I have mentioned before that I am most comfortable when performing a role. If I can put on a specific hat and move forward from there that is when I am in my sweet spot. If I know that right now I am supposed to be a supporter, then I will let you lean on me and be the best cheerleader until you are back on your own feet. If I am supposed to be the teacher, I will provide guidance and direction in the path you’re going down. If I am supposed to be the leader, I will stand along side you providing framework and strategy to allow you to build the plan.
The problem can come in when those hats overlap or when there are just too many of them. Some time ago I had someone on my team whom I had been friendly with prior to them reporting to me. Now, I don’t mean we were get together on the weekends type of friends but just held friendly conversations at work and would make a point of saying hi to each other regularly. It seemed like that would help the situation when she started reporting to me. In the beginning however, she was clearly irritated by the arrangement. We didn’t talk as much, which was counter intuitive since we were now on the same team. She did not feel I was the right person to lead the group and even commented to a co-worker that “If Kelly wants something she’ll just bat her eyes and throw on a short skirt to get it.”
As I’m sure you can imagine, our relationship changed a little after that. Perhaps not in the way you’d think though. I had always poured into my teams but I felt particularly compelled to do so in this situation. I was determined to show her she was wrong by letting my body of work clearly demonstrate how I could benefit the department as a whole, and her individually, by being in that role. I was also very cognizant of how I lead her to ensure she was supported and had appropriate room for growth. Our relationship started to improve and she began to trust me. We began talking more and her work product started improving. She was reaching for more in her goals; adding value in her current role, planning for future career development, improving relationships in her personal life, and even adding a physical goal or two. Well naturally I was ecstatic at the progress. I started doubling down on my efforts. What if I could apply what I was seeing success in on the professional side to improve things in other areas of life? I started showing more of an interest in her workout journey. I started asking more and more about the personal relationships she was concerned about. I focused on modeling other behaviors I thought would make a positive impact for her.
I wasn’t delusional enough to believe that I was the one making the progress for her but I could see how my efforts were supporting her in the work she was putting in. This of course got me thinking how much other progress people could make if they were supported the same way. I started leaving bread crumbs for people to see if they too would gravitate to me supporting them in all the areas of their life and filling each role between the hours of 7 and 4. I slowly started gaining momentum with other people and fueling that momentum with my excitement to make a difference.
Pump the breaks
If you’re not in a formal leadership role or maybe haven’t been for long, you might have read that and not realized how far off the deep end I was. I can think back to that time and see I was wearing about 15 different hats all for one person on my team. That is too many. I can just imagine myself walking around with this giant stack of hats trying desperately to find the right one for each situation and struggling to get it on my head at the start of each interaction. Then remember again that this was all for one member of the team. I had a large team and then was responsible for supporting the rest of the department. Also, there was this whole family happening back at home and friends and community responsibilities, not to mention me. I was taking so much time monitoring her cup to ensure it was full I wasn’t even looking at mine.
To further all of that, I had a very individual model I was using to manage the team. By that I mean, I was building the structure for my leadership of the team to have all of my reporting relationships look like what I was doing with that one employee. It makes sense when you think about how I was living in that moment. I was seeing success by the amount and the way I was investing in her. If I did that with each person I might see success the same way. It’s logical, just not sustainable and doesn’t fit the strategy I truly desired for scalability of the team.
I needed to slow down enough to reflect on what was happening and take inventory of all of the roles I had assigned myself. Which ones were serving me and which were best serving the people I needed to support? How could I make the most of my time to make it work for my team and other’s in the department without giving all of it away? How could I make sure my glass was overflowing rather than tipping over?
Make a U-turn
There are a number of things I did to make changes in this area which fostered better relationships, empowered each person, and facilitated them owning their own progress. I would sum it all up into 3 different areas though; prioritize, ask questions, and check progress.
First and foremost I needed to prioritize the relationships I was pouring into. (If you’ve read other posts you know this is a recurring theme. I am a work in progress and not being everything to everyone is something I continue to work on.) First and foremost I needed to pour into myself. I want all of the good that is in me to come pouring out of my glass because it is overflowing. I need to focus on filling that first. Then, my family needs to get the best of me. If we’re not healthy and supporting each other at home I have no hope for the work or social aspects. There needs to be a well functioning home life first so my husband, kids, and outward from there come first. Finally, my team comes in third in this equation (which is lower than they originally fell). The beauty of that is that if efforts are prioritized in the right way there is so much more available to them. Think of the rock, sand, water analogy. If you pour the water in first not only is there no room for anything else but without the rocks and sand there is no dimension or structure to hold the water in place. It is a boring yet unstable container and any bump could cause significant disruption. Conversely, with the added rocks and sand, not only is there room but more substance available and added structure to protect from disruption.
As I noted already I had taken inventory of the roles (or hats) I had been acting in at work. I decided that for my team and colleagues I would act as confidant, coach, and advocate. There are rare situations where I’ll go outside of that but they are few and far between. As a confidant my team, and others that work with me, know that I’m ready and available to listen if there is anything they would like to confide in me in. I will listen without judgement and without giving direction unless asked for. Often, people just want to be heard and they have every skill and ability to deal with their problem they just want someone to listen to the concern. This can at times lead into coaching. In this instance coaching looks like asking a lot of questions which allows an individual to continue to own their situation while benefiting from the guidance of someone certainly could step in and redirect if they were heading in a detrimental direction. Being an advocate means asking, “What do you need from me?” a whole lot, and then following through on it. Truly the most common response I get from this question is just listen. Sometimes it is help me determine the best next step. Infrequently it is something along the lines of fix it. I also advocate by way of giving credit. If a member of the team did something significant that I am getting credit for as the leader all of the credit is given back to them. If I’m asked about results and I know a coworker is putting forth significant effort regardless of “the numbers” I will call that out.
I already mentioned a few of the ways where I started asking more questions. One significant change was just asking more about things I don’t understand while others were around to see it. I am naturally pretty adverse to looking like I don’t know everything. I dread asking a stupid question or appearing to not be in the know. However, I want my team and others around me, to feel comfortable asking questions to any and every resource they need. As we saw above, I can’t be the only one who they come to, I don’t have all the answers nor do I have the capacity. Therefore, I need to model the behavior I want them to exhibit. Ask more questions about a workflow, about a technical requirement, be open about the things you don’t understand, and people will feel more comfortable doing it too.
Asking the simple question of, “Is there anything else you need me to be doing for you?”, was also a game changer. That sounds a little counter intuitive right? Like maybe people will add things to your plate or ask that you fill more roles if you ask that. What I’ve found though is that most of the time it just ties things up with a nice bow. It makes sure that I, and the team member I’m working with, are on the same page and they are feeling fully heard. There are instances where I ask that and I get some request that I didn’t see coming. This is immensely helpful because if I have any blinders on that are hindering my ability to support people I obviously need those removed. Asking that question has helped me to identify and remove those blinders in a couple situations.
Touching base with someone on the progress they’re making is beneficial for you, the person you’re working with, and the relationship as a whole. First it allows you to stay connected and continue to show genuine interest in them. This helps them to feel valued and further builds the relationship. It also keeps the ownership of the development in the appropriate person’s court. If you’re asking them how it is going working toward a specific goal it keeps them accountable and reaffirms that it is their goal not something you’re in together. Checking progress while paying attention to the response you’re getting also allows you to take this full circle and reprioritize. It is still work to pour into people this way and if they are choosing not to make progress or are not engaging, it allows you to step back. Finally, checking progress allows you margin because you know you’re going to ask. Let me give an example here. In my original structure, how I was setting up the team to allow for me basically do life with all of them, I wouldn’t have needed to check in. I wouldn’t have needed to really ask any questions at all. I had such a close touch that I just knew. Getting to a point that I am consistently (not constantly) asking for an update on the progress allows me more space.
There is no one right way to lead a team, family, or group. If your circle is small and doing life right along with each of them is something you can manage by all means, get after it. If your circle is wider though know that it is OK to not be able to (or frankly just not want to) be everything to everyone. You can still have close personal relationships without living it out with them every single day. Some teams do great work together without having any sort of personal relationship. The one thing you do need to do is decide what you want it to look like. What is your strategy? What sort of hats do you want to wear? What would be most beneficial to your people and your cause? Heck, before you get to that one you may need to decide, what is your cause? Do that part with intentionality and the rest of the details will start falling into place.
Things I’m reminding myself of
People will get disappointed. No matter what I do some people at some time will be disappointed. That does not mean that I need to do anything different. I do not need to pour more into them. I do not need to open more doors. I do not need to change my strategy or style or intentions just because they are disappointed. I might review and reevaluate based on what I see but that is very different from reacting to other people’s disappointment and discontentment.
Keep a lot of hats in the closet and only a few by the door. I want to be a chameleon and have the ability to adapt to situations and fill the role that is needed. Being adaptable does not necessarily mean carrying all of this with me at all times. If I can identify what roles I want to play most often and keep those in the forefront I’ll be focused on who I desire to be without distraction. Having the rest of them available (though not readily) allows me to use them if the need arises.