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Voices from the Front: On Leadership

Senior executives may get all the praise and glory, but mid-level leaders are the heart and soul of organizational success. No group knows more about the nuts-and-bolts of what it means to be a leader. How do they define leadership? What challenges do they face, and how do they rise to the occasion? What is it like to be a leader on the front lines of the enterprise?

Leader’s Edge put these questions to three attendees during a recent roundtable discussion to kick off Voices from the Front, a new monthly column presenting real people talking candidly about real workplace issues. Names are withheld to protect the innocent and guilty alike; for this edition, we’ll call them Leaders A, B and C. Each of the participants holds a leadership position at a Fortune 500 company, representing industries ranging from high finance to waste management. Here are some highlights of the discussion.

Question: How do you define leadership?

Leader A: There are certainly the Jack Welch types that you read books about, but for most of us, that’s not what we’re going to be. As a leader in my organization, I think my job is to understand the business priorities and align my organization’s priorities with those, so we’re not off on a separate track, then put in place mechanisms to track our progress against those. I have to make sure we continue to communicate them. Every time we’re together, we should be talking about what those priorities are, how we’re performing against those priorities, and how we need to adjust.

Leader B: Leadership is a state of mind. You have to give the same kind of respect that you expect to receive back – to deal very openly and honestly. If you have bad news to say, just say it. People can deal with the news, good or bad, as long as they understand it. People can’t deal with the uncertainty or the lack of leadership. If you’re working on a big project that’s going to cause downsizing, tell it like it is. It’s better than having them walk away and talking among themselves and working against the project.

Q: What leadership skills are most invaluable to you?
Leader C:  Leaders need to understand the bigger picture so that they can provide direction to the people who don’t understand and to provide a vision that they can work towards. It’s not just going to happen if we just let each group do whatever it wants. There have to be overarching goals. Everyone in the environment needs to be aware of those goals and levels of performance.

Leader A: You have to figure out how things get done in a particular organization that you’re a part of. You can have the greatest ideas in the world and the best vision, but if you don’t really know what a group or what a function does, and who the politically savvy people are, you’re not going to be successful. I’m thinking about someone who joined our company a couple of years ago. This person is clearly a brilliant individual but hasn’t been able to figure out how to get the right people to buy in to his ideas, and so he stands on a soapbox randomly in meetings because he’s got issues that he wants to work on. But he’s really kind of clueless about how to get his issues addressed.

Leader B: I agree. It’s pretty easy to understand the formal organization, but the informal organization is really what tells you who the movers and shakers are. If you don’t know that group, you’re in trouble. If all you know are the underlying responsibilities of the organizational chart, you’re going to have a tough time getting things done.

Q: How do you establish those kinds of strategic relationships?

Leader A: If you’re lucky, you get a mentor to show you how it’s done. But in my experience, you tend to learn it more by failure. You misstep, or see someone else misstep, and make a note of it. Alternately, you see someone else doing it successfully, and you start to dissect that.

Leader B: I think that honesty and respect are the foundations of those relationships. My boss is the CFO, and he’ll tell me things he’ll tell no one else because he knows it won’t go any further. I know most of what’s going to happen before it happens and he bounces ideas off me before he brings them public.

Leader A: You can have power and authority, but if you don’t conduct yourself with integrity, everybody will do what they’re supposed to be doing because you’re in charge—but they’re really waiting for you to topple off the pedestal. We’ve seen leaders like that, but it’s the ones with integrity that can get the most out of the organization and really get people enthusiastic about working together. I don’t think integrity and office politics are mutually exclusive. I’m not talking about figuring out how to be a shark when I talk about office politics. I’m talking about having an understanding of who’s influential. It doesn’t mean that they’ve behaved in ways that aren’t admirable or honorable.

Leader B: I can guarantee that my staff will come to me with any sensitive questions and they’re confident I’m going to do one of two things: I’m either going to give them an honest answer, or I’m going to tell them I can’t talk about that right now. As soon as its public knowledge, I’ll explain to them why it’s happening to the best of my ability. Once they believe in you, then you can have that kind of relationship with them. In the beginning, they might think “He’s holding something back.” But as you gain their trust and respect, they understand there’s something going on internal in the organization and that you can’t talk about it.

Leader A: There’s a big difference between “I don’t know” and “I can’t tell you.” If you don’t know, you better say you don’t know. But if you do know, you better not say I don’t know, because they’ll figure out that you weren’t honest with them. You need to say, “I can’t talk about it right now.”

Leader C: Part of that, too, is that if you can’t talk about the issue now, give an indication of when you will be able to. Just recently, there was a guy at my company who was asked about issues in a meeting, and he kept saying he couldn’t talk about it. He wouldn’t even say what the issues were he was facing that he couldn’t talk about. But we all knew that, if he wanted to, he could at least give us a flavor. It would have been a lot nicer if he could tell us what he was going to do next, so we had an idea of when he could talk about it. He was just being defensive.

Q: Think back to that time when you were first becoming a leader. What was the most challenging part of the learning curve?

Leader B: To me, the most difficult part of becoming a leader was letting go of the past. There’s always that urge to go back to the comfort of what you used to do. In my case, I was going from being a computer programmer to being a manager, and I could program better than any of my staff. So when they would be having a problem, I would just jump in and help them by doing it for them instead of helping them solve the deep-rooted problem. I think that’s something you have to adjust to.

Now, I tell my staff the worst thing I can do is keep you here. Because if I keep you here, you’re not learning, and you’re going to stunt your growth. I can’t help you—I can give you all the tools you need, but I can’t force you to learn, you’ve got to want to learn yourself. I’ll make the tools available, but if you don’t come back to me, I’m not going to push you. I maintain to my employees that you don’t have to build a resume by understanding the latest technology—you help the business run, your resume will build itself. And it will be better because it will be a business resume.

Leader A: The day I started working I was in a management position, so I’ve always been responsible for someone else. I think one of my early challenges was understanding how much everybody who worked for me would watch me, all the time. You never get any rest from that. It took some time and mistakes to realize that if I was sitting in the lunch room and having lunch and I said something, or if someone ran into me in at the grocery store on the weekend, I’m still the boss in those settings. I made some errors along the way where I found out the hard way I had to be a leader 24/7.

Leader B: I think you’re always learning how to be a leader. I learn as much from my employees as I do from my boss. Because we have trust, if I’m doing something wrong or stupid, they’re not afraid to tell me so. I’m not going to yell at them, I’m going to ask them why. I met with them a month ago and I asked them one at a time, if you had my job what would you do differently? It encourages them to think, it encourages you to think.

Editor’s Note:
The insightful comments of our panelists are a reminder that true leadership isn’t conferred, it’s earned. Leaders need to demonstrate a continuing willingness to grow and develop not only their own careers, but those of their team members. We hope you’ve enjoyed this inaugural Voices from the Front and we look forward to sharing more insights with you in future editions.

The Editors