Getting it right, Part 2

The tensions of leadership

Meg Lightheart, @megalightheart
Presentation skills & leadership coach and organisational culture gardener
Birmingham, UK

In my experience coaching thoughtful senior leaders, it seems to me that, when you move beyond just being someone who sorts finances and rotas and so on, a large part of being a leader is learning to exist within unresolvable or cyclical tensions. 

Here are four that seem particularly relevant for people starting to build a bigger team, grow their organisation or become more conscious as leaders.

The tension of power

As you develop as a leader, you tend to be comfortable with either direct, controlling power or space-holding, allowing power. Search your soul to see if you can find why you don’t like the other type. 

Practice the other style. Work on just having a small part of the truth and finding the rest of the truth through trusting others’ perspectives. Or work on being clearer about your own perspective if you find it tough to communicate what you think and stick to it. 

In addition, how are you moving towards mutual power, shared responsibility, distributed decision-making whilst holding enough structure for everyone in the business to function?

The tension of inclusion

You’re always going to be excluding some people. You decide if you’re excluding people who are more marginalised by society or people who are unwilling to drop their internalised dominance. Inclusion, equity, and justice aren’t about everyone being safe and valued, but the most marginalised in society being safe and valued. 

It’s not enough to be ‘nice.’ Educate yourself on aspects of identity where you are in the dominant narrative. If you’re white, educate yourself on white supremacy and racism. If you’re a non-trans man, educate yourself on misogyny and feminism. If you’re not trans, educate yourself on transphobia and the gender binary. If you’re not disabled (yet), educate yourself on disability rights, universal access and ableism. If you’re not LGBQ, educate yourself on LGBQ rights and heterocentrism. 

Your instincts aren’t enough. Unconscious bias is very real, but unconscious bias ‘training’ is 1% of what’s required to undo its lifelong effects.

Just google ‘[term] 101’ and read ten articles to start with. Or ‘[term] reading list’ and get (and read!) some books. Particularly read books and articles by Writers of Colour. Do that before you start asking people you know to educate you. 

Your instincts aren’t enough. Unconscious bias is very real, but unconscious bias ‘training’ is 1% of what’s required to undo its lifelong effects. 

Consider who’s in your leadership team and early hires. Those are the people who are going to significantly affect the makeup of your organisation. 

It’s fine that you and your organisation is working on breaking down your internalised programming, just be clear where on your journey you’re at, on your website, in your job ads and during your hiring process. If you’re hiring someone from a specific demographic and they’re the first, tell them that. They’ll probably already know.

Decide where your bottom line is in terms of code of conduct — what is totally not acceptable in terms of behaviour and what are the repercussions for breaking the Code of Conduct. Take a stand that is coherent with where you genuinely are. Make it public and it’ll attract some people and put off others.

The tension of values

There is a difference between aspirational ‘espoused’ values and values-in-action. This gap is just a fact of life. Don’t wait to be given feedback  on it — be the one who opens up a channel for candid dialogue. Stone and Heen, the authors of Thanks For The Feedback, say the one factor that most affects if an organisation is a learning organisation is the way the senior team receives feedback.

Model the values you want the team to live. Go there first. For example, don’t work 15 hour days and then lecture them about burnout. (This is the tension of care vs capitalism, I suppose.)

The tension of public and private leadership

Public leadership is presentations, meetings, conversations and so on. Private leadership is your awareness of timelines, patterns, empathy, power, your awareness of your own awareness itself.

Work on both. Sometimes one is more in your control than the other. Sometimes when what you’re doing feels out of your control, all you can do is to work out who you want to be today. 

Who do you want to be, by the way?

Old Team, New Leader

Randy J. Hunt, @randyjhunt
Head of Design, Grab

When a leader joins a new team, there’s a common phrase that’s used, “inheriting a team.” Inheritance is right...and wrong.

It’s right, in part, because the team is something someone else has built up before you, and now it’s transferred into your responsibility. It’s wrong because inheritance implies possession. Now you own it. This is a terrible frame of mind for someone joining a team. Which is precisely how I like to think about it at first: “joining the team.” The team leader is a member of the team.

The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins is often recommended reading for people taking on new roles: whether in the same company or in a new company. I’d never read it before my latest professional transition. I wish I had. It’s full of practical advice and frameworks for thinking about entering a new role and decreasing the timeline between you being a cost to you being a value-add to the organization. I particularly liked Watkins’s recommendations around accelerated learning and spotting blind spots.

I found quickly in my new role leading design at a 6.5 year-old start-up that the complex market environment, state of the team, and company priorities pulled me in many directions. Each direction was some pull away from my well-formed plan. Frameworks in a book and frameworks applied to daily work are two different things. It reminded me that the main value of planning is the act of planning itself. It’s not as much about sticking to the plan as it is having planned and then having the plan as a solid place to deviate from, as opposed to being pushed around by the winds, ungrounded. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and have formed a talk about it that I’ll be presenting at Leading Design: London

This realization returned me to some other fundamentals, most strongly: setting expectations.

Expectation-setting is critical. Set expectations in a 90 day plan, in a statement of intent, in a vision essay, or in a hundred small conversations. Whatever you do, you have to set expectations. They should be inspiring (not necessarily in their ambition, I think that depends on the organizational context), but at minimum in their evolution beyond what existed before.