WHERE SHALL WE BEGIN?
First up, let me declare to all and sundry that this is the first of my “52 blogs in 52 weeks” commitment. Why would I do such a thing to myself, you may rightly ask? If I’m honest, 2019 has been a year of learning to show up for myself in business. That’s a long story, and I reckon it could even be the topic of my next blog (hold that thought, Ange)… but for now, I have something more pressing to share – the key leadership trends of 2019.
…WITH A LATTE, OF COURSE
So, it’s December 2019 and here I sit in a swanky-but-not-too-cool coffee shop in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, soaking in not just the aroma of freshly brewed coffee but more potently, the heady scent of Issey Miyake exuding from one of the two Gen X dudes at the table next to me. Both dressed in blue suits, full of corporate polish and posturing, and they’re clearly supercharged on coffee and on a roll about the state of the company they work for.
I don’t know them (so let’s call them Bob and Bill), and even though I’m REALLY not eavesdropping, I’ve gotta say they could use a little more discretion. #awkward Anyway, the highlights of their convo so far have been:
- They are both working in a company full of no-hopers (I’ll sanitise the language, for our mutual benefit) who evidently couldn’t execute a strategic decision if one bit them on the bottom
- So-and-so really needs to go, and a gaggle of other heads must roll (but clearly, not theirs)
- The fact that everyone hates their job, and each other, is everybody else’s fault and problem
- The CEO really needs the ‘gift of clarity’ about what’s really going on in the company
It’s been an action-packed 5 minutes so far, and as the hipster barista delivers my latte with a heart poured into the foam, I decide this conversation is not only irritating in both its volume and apathy – but it does reflect some more generalised themes from my leadership coaching conversations this year.
THE NEW TREND: PEOPLE EXPECT ‘WORK’ TO BE A GOOD TIME
Every month of 2019, I’ve hosted between 40-50 leadership coaching conversations with senior managers and executives. That’s between 400-500 coaching conversations this year. Add to that 20+ team effectiveness and leadership skill-building workshops, and we have ourselves a decent body of qualitative data on leadership challenges and organisational trends.
Now, while you lot are all unique, special and different, there are some general themes. The biggest and most obvious theme is the one that goes unstated – that is, it’s never uttered out loud – but is implicit in every conversation, and that is:
People expect work to be a good time.
It’s crazy-talk, I know.
Yes, in 2019 the expectation of both leaders and their teams is that the experience of work will meet more of their core human needs for certainty, variety, significance and meaning, connection, growth and contribution than ever before in the history of work.
Why is this trend important? Because most leaders don’t understand what it requires of their leadership mojo to create an environment where their people can rock out, experience the meaningful fun of doing important, focussed work, and feel like they’re actually contributing to something bigger than themselves.
What Bob and Bill (table next to me, remember?) are saying – underneath all the bluster and criticism – is that they are not having a good time at work, and they believe they should be.
SO, IF WORK IS SUPPOSED TO BE A GOOD TIME, WHAT ARE THE LEADERSHIP CHALLENGES?
Conscious that work should be a good time for themselves and their people, leaders are trying to maintain the good vibes in professional relationships by avoiding the hard stuff – which, ironically and perversely, makes things even harder. So, what’s the hard stuff?
1. Strategy Execution
This is the magic black box activity of engaging our people in planning to convert strategy into action. While it’s safe to say that planning activities can easily go off-track (think: too many priorities and KPIs, paralysis by analysis, misaligned actions etc) the more pressing concern is that our leaders simply don’t know how to hold the planning conversation with their teams which convert strategy into tangible plans.
The consequence of this leadership challenge not being mastered is that our people don’t understand organisational priorities, they are left with business-as-usual tasks instead of meaningful work, which also creates a gaping hole in their expectations for living out their purpose and contributing at the highest level of their potential at work.
Tip: If you’re looking for a simple framework to facilitate ‘strategy into action’ conversations with your teams, I like and use Second Road’s Strategic Conversation methodology.
2. Avoidance of Caring Conversations
I used to call them ‘Challenging Conversations’, but I’ve come to realise that leaders are not avoiding a challenge, they’re avoiding showing care at work. These are the conversations that, on the face of it, feel a bit awkward and are ‘not a good time’ to have.
Some examples: An early message about an upcoming structure change that will substantially affect someone’s career path; the conversation someone really needs to hear about the pattern of thinking/behaviour that is holding them back in leadership; the talk that puts in all on the table when it comes to improving the professional partnership between two departments who need to work better together.
The avoidance of having these conversations with the right people, directly – and instead talking to everyone else about the problem – is being so perfectly demonstrated by my new coffee mates, Bill and Bob. The effects of avoiding direct, caring conversations are that our people don’t feel cared about, they are in the dark about important issues affecting them, they don’t’ feel valued or respected and they certainly aren’t having the ‘good time’ they expect to have at work. Avoiding caring conversations is just another way to find new lows in your engagement survey scores.
3. Taking Personal Responsibility for the Experience of Work
We all have choices. Choices about where we work, for whom, how much education we’re prepared to benefit from and how much lands in our bank account on payday. Yes, we choose all of that, and more.
Leaders also have choices about how they show up in their leadership state (or leadership energy) to serve their teams, whether they are prepared to invest in the self-awareness needed to be constructive and functional under the most challenging of circumstances, and overall they have a choice about the work culture and environment they create through their leadership for their teams.
Seems logical enough, but this is the sense of agency that most leaders give away at the first sign of pressure. Their language indicates that the work environment and all its challenges are ‘happening to them’, resulting in what I call a ‘lean back’ leadership state. When we take personal responsibility for the experience of work that we create for ourselves and our teams, we’re another step close to that ‘lean forward’ leadership state that allows us to really ‘go for it’, gather momentum and begin achieving things we can be proud of.
LEAN FORWARD IN LEADERSHIP
A good friend insists that if in the face of challenge, we simply tip our nose forward and put one foot in front of the other, this will be the remedy for most things in life. I reckon he’s probably right.
Therefore, based on what I’ve seen create success for the leaders I’ve worked with over the years, my advice to you is to begin immediately (yes, right now) to ‘lean forward’ in your leadership state. This means:
- Lean forward into engaging your team in deliberate planning for strategy execution by investing time in getting them together and doing a simple planning exercise to translate your strategy into action (drop me a line if you want a simple framework for this)
- Lean forward into conversations that show care for the person who’s not doing well – help them get back on track, be direct and caring about the underlying message they really need to hear and show the vulnerability and courage to start the conversations that need to be had. (For inspiration about approaching caring conversations, check out Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown)
- Lean forward into the realisation that the way we choose to show up in leadership counts – in fact, it creates a chain reaction of responses from our bosses, teams and colleagues that determines the quality of our experience of work. Nobody owns that quality of experience but us. If you need help with your leadership state, check out the Leadership Self Reflection or drop me a line.
Meanwhile, Bob and Bill have ordered another coffee and are still banging on about So-and-so, and how he really needs to ‘go’. I’m tempted to ask them how they might help So-and-so recover and thrive in his role, but I’m guessing they’re not in the mood for a stranger intervening in their whingeing. For today, I’ll settle for one raised eyebrow and the occasional sneaky sideways glance.