EFFECTIVE LEADERS understand human nature, and they create connections even in difficult situations. For example, when promoted to lead an organization, one of our colleagues named Ellen inherited an adversarial culture. In this new job, she would lead and manage brilliant scientists who were working on different research projects, and each research group was very competitive with all the other groups. On top of this, Ellen was the first minority female promoted into her position, and she knew there were many qualified people who felt entitled to the promotion that she had earned. Here is Ellen’s story including four ways she created camaraderie and achieved her bold goals.
1. ENGAGE EVERYBODY. Given the situation, Ellen wanted to set things up for success from the beginning. So, she decided to tackle it by providing leadership training for all her employees as part of a larger annual gathering. In that training, small working groups were each asked to solve a problem that Ellen, their new boss, faced. And, they were asked to look at it from her point of view. Most of the people on the team hadn’t thought beyond their somewhat insulated groups in a long time. This is because they were extremely focused on driving their particular research projects and on competing with the other research groups for recognition and funding. During the leadership training, what really catalyzed lasting change was how individuals, who were usually pitted against each other, were able to discuss calmly all of the angles their new leader should see. They ended up talking about the entire enterprise and discovered that they all shared similar values and longer-term goals. It became clear that even though they held different positions on many issues, they actually had similar interests. It was a EUREKA moment!
2. BUILD BONDS. But before any of that new and positive capital could have a longer-term effect, it fell to Ellen to get in motion. She was either going to step up or miss the mark. She had to find new sources of funding for the research that her team of scientists would conduct in the future. She had to position things so that everyone across the enterprise was valued equally. Also, she had to change the culture so there were no perceptions of favoritism, even though the scientists in her organization were prone to look at the world in a way that was in their own best interests. Now it was up to Ellen to do exactly what she had asked her people to do. She chose to step up and seize the opportunity to get to know each person. She initiated dialogues and relationships that would end up lasting well beyond the time she led that group. She made lifelong connections. As a result of building these bonds, Ellen matched the current capability of her staff to the strategic direction of the enterprise. She worked to help people from different disciplines find ways to work together. She didn’t impose her ideas. Instead, she shared the dilemma and asked the team to create solutions for improvement. In attending to the human element, she realized great success in building bonds that magnified the talent of her team.
3. LOVE LEARNING. In addition to helping her people experiment with a new way of thinking, Ellen herself stayed in constant learning mode. She had come from the trenches, and like the scientists she now managed, she had her own position and point of view on things including strategy, research, and fairness. This meant she had to learn to integrate all of the brilliant talent of her team with the strategic direction of the organization. The amount of effort it took to integrate the many talents of her people was enormous. Ellen had come up through the ranks herself as a research scientist and knew what it was like to scrap for scarce research funding and compete with peers for publications in top refereed journals, plus garner recognition within the scientific community. However, she learned to be an integrator and a total systems thinker. Her aim in learning to adopt this new discipline was to make a positive difference for her people and her organization. And, she did.
4. MODEL AND MENTOR. While Ellen was learning to be a systems thinker and integrator, funding for the traditional way of designing and conducting research was drying up. As a result, Ellen’s colleagues were trying to protect the current research dollars and associated talent as their own. She realized that she had to model the open-mindedness that she was asking of the people who reported to her. So, she encouraged people to start thinking that funding and capability were owned by the entire enterprise, not by individuals or insulated groups. This way of thinking was outside their comfort zones, but they were willing to experiment with new approaches because Ellen had taken the time to build bonds, act as a role model, and mentor them. Learning to appreciate the total system excited Ellen’s people who were motivated by the chance to contribute their smart ideas and do great work. In putting forth their newfound total systems mindset, many of them made measurable and positive impacts across the organization. In the end, Ellen helped her colleagues to become total systems thinkers, and this resulted in more research funding for everybody.
AS AN EFFECTIVE LEADER, Ellen elevated her team to grab the vision and run with it on the energy of possibility. Her leadership legacy lived on even after she was promoted to higher levels within her agency. In the end, leaders like Ellen are effective because they show their people they care by connecting with them, and they help their people connect with each other. Furthermore, they help their people connect to being their best. They help match strengths to challenges and enable people to stay in constant learning mode. When people are in constant learning mode, they are open to being coached and mentored. They realize that maybe they don’t know everything about the most effective way to do their job. They are willing to get out of their comfort zones. Ellen inspired her people to start thinking about the entire enterprise, not just about individuals or insulated groups. She helped individuals become total systems thinkers resulting in more funding for everybody. Modeling and mentoring were also important to Ellen’s success. Like Ellen, all leaders can help their people see the big picture and leap to the next level of performance by thinking, speaking, and acting from the heart.