When I was training as an Executive Coach many aspects of the learning stood out to me. One of them was this “The person with the most flexibility controls the conversation.” Interestingly, it isn’t an issue of control. It’s an issue of influence. And influence is currency for leaders. It’s how we get things done.
The leader with the most flexibility controls the conversation. Or leads the conversation. Or has the most influence. Leaders must learn the art of influence by developing ‘style flexibility’. One problem leaders face as they lead a diverse group of volunteers, their team or staff is that they stay one dimensional in their interactions. The old “If the only tool you have is a hammer then every problem is a nail” syndrome.
‘Style flexibility’ is about learning the skills to serve the development of those you lead. No two people are the same. Similar maybe, but not the same. The deeper you develop ‘style flexibility’ the quicker you can help more members of your team make the needed changes for team growth and mission achievement.
Being intentional about developing new skills as a leader is one way you can continue to build your influence. Learning to lead a more diverse group of people positions you to serve, develop and raise up a team of people who want the same things. People who want a common goal, but are given the freedom to be different.
Here are a handful of ways you can develop a wider set of skills that will increase your influence.
Understand their worldview and values.
This is an exercise in seeing the world through someone else’s eyes; what matters to them. How do they see the world? What’s their view on team? Communication? Leadership/ Authority? Decision making? John Maxwell says it this way: ”What do they laugh about? Cry about? Sing about? Dream about?” This gives you significant and helpful insights into what matters most to this person.
Another helpful lesson I learnt at Coach Training was “Everyone has a strategy for everything.” It’s true. Sorry to burst your individuality bubble but you have an operating system in you that, at some level, serves you well. That’s why you use it. Everyone has a strategy for everything. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to change the way you get up tomorrow morning. Prepare for your day, get ready to leave the house and even brush your teeth in a different order. Yes, everyone has a strategy for everything.
The key, is becoming aware of the strategies and styles, your team members use and responding to those flexibly.
Ask simple and helpful style questions.
The next stage is having a conversation that makes explicit what many of us leave implicit (until it goes entirely wrong or is too late): discussing the experience someone is having within the team. The consequences of not having these types of discussions are most obvious in areas of conflict and conflict resolution. Circumstances like these can go bad quickly because people are simply unaware of how one person experiences and processes the conflict. And sadly by the time that awareness is reached the issue has passed and the relationship is the casualty.
A number of years ago I conducted a survey on three members of my team. I asked them questions like the following:
- How do you like to receive feedback?
- What’s the best way to tell you that you’re doing a good job?
- If I need to get your attention quickly what do I need to do?
- If we disagree, is there something I should or shouldn’t do?
- Are you aware of your typical response to authority? Criticism? Pressure?
- How do you like to learn new things?
And so on.
What this survey allowed me to do was understand how each of these three very diverse people operate. What matters to them in our interactions and how I can deliver the experiences they want in a way that they need?
As we reengineered and pioneered a new focus as a team, these three dissimilar people needed to be led, loved and mentored VERY differently.
Have a “train wreck” conversation.
Jim Rohn says that it would be wonderful if failures could do seminars. We’d learn more in a day about what not to do than in a year of trial and error. Scary thought but it has some merit. Linked in many ways to the previous point, one of the conversations that a leader needs to have flexibility in is the critical conversation of conflict and accountability. It’s so helpful to know how your team members’ needs are best met in this context before there is a problem. Not having their needs clarified could be the one thing that dismantles team momentum and morale. Having that clarifying conversation as tactfully as you can is a critical skill for leaders.
A train wreck conversation is the kind of conversation you need to have when things go wrong. How do you have the hard, tough, challenging and (when done well) rewarding, conversations? When I was leading the three diverse leaders mentioned above I asked them a very important style question related to conflict and accountability. It was this:
“When things go really off track how do you want me to bring it up with you?”
Each of them had different responses. One said, “Just look at me and hit me between the eyes.” The second said, “Mentor me through it, but be kind.” The third indicated that this was a really sensitive area for them and so they needed me to be as gentle as possible whilst remaining honest. One evening, we had a horrible event. It didn’t go well. We were all so flat and despondent. I gently sided up to my colleague who needed the gentle approach and placed my hand on his shoulder. He looked into my eyes and burst into tears. We worked it out and made some changes then moved on. That was a true success in my mind. Why? Because they received the right message in the right way. Transformation took place with the relationship strengthened.
Check for understanding and get regular feedback.
Imagine these four steps are parts of a loop. This is the final step in ‘style flexibility’ and the most often overlooked. Getting clear that you are on the same page and agreeing on when you’ll check in on progress is critical to two things. Firstly, you get immediate feedback about whether or not what you said is what got heard. Secondly, you get a clear commitment as to 1) what will be different by when and 2) how you will discuss it. It is so vital to be clear on these commitments because they identify the changes you are working on together and establish an environment in which you’ll have further discussions and feedback.
The conversation might sound something like this:
- “Just so I get really clear on what you have heard, can you share with me the important points from our discussion?”
- “I’m curious to hear what you heard from this conversation.”
- “Can you share the main points that are clear to you now that we’ve had this talk?”
Essentially you’re looking for alignment in both the message you intend to send and the communication you are getting back. When they line up you have a place to start the feedback conversation. This could look like:
- “When would be a good time to reconnect on this?”
- “How can I best support you over the next little while and when would you like to meet up again to check in?”
- “What sort of time frame between now and meeting up again would serve you regarding this conversation?”
All the while you are looking to be concrete about an outcome and flexible on how you get there. That’s the look and feel of ‘style flexibility’.
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