this?”
Raise the bar: The most powerful moments with an individual and the ones I love best are not transactional. They are not about whether or not you did what you said you were going to do, but focused on how we can do more and do it better. I call this “wonder mode” and find we are able to achieve it easier and earlier by making the previous practices routine.
In the toughest moments lead with intensity, but not with intimidation. Some of the strategies I employ:
Alignment through 1:1s: Communicate constantly. Determine together what success looks like. I encourage people to share problems early. That enables me to help solve them while I still can. No one wants to hear about issues by the time they’ve festered and are too late to fix. I end every 1:1 with a question: “What else do you need from me? What can I do to help you?”
Objective setting at the beginning of a project or quarter: Work with teams and individuals on establishing what we are going to achieve — and what’s most important to do first. I always ask, “What trumps what?” I believe in aggressive goal setting. That’s why I believe it’s okay if we hit 80 percent of the goals. If we hit 100 percent, I know the goals were not aggressive enough.
Keep it cool: Even in bad times, losing your temper is never a fine moment. Be patient.
More mirrors: Instead of telling someone what they did wrong and telling them how I see it, barking at them, “You missed a date!” Instead, I ask them to reflect on the situation for themselves. “Look in mirror, what do you see? What do you think? How do you see it?” Seeing it through their eyes is helpful for them — and for me.
Address performance quickly. My more inspirational leadership practices do not mean that I no longer hold people accountable. I work with them to help make them better, but if they don’t learn from their mistakes, repeat mistakes, or don’t live up to their potential and my demands, I will let them go — but I try to do it in a humane and caring way.