One of the responses I received to last month’s edition was an email from a former colleague. He asked me about what role I thought ‘fun’ had to play in leadership and leadership teams. It got me thinking…
The word ‘fun’ is difficult for many leaders as it can be seen as implying frivolity which doesn’t sit well with the gravity of responsibility in leadership roles. Let’s, then, talk about how rewarding the experience of leadership is – and the role it plays both in delivering results and also in enabling each leader to give of their best.
Leaders’ experience today
Few leaders I meet are enjoying their jobs. Most are working too hard, frustrated at the pace of progress and worn down by the daily grind of eking out even small incremental gains in a hostile business environment – from what feels like an unresponsive organisation.
Worse still, the impression I get from many leaders is that this is what they expect. They feel that this is what leadership is like – and that remaining stoical is a key quality for anyone in a leadership position. Even discussing their experience feels risky ain case it’s seen as a sign of weakness.
There is hope. Most leaders I talk to have experienced times of great enjoyment and excitement. Times when they felt like they were really making progress and when they were contributing at, or even beyond, their maximum capabilities.
These times are almost always when the team around them is really working well. Teams, it seems, are critical to transforming not only business results, but also to creating the rewarding experience that so many leaders yearn for.
Really, how can that be?
It’s really not such a contentious conclusion when you think about it. There are many reasons why this makes sense. To name but a few:-
- First and foremost, many of your biggest challenges will probably lie in things which overlap with, or involve, other areas of the organisation. To get the benefit and satisfaction of resolving them properly requires the cooperation of other departments. The key to unlocking this is the support of your leadership team colleagues.
- No leader has a completely rounded skillset. Having a team around you who can help you where you are weaker makes life much easier.
- By the same token, being able to rely on others where you are less strong allows you to maximise the time and focus you give to contributing your own strengths – which is always more rewarding.
- There are so many pitfalls and challenges that one pair of eyes and ears is rarely enough. Having everyone look out for what you need to attend to means that you can spot and address issues early, and resolve them more easily.
- All leaders have good days and bad days. Having people around you with whom you can share the victories (large and small) makes a real difference. Perhaps more importantly, wouldn’t it be great to be surrounded by a team who can commiserate, pick you up, dust you down and encourage you back along the road when things don’t go right and you feel like throwing in the towel?
That’s all very well in theory – how can I make it happen?
Building a great team is not something you can achieve overnight. Getting the working experience on the table is, however, a great place to start. As we’ve seen, part of the issue is that most leaders don’t like to talk about how they feel about their jobs. It can seem like a sign of weakness and, in a team that isn’t working well, the fear is that it might be seized upon by others at your expense.
The key is to get everyone’s experiences visible – but without any one person’s views being identifiable. In this way, everyone can easily see how similar their feelings are to those of everyone around them. Even those who feel more positive can then see if this isn’t true for everyone.
Simply exposing this information is powerful. It can unlock a discussion about how the team is today – and that’s the first step to decide how it can be improved.
Our approach to this is simple, but very effective. We simply ask each team member, in confidence, a number of questions about; how they see the results the team is getting, what they want it to achieve and the barriers to delivering that. As part of that conversation, we also ask them how they feel about the way the team works today and how they’d like it to work.
When we table the results of these, it’s easy to open a powerful conversation. The relief that people felt about even being asked about their experience in the 1:1 discussion translates easily to an exploration of the change that’s needed. That first conversation is often raw, but what follows becomes the start of a journey towards significant changes, better results – and a far more rewarding experience for the whole of the team.
From depressing to dynamic
A couple of years ago we worked with a team who were definitely not having fun. Their market had collapsed in the wake of the recession of 2009 and their turnover had dropped by a third. Big job cuts had been made and there was no upturn in prospect.
The pressures of working through such a difficult time had taken their toll. Individuals were tired, demotivated and frustrated. Relationships were fractious, even hostile in some cases. Everyone knew how bad it was but no-one was talking about it.
We interviewed the team members and shared the results. The conversation (as usual) started slowly. It changed when the Operations director, known for being as tough as teak, but who had borne the brunt of many of the job cuts and pressures on results, talked about how he’d come close to quitting. There was no mistaking the emotion in his voice and you could have heard a pin drop as he spoke.
One after another, almost every team member talked about their own experience. It was a raw hour or so but, when everyone had spoken, it was clear that it had been cathartic. We asked about the team that they wanted to create and the discussion shifted up a gear. They quickly created a manifesto for what they wanted for the business, and how the team would have to work together to deliver it.
Today, the team is unrecognisable. Two years on, their market has improved little but the organisation has stabilised and is expanding into new areas. Team meetings are punctuated by laughter and friendly teasing of one another. Every member is now talking about it as the best team they have ever worked in. There are still, of course, difficult conversations and challenging decisions but the fun is back – and the organisation is beginning to thrive again as a result.
Making a change in your team
I usually end by offering some simple steps that you can take yourself. In this case, I honestly believe that this is a very difficult one to crack without outside help – simply because of the difficulty in getting leaders to talk about their experience of leadership to others from inside the organisation.
If you want to make this shift in your team, therefore, please contact us for a conversation. We’ll explore together what you want and some options for how you might achieve. Whether or not we do any work together, I can guarantee that our discussion will generate some new insights bout your team and fresh ideas for moving your organisation forward.
Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.
Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.