A Leader That Listens

As I mentioned previously I am a big fan of Leadership Development and studying great leaders.  I am also a huge fan of John Maxwell.  Here is an excerpt from a Maxwell book:

Trust is the foundation of leadership. It is the most important thing. Leaders cannot repeatedly break trust with people and continue to influence them. Your people know when you make mistakes. The real question is whether you’re going to fess up. If you do, you can often retain/regain their trust. How does a leader build trust? By consistently exemplifying competence, connection and character. People will forgive occasional mistakes on ability. And they will give you time to connect. But they won’t trust someone who has slips in character.

  • Character Communicates — a person’s character quickly communicates many things to others. Here are the most important ones:
    • Character Communicates Consistency — leaders without inner strength can’t be counted on day after day because their ability to perform changes constantly.
    • Character Communicates Potential — weak character is limiting. Who do you think has the greater potential to achieve great dreams: someone who is honest, disciplined, and hardworking or someone who is deceitful, impulsive and lazy?
    • Character Communicates Respect — When you don’t have character within, you can’t earn respect without. How do leaders earn respect? By making sound decisions, by admitting their mistakes, and by putting what’s best for their followers and the organization ahead of their personal agendas.

No leader can break trust with his people and expect to keep influencing them. Trust is the foundation of leadership. Violate the Law of Solid Ground, and you diminish your influence as a leader.

Interesting, but so what? This is an Agile Blog!

Yes, it is primarily about Agile, but as anyone who has ever had direct interaction with me will tell you, Agile and Leadership are inextricably linked together and in fact the greatest technologists in the world cannot be successful for long in an enterprise/organization that does not practice solid Leadership Principles.  As soon as more than one person is required to do work, and another person is setting direction, leadership is required.  If you want to work alone, per Maxwell, ‘you will never achieve great things!’ If you are willing to work with others, your potential just increased exponentially!

Back to the world of Agile.  One of the challenges I face often is the ability to help someone in the ‘C-Suites’ or SVP/AVP level direct organization change/agile transformation. In case you are not aware, telling these folks they are: ‘wrong’, ‘misguided’, ‘going in the wrong direction’ or heaven forbid the worst of all ‘a bad leadership’ or ‘in need of leadership development’ is akin to telling a farmer that chickens have teeth! It is a hard sell! So how does a guy who studies leadership do this very thing?

A brief history of a coach we will call “Phil”!

Phil is a coach who understands agile.  He is well qualified to help any team.  He is articulate, driven, passionate, honest and forthright.  He has character, and incidentally, might be one!  Phil has a flaw I have observed in other coaches that often gets rolled into this common ‘agilism’ (full disclosure, I used to be ‘Phil’!). “Meet people where they are, not where you want them to be’. Phil is tolerant of learning or failure, but intolerant of leaders without character.  He can’t meet them where they are, instead he will try to force them where they should be.

Again, how does this relate to agile?  Patience #grasshopper, we will get there!

Phil expects that when a company invests in coaching, that they understand the coaches are there to help them get better. They are there to help! Their advice should be taken more often than ‘heard’. You see Phil understands that if they listen, he can get them where they want to go, faster!  He forgets that people must go through their change processes individually, and that just because someone has a title does not mean they have character as defined above.  Phil’s expectations don’t match his customers, he has not taken the time to connect with them.  To understand their character, what drives them, what makes them laugh, what scares them!

#Grasshopper sees the light.

Connection to agile transformation achieved.  Much of the transformation in organizations, be it agile or digital or any change really, is about leaders leading. Sadly, it is my observation, that much of what is designated as organizational leadership today is NOT leadership, but instead management.

One last quick digression, for clarity:

  • Leadership is the ability to introduce and achieve change.
  • Management is about processes & efficiency

This week was a great week!  I served my client and my fellow coach, Phil.  This week we moved a ‘leader’ into leader mode.  Before telling you about the tactic I used, I want to share a bit about the background and the success.

Background:  In the last quarter of 2016, myself and several other coaches were brought on board a large enterprise client to ‘help them get agile’!  Note a couple of things, 1) The coaches has never met and were not a ‘team 2) The obscure definition of what success was is NOT a misprint 3) How could this ever go wrong?

Phil and I were 2 of the coaches brought on board.  Additionally, we were not designated as the ‘leaders’ of the transformation we were assigned to work with an organizational leader.  Add to that, this leader also was not aware of/clear on the vision, and if he was, he could not articulate it!  The perfect storm for Phil!

A month was spent trying to ‘get through’ to this leader before I got on site.  The frustration with the leader and his team was palpable. Phil and other were very frustrated and it should in their body language, their attitude and their demeanor.  Frankly, I expected that Phil would quit, or be removed.  Luckily he wasn’t!  He really is a great coach, and has great potential to develop into a marvelous enterprise transformation expert/leader.

When I came on board, I started listening to conversations, trying to understand.  My approach was different.  I didn’t start trying to immediately ‘change things’ or move the needle, instead I tried to understand, accept and identify what kind of character our leader had and how I could connect with him.  It became clear to me that he was put in a position where he was ‘expected to be a leader as an expert’.  He was setup to fail by his leadership!  By his own admission today, he knows less about agile transformations than ‘we, the coaches’ do. An ENORMOUS improvement from where we were just last week.

So what changed.

Before we talk about what changed for the leader, let’s continue Phil’s journey a little.  As I mentioned I expected the relations to continue souring, and to eventually just break.  Something inspired Phil to step back.  Something made him start to pause enough, that it allowed him to stay on the engagement.  Someone took the time to connect with Phil.  That person was me.  You might ask, why was I, as a coach, trying to connect with another coach (if you are not asking what the whole ‘connection thing is’).

Over the years, I have learned, that leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.  I have also learned that managing change is using influence, nothing more, nothing less.  If you want to lead agile change, you must be able to influence people.  To influence people, you must demonstrate character.  You must develop trust.  You must be willing to to be vulnerable.  You must be willing to fail, publicly, admit it, and stand back up, dust off and go back to work.  You see Phil has the answers, but he hasn’t earned the credibility, and a person of influence in the organization has never extended it to him.  Instead of working to earn trust, influence and demonstrate character, Phil tried to demonstrate knowledge. Had he been brought in to do that, and had he been working with a great leader, his problems would never have been surfaced.  That isn’t what happened to Phil and honestly that is NOT the position most agile coaches find themselves in.  Most of us find ourselves in positions with no authority, limited access to real leadership and a soap box a message that ‘leadership’ has asked us to spread. A bad situation, to say the least.

So what changed for the leader?

As with Phil, I tried to build trust through connections.  I tried the leader, but was rebuffed.  I accepted his push back, but remained committed to break through.  I then approached other leaders, and was able to start making connections.  Connections led to trust.  Trust led to frank discussions.  After one particularly frank  discussion, I suggested to a person on the leadership team that they might let the ‘leader’ know that I was available to ‘sound their ideas on’ or even potentially do some ‘private tutoring’ on agile, or just ask one on one questions, since it must be a daunting thing to be expected to ‘be the shell answer man for all agile questions in an enterprise this large’ without extensive background and experience in many transformations and many different companies. This bait was put out to open the door enough to show I could be trusted.  Trust eventually turned to conversations.  Conversations eventually turned to connection.  The connection pipeline was small, and unstable but it was finally there.  Luckily, the year ended before I tried to press too much. Post the New Year I tested the connection and found, as I thought, that it was tenuous.  I reminded my other leadership team member of my offer one day, after a particularly rough meeting where expectations were misaligned, and it appeared that the ‘leader’ may have unintentionally mislead his leader, who is well documented to have a short fuse, and is not a leader who value development of people, but it known to dress down their people, publicly and privately. This put the leader is a position of being vulnerability, and accountability.  Further, he felt that he had been misinformed.  In fairness, most the entire episode was a misunderstanding.

So what happened.

I suggest a couple of things.

  1. I explained (or better, re-explained) my coaching rule. “Blame the coach!”. My philosophy as a coach has always been, I am their tp provide ‘air cover’ for the teams, the leadership, the organization to take risks, test their risk boundaries and find out how they can become empowered within their organizational structure.  This air cover is designed to allow them to build trust among their team, their leadership and their peers.  It works! It is powerful! Teams embrace it, but it takes time. It is also somewhat risky.
  2. I suggested that the leader allow the coaches to go offline, get a tactical plan together, and come back to the group with a plan, or the outline of a plan the next day
  3. I extended my growing influence with the leader, to the coach in his sights for the problem, and suggested that I felt confident he was on the right track!

It was all rosy, but luckily, things worked out.  The next day, several conversations were held that illustrated to the leader that we, the coaches, has been:

  1. Accurate in our assessments of organizational issues that were much bigger than they appeared
  2. That we had been accurate, and ultimately he had been accurate in his reporting
  3. That even in a situation where we could be blamed, without cause, we were willing to shoulder that blame, in order to keep us moving in the right direction
  4. We could be trusted. We had character, we were true to our word by deed and commitment

The transformation of the leader in the last 24 hours is so astonishing that it literally has Phil’s head spinning. Even better, Phil has been able to witness something that opened his eyes wider to the possibility of connection and time.

Today was a good day. We will take this win, and move forward.

Until next time, I’d love to hear your ideas!

If you ever need someone to believe in you, let me know, I’d be happy to!