285 Leading With Collaboration

Leading With Collaboration - Higher Human Performance Podcast Episode 285

Novice leaders are often tempted to overestimate their own value and importance. They may incorrectly think they need to have the answers. Believing that our worth is determined by our own sole abilities is commonplace. And wrong!

History shows us that many strong and productive leaders behaved that way. “Impose your will,” was more than a phrase, it was a way of life among many leaders of the past. Sometimes the only distinction between an evil tyrant and a so-called genius is the work product. Steve Jobs, according to many sources, was quite tyrannical, but we view him as sort of a mad genius because his work product resulted in so many things we love. Other leaders, equally tyrannical (or maybe even less so), are viewed as evil men because their work product didn’t impact us, or the people of their day. Maybe their leadership just resulted in record profits. We revere business leaders who accomplished great things, not just revenues or profits. The men who built America were largely self-centered, overly driven, ego maniacs willing to do whatever it took to propel their businesses and market dominance forward. But they built buildings, railroad tracks, bridges, cars and other things that changed our country. Could they have accomplished what they did without the tyranny? We’ll never know. I have my own theory — I don’t think so. Time and place and all that.

Leadership in America in the 1800’s looked quite different than leadership in 2015 America (and the world, for that matter). Last Sunday, in a new episode of The Good Wife, the younger attorneys who aren’t yet named partners are complaining how they do all the work, but at the last minute a named partner will swoop in, taking 70% of the billing and all the credit.

Sure it happens. All the time. The boss takes credit for the good work or good idea of a subordinate. Without so much as giving any credit or recognition to the subordinate. It’s a worthwhile podcast topic, but we’ll table that for another day. For today, it’s about a leader’s obligation and value in fostering collaboration. I’m not talking about collaboration for the sake of it, although I could. There is something to helping make people feel included and important. But that can be a natural outgrowth of the hard work put into helping people improve their performance and their satisfaction with their lives.

Leadership development isn’t a solo activity. Sure, you can lead your own life (and you should), but leadership is developed by interacting with others. It’s about learning how to impact others through serving them. That’s not how everybody views leadership, but it’s how I roll.

Here, let’s see if I can’t make it easier for you – what will all this talk of world-class folks who have accomplished great things in business. I’m re-reading a biography on Andrew Carnegie, the one by David Nasaw. I confess, I’ve dipped into it before, but bailed out on it. I fear I may do it again. It’s a thick book filled with historical details that sometime drown me, but I appreciate the author’s completeness. Well, Carnegie was very accomplished. He was a “get it done” kind of a guy. Very driven. Very competitive. Very strategic. And like most titans of industry, fully capable of self-delusion and ruthlessness. Don’t mistake high achievement for leadership. A person can be both, but they’re very different things.

People can be the boss – or in charge – and be poor leaders. Carnegie and many other men who made America (there’s a great series of documentaries by that same name) were very successful. They accomplished great things during a time when our country desperately needed infrastructure. They also came on the scene during some very critical years where basic things like railroads, fuel and steel had extraordinarily high value. Today, high technology presents opportunities, but nothing trumps the basics of owning the transportation (cars, railroads, trucking, shipping), the fuel (oil, gas) and construction technology (including roads, bridges, buildings). The technologies associated with the Internet are the closest thing we’ve got to the opportunities experienced by these early men who made America. Some might argue it’s easier to today because costs can be low and money or funding easily available. But competition is also more fierce because the barrier to enter markets is low enough it allows more players. But none of that matters because none of that has anything to do with becoming a great leader. Great business builders may lack the ability to effectively lead even a small team of people. They might be able to instill enough fear in people to solicit good work, but it doesn’t make them a great leader. Edison’s lab was the place to be, even though he wasn’t a good leader. So the technical people wanted to be there, and many remained there under poor circumstances. Don’t confuse high accomplishment with great leadership.

Conversely, some men and women are great leaders, but they don’t generate great revenue, build bridges or donate millions to worthy causes. Some of them are poor. Others disinterested in building wealth. Others work in non-profit spaces. Still others serve others in city government, or in faith-based causes.

You can be a great leader and not be boss. You can be the boss and be a pathetic leader.

You can be the most skilled at the work, but the most incompetent at leading. You can be the least skilled at the actual work, but be a stellar leader.

Can a person be a great leader and some of these other things? Of course. But we’re talking about leadership and we’re specifically trying to get to collaboration, which is what’s required if any leader is going to be great. It doesn’t mean great leaders listen to just anybody, or everybody. Nor does it mean they abdicate decision making to their team or organization. It means they understand the value of group thinking and group participation. It means they realize that however people are at the table means there are potentially that many viewpoints and ideas worth hearing. Before you can hear them, you have to find ways to foster sharing. The person at the table who is afraid to share a thought isn’t helping. A leader can either elicit participation and collaboration, or he can shut it down.

Great leaders get the work done better because they’re busy serving others – namely, the people most responsible for getting the work done. People can do more, do it better and have more fun in the process if they have a great leader! But too often the person in charge thinks they must have all the answers. It’s a myth.

In episode 284, the last episode, we talked about how what got you here won’t necessarily get you there. That idea rears its ugly head here again. The boss – that’s usually who we think is the leader – gets to be the boss by being better than the rest. He or she is able to get things done that others can’t. Or they’ve got qualifications others don’t. But in far too many cases, the boss got to be the boss in one of a few ways:

a. They own the joint
b. They’re family to those who own the joint
c. They were extremely good at something (their own work product was shining)
d. They rose through the ranks by being good each step of the way
e. They outlasted others
f. They were an easy choice (convenient, available, inexpensive, etc.)

There are other reasons why people become the boss, but those 6 give you enough of an idea to prove my point — bosses tend to be the person with the answers. Or they tend to be people who feel they need to know the answers. Thankfully, I’m seeing that change as the demographics of the work place change. Increasingly organizations are going to non-hierarchal structures where people collaborate and use the collective knowledge and wisdom of the group. I think it’s a good thing because I’m quite fond of fostering positive group dynamics. Great ideas and solutions often come out of great dialogue and questions. Not to mention that solutions often come more quickly with added brain power and points of view.

The challenge I often find in helping leaders fully embrace collaboration – by that, I just mean letting other people have a seat at the table where ideas can be openly exchanged – is the need of the boss (or the guy at the head of the table) to be the smartest guy in the room. If you have that hang up, I’d encourage you to unburden yourself. For starters, your people already know you’re not the brightest bulb in the socket. For another thing, even if you are the smartest guy in the room, it’s likely better to be the wiser person instead. Foster the dialogue. Ask questions. Probe. Vet the ideas, but don’t squash the passion of the arguments. Let people mount the pulpit and preach their ideas. You don’t want to silence the congregation of people who will carry out whatever plan is agreed on. Many a good idea has been sabotaged because the boss didn’t allow people to be heard. It robbed them of the opportunity to buy into an idea they might have otherwise happily followed. But because nobody asked them, or listened to them, now they see it as tyranny. Be better than that.

That’s really the point of today’s show. Get out of your own way. Unshackle yourself from feeling like you’ve got to come up with the best ideas or solutions. Try framing the problem in a way so your team can clearly understand what you’re up against. Then turn them loose to figure out ways to fix it. Don’t be hasty to respond to what’s said by any member of the team. Avoid judgments so the conversation will continue. Instead, if nobody asks the question you know should be asked, then ask it, but in a non-threatening, non-confrontational way. Something like, “Well, if we do that, will we have to make any adjustments to our delivery schedule or any other part of our process?”

If you’re a boss who isn’t accustomed to leading like this, prepare for lots of silence the first go round. That’s okay. You’re going to have prove to your team that you’re serious about wanting their input. There’s nothing wrong with telling them you want to hear candid conversation and dialogue about the issue. Lean on somebody you know will help you get the ball rolling if necessary. As much as possible, resist the urge to chime in. At first, you’re going to be tempted to cut to the chase. Resist. The process is important. People need time to warm up to the comfort of being able to have these conversations in front of you. All eyes and ears are on YOU. Make sure the entire room learns this is a safe space in which to share their ideas. Don’t scoff at anything, even the most ridiculous ideas. Protect everybody in the room. Don’t let any bullies take over. Don’t let anybody belittle somebody else’s idea. It’s pretty easy to stop if you just let the room know about one of your craziest ideas you once had. Laughter is a good thing…don’t try to suppress it. Let the team enjoy the process, even if some good natured ribbing goes on – especially after you poke some fun at yourself.

The whole thing hinges on your willingness to be human. Leaders can’t foster collaboration if the team feels there’s going to be negative consequences. It’ll be easier for them to just sit quietly than to participate. Nobody wins if people withhold their ideas. Besides, those of us who fancy ourselves as idea people know that most of our ideas are ridiculously stupid, but by ripping and snorting through our ideas we may occasionally come up with that one brilliant one. It’s worth it. We all need our best ideas to help propel our businesses and our organizations forward. If we have to hear 99 bad ideas to get to the best one, so be it. Let’s get on with it.

Here’s what I predict is going to happen…because I’ve seen it happen too many times. People engage. The wheels begin to turn faster and faster as people begin to enjoy the process. They ponder. And pondering is good. You want people willing to ponder at work. You don’t want human drones. You want your team to think well. At long last you’re going to give them an environment where they can do their best thinking together. And did I mention the fun? Well, there’s going to be lots more fun than sitting there listening to you tell them, “Here’s what we’re going to do…”

I’ll put my team who came up with a great solution, and who own the execution of it up against your team who was informed of your decision all day long. And my team will kick your team’s butt every single time! Plus my team will have a lot more fun ’cause winning is always more fun than losing.

Randy

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