"How do I Look?"
I once presented my business’s innovation pipeline to a company president at an R&D facility. As he commented on what he had seen, the president started combing his hair. While continuing his monologue, he looked down at his comb and began picking something off of it. The cleaning of his comb went on for about 15 seconds, an interminable length that left everybody else in the room disgusted and unable to focus on the feedback he gave us.
You might say that shows a lack of self-awareness. And a lot has been written about the connection between self-awareness, emotional intelligence and leadership. Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, defines self-awareness as “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources and intuitions.” Something else was going on at the R&D center, something that is another part of emotional intelligence and maybe more related to successful leadership. It’s really “social awareness.” Think of it as empathy, or at least the ability to understand both the needs of others and how others view you.
Organizations are social inventions. As important as self-awareness might be, you might know thyself and still fail unless the social element is mastered. I offer ten ways social awareness can play itself out when leaders find themselves in new roles. What’s important is consideration of how you look in the eyes of your stakeholders, while remaining true to yourself.
The single largest reason hiring managers give for somebody not working out is that they were not coachable, i.e., they did not listen to criticism or advice and adjust their actions accordingly. Leaders can demonstrate that they are coachable by explaining how the actions they take reflect the information they have received. Even if you are acting contrary to advice received, acknowledging the advice and explaining how it played into your thinking helps.
We generally don’t have a good language to talk about culture. It is often something more that you feel than you can describe. If you are joining a new company, or even if you are moving from one business unit to another, you will become aware of elements of culture. Even when there is a language for culture, it is often just plain wrong. Companies often have lofty lists of values, like Integrity, Results Orientation and Teamwork. What is actually valued, what behaviors are rewarded, might be making deep cuts during restructuring or only taking action with very little risk. Demonstrating published cultural traits will keep you out of trouble. Squaring your own authenticity with the real climate you face is critical to success.
Consider how frequently you communicate with your team and with others in the organization. It’s hard to do it too often. Consider how you communicate. Do you send emails, because that’s easiest? How about what is easiest or most effective to receive instead of what’s easiest to transmit? Maybe it’s a video of you in casual dress. Maybe it’s a voice mail blast on Friday afternoons. Maybe it is a series of town hall meetings or just walking around with minimal agenda. Don’t feel the need to tell people stuff all the time; ask questions. Let them tell you stuff instead!
Competence is the ability to do something successfully. Somebody was impressed enough with your skills to put you in the position you hold. How can you share those skills to make the organization more effective? If you are new to a culture, you may not understand what laws of physics apply in this environment. Learn how the organization solves a problem and consider if your own way might be an improvement. Rushing out and executing as you have succeeded before is great for an individual contributor, not for a leader. To come full circle, it’s unlikely you are capable of doing any significant task successfully in a new organization, unless you do it through other people, people who have their own way of doing things.
There is uncertainty in any new role. Still, you were selected to fill the spot. Somebody felt confident in your ability to deliver. You’ve impressed people. You should feel confident in your own abilities. Let’s consider how confidence applies to your team. Do they share your confidence in yourself? Do they think you have confidence in them? Your job might be to assess the team’s ability to do the job today and in the future. Fair enough. But does it help you for all of the people you count on to feel as if they are on a development plan? Taking a “hands on” approach can be important for you to learn the business. Taking authority away from people for an extended period of time will lead to reduced employee engagement and retention.
You need to deliver what you say you will. The University of Minnesota once hired a head football coach named Tim Brewster. Before his first year, he said there was no need to rebuild; his team was ready to compete for the Rose Bowl right now. That initial season, Minnesota’s record was 1-11. While he lasted 3 ½ years as coach, Brewster was a dead man walking after that first year. The moral: be careful what you promise. Don’t accept what you are being asked to deliver. This is your only chance to get a re-set. Call out the bullshit. Level-set goals. In doing so, you earn the respect of those who hired you and the support of those you will count on to meet your goals.
You may feel “all in” Day 1, but people in the organization who have been through tough times and stuck around, who can share inside jokes with each other, who have their shares vested, are not yet convinced. You can’t change that immediately, but you can convince people of your commitment over time. Create alignment by saying “we,” not “I.” Put in the hours in the early days. Be visible. Find opportunities to get together with people outside of work. Get involved in activities in the community that represent the business.
People across the organization are looking for evidence of how well you work and play with others. When you start a new role, you have ignorance and naivety as powerful assets. You are allowed to ask questions that will seem stupid later on. You can assume positive intent before it is demonstrated. And the quickest way to get colleagues to willingly support you is to provide them with something of value. This might be your expertise, your consideration of an option that your predecessor rejected or your investment in others accomplishing their goals.
Trust comes with the certainty that you won’t take advantage of my vulnerability. The people who work for you are at a power disadvantage to you, just based on the status of your positions. If I share something with you that can put me in an unfavorable light, or if I blow the whistle on a wrong that has been committed, I am taking a big risk. Respect the courage this action takes. Establish rules on what information can be safeguarded and what must be shared.
You might think you have a common touch, but the real common folk are nervous just thinking about climbing Mt Olympus to your office. People don’t want to hear you trumpet about your skills or your accomplishments in other environments. They want to be acknowledged as people who matter. They want to be valued for their achievements. They want to understand the “What’s in it for Me” of your agenda. Trade arrogance for humility. Keep your vision simple and your priorities few. Deliver your message directly and in person, if you can. Answer people’s questions with authenticity.
Ten aspects of social awareness are more than enough for anybody to remember. It’s easier to remember this: Being concerned with how you look is not always vanity. When it comes to how you look to the people you work with, it’s sanity!
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.