It’s often said that the most important task for leaders is to develop their people. While there’s more than a grain of truth in this, there’s also an old saying from personal growth, Let It Begin With Me. To be able to develop others, you need to care for your own development if only so they can see you’re walking your talk. Nurturing three key skills will serve you well in this: get to know yourself, learn from what you do, and develop a tolerance for ambiguity.
As you get to know yourself, you can better understand what you like to do – and not, and where your strengths and weaknesses lie. When what you like aligns with what’s important in your job, work becomes very enjoyable. However, that’s not always the case.
I was coaching a research group leader recently who felt that while the role of “Disciplinarian” was important in his group, he was most uncomfortable in filling out this role. This was leading to a host of problems that were slowing down the pace of research. It transpired the discomfort was a combination of aversion to needing to do this and a lack of tools to help him. In a matter of minutes, as he saw the impacts more clearly, he dropped his aversion and then was open to learn some simple tools that would enable him to set boundaries and say “no” as needed.
Some leaders are recommended to “focus on your strengths and ignore your weaknesses.” While staff in technical positions can follow this advice, it’s dangerous for leaders. For example, you can’t just ignore your weakness for numbers and hope your budget takes care of itself. Neither can you outsource that completely. You need enough to be able to understand where you are with your money, what you can afford, and what not.
I was introduced to the habit of self-reflection before I took on my first leadership challenge. Little did I know at the time how valuable this would prove to be during my career. Learning from what you do starts, at the end of the day, by looking at key incidents during the day.
Sometimes it’s enough to simply replay the conversation or scene in your mind. What you and the others said or did. The impact of these words or actions and the responses they triggered. This helps you to identify what works for you and where you might need to improve.
Another way is to use the Left-Hand/Right-Hand tool from pp246—247 of Peter Senge et al’s The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Here you take a few sheets of paper and draw a line down the middle of each sheet. On the right-hand column, record a conversation you have had about an important or difficult topic (or a conversation you might have, if one has not been possible). Then review the conversation and at each point in the conversation, note in the left-hand column what you were thinking, but didn’t say. As you examine the difference between thought and said, pennies will drop.
Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel and author of Only the Paranoid Survive kept a Decision Journal. On each page, he recorded a decision he took, including the reasoning behind the decision. Later, he reviewed the decision and made notes about how the decision turned out and his reasoning held up. This allowed him quickly and continuously to improve his decision-making capacities, which in turn helped him in his career development.
No matter how disciplined and insightful you are, you can’t manage this all on your own. Each of us has blind spots, so we need help from others to complete the picture. The willingness to seek out and act on feedback is, according to Daniel Goleman, the best predictor of success in developing as a leader. I have written before on how to give feedback; the same steps hold for receiving it.
The third quality is to develop a tolerance for ambiguity. You need this for two reasons: you will almost never enjoy the luxury of having enough time to gather all the information you need to take a decision. You need to be able to work well with partial information. This can take some getting used to, especially if your personality is such that you dot all your i’s and cross your t’s. Secondly, these day it is almost certain your team is drawn from different natures or cultures. This means that the signals you send and receive won’t always have their usual meaning.
One simple example concerns what “yes” means. If you ask your German colleague if she’ll deliver something by 5pm and she says yes, you expect to receive it. With a colleague fresh from India – it may or may not be there on time. He comes from a culture where to say “no” is considered rude, so “yes” takes on a range of possible meanings, from “yes, it’ll be there at 5pm”, over “yes, I hear you”, to “yes, that has no chance”. This particular source of ambiguity you can deal with by shifting from closed (will you deliver the report by 5pm?) to open (when will you have the report ready?) questions.
Navigating cultural ambiguity involves being curious to learn about other cultures and being open to slip-ups – nobody gets it right all the time.
Nurturing the three key qualities of getting to know yourself, learning from what you do, and developing a tolerance for ambiguity also helps you with developing your people. One advantage of this is that they appreciate it and show more loyalty.
In an industrial setting, this leads to lower turnover rates of more highly qualified and motivated staff, which in turn saves a lot of money on recruitment. In an academic setting, a new skill can help them get to the result faster while a new skill can help them push the project forward.