Updated: Jun 2
Rather than focus on the faults of your team members, start the change with yourself and lead by example. You will find invaluable insights on how to do it in this essay for leaders written by Ansis Lipenitis, CEO of .Cocoon for Baltics biggest business festival sTARTUp Day blog.
I was staring at a Slack message, anger and anxiety rising. A few days earlier, we had met with my colleague to discuss new business rules, which he announced today… in precisely the opposite way we had agreed. "What's wrong with him?" I thought. Soon I learned how my leadership added to this outcome.
My fiance likes drift competitions. She proposed visiting the Baltic Drift Championship. I did not feel much interest but agreed to go. There is a difference between compromise and sacrifice;
compromise - give up something to receive someone's approval;
sacrifice - give up something to receive something more valuable.
Aiming for sacrifice (giving up other options for the Saturday), my mindset was to enjoy our time there and to gain new knowledge I could use.
Here's how a drift duo competition works: two cars are drifting close, one being the leader and another following as close as possible. In some episodes, the follower crashed into the wall while the leader speeded away. To me, it looked obvious that the followers made the mistakes.
Yet, while watching the replay and listening to the commentator, I learned that in some cases, the leader caused the follower's crash with his leading style.
He was leading so that the follower had no other option but to crash into the wall or the leader's car because of the leader's hastiness or the confusion coming from wobbliness.
Soon after, I learned that the colleague who posted that Slack message freezes when he feels panic around him. I remembered how in that meeting, where we discussed the business rules updates, I felt stressed and radiated a sheer volume of stress about the topic.
Here you go. Leader panics or wobbles. Team members freeze or become confused. Leader pushes for action. Team members act from the freeze or confusion zone and make mistakes.
One can say that there are two sides to the story; the team needs to be stronger and deal with their freezes and confusion. Yet, this essay is for the leaders. Start the change with yourself. Lead by example.
5 ways leaders are slowing their business growth
1. Fear, panic and obsession with the outcomes
When the leader is obsessed with getting a particular outcome, that raises fear (what if it is not met?) and panic in the team. That adds to poor decisions and hasty execution.
● Instead of the outcome obsession, shift your and your team's focus to impeccable input. Adopt the mindset that if you do impeccable input, then the outcomes will be good for you. It does not mean they will be as you want them to be, but they will be life-supportive for you. (Impeccable means to do the very best I can with my abilities at that moment, and my thoughts, feelings and actions are aligned).
● Define meaningful (that can lead to the desired outcome) and controllable (that depend on the doers) input KPIs and focus on those on the weekly basis. If you are not reaching the desired outcomes, instead of panicking, explore changing the inputs.
● Remember that in most cases, we fear illusions. If it's an illusion - acknowledge the fear and go forward as if you did not feel it.
2. Uncertain, wobbly leadership
On a ship, the crew is waiting for the captain's orders. Especially when the conditions are tough. If you are approaching a rock, you need to go confident right or confident left, but you need to make a choice and then keep the course for a while.
If you start changing your mind often, the team feels you are wobbling and becomes confused. In a confused state, the team feels less capable of making great decisions and executing in the best way, as the expectations are not clear. Also, it decreases motivation, because why should I do this thing, if tomorrow you will say to throw it out and do something else.
Ways how leaders create uncertainty in the team:
● Indecisiveness - delaying decisions
● Changing mind often
● Blurry boundaries of responsibilities
● Expectations not clear
● Vague communication (easily misunderstood)
● Communicating in silos.
● Explore the deeper reasons for your indecisiveness. Look for signs of approval seeking, not valuing and trusting yourself, not trusting the process of life, negative mindset, and fear of the unknown.
● If you are not sure about a decision, clearly communicate that now we are in research mode and testing various approaches. Once we find an approach that works, we will focus on steadily executing that approach.
● If you are changing the course often, acknowledge it as your weakness and create a support system for yourself. Success is the result of a prolonged persistence in one direction. Course corrections are necessary but in a limited frequency.
● Clearly define and communicate responsibilities, also - who makes which decisions.
● For each activity, define the expectations - why we do it (what outcome we want), how will we know if we are succeeding at it, what measurable KPIs will show it, what outputs are we expecting, etc. (outcome - what happens as a result, e.g. growth in sales; output - what is created as the tangible result of the work done, e.g. ads campaign).
● Include everyone in communication who might be affected by it.
3. Being too critical
“Whatever I do, you will always find fault with me”. As a leader, you want to make sure that the outputs are great, and hence you are naturally giving feedback to the team members. If your feedback is mostly about mistakes and problems, then the team starts to feel unappreciated.
Even more so, if you feel frequent irritation towards a team member. Life is a mystery, therefore be open to the possibility that it is not only because of the quality of their work. There are other options what could be happening:
● You don't like your shadow reflected in the other person as a mirror;
● You are trying to relive and resolve unresolved past;
● You have found a scapegoat for your own mistakes or general fears.
● Practice radical acceptance. Accept everything in everyone always. Whenever you feel you don't like something in someone or yourself, say to yourself, “and I accept it completely”. Accepting does not mean you then have to leave it as it is. You can initiate change/correction, but after you've accepted it, you will do it from a completely different point, with a different feeling. Then your team member will feel that you accept them, and it is only the output you are addressing.
● Trust people. Adopt the mindset that people want to do the best they can and believe they will.
● Know your role when assessing outputs. I suggest differentiating between 4 roles. Customer: orders and receives outputs and gives high-level feedback if they fit the customer's goals or not. Supporter: shares feelings about the outputs. Expert: gives detailed comments about the outputs as an expert auditor. Mentor: focuses on the doer, and how to support them to become better with the responsibility.
● Don't mix two different roles in one go. Also, don't mix feedback about the output with feedback about the doer.
● Give personal feedback with the focus on a better future potential, rather than a bad past. “It is time for you to level up your leadership skills” feels better than “you are a lousy leader”.
● If you feel frequent irritation with someone, reflect on what is the mirror showing about you and work to change yourself.
● If you get strong emotions about someone's mistake, ask, “Is it really a problem? What is the bad outcome? What is actually bothering me? What is the actual pain about?”
4. Being too busy and rushing
A leader should have enough time and positive energy for direct reports. They should be a role model for inspiration, motivation, mindset and joy. If, instead, they are busy with tasks, stressed and tired, working crazy hours and always rushing, the team will not feel good and will not perform at their best. You will be slowing your business down.
What you do to yourself, you do to the people around you. If you come to work recharged and sharp, you inspire your team. You will bring them down if you come after a 16-hour workday in a semi-zombie state.
Also, the quality of decisions suffers. To be sharp, one needs to be well-rested and have enough time for reflection. Rushing to make decisions also pushes you to choose crappy first decisions. Then you execute them (which takes everyone's time) only to find out that the decision was not good, and now a new decision and execution is needed. That makes everyone busy without any tangible outcomes for the business.
● Compress time. When facing an obstacle, don't jump on the first idea. Dig deeper. Analyze the level of first principles. Then analyze and find out what is the actual challenge. Don't waste time and resources on projects that address the symptoms. Choose the shortest route to resolve the challenge.
For example, if you have 2 team members who are not mentorable, you don't need a company-wide system for guiding professional development. Instead, you need to address your own mirror of stubbornness and then, despite your fear of conflict, confront those two people that changing their approach is required for a great future together.
● Focus on the essence rather than form. Make the essence work great according to your company's purpose, and allow the form to be “better working than perfect”.
● For that, explore and address the challenge of your inner perfectionist and approval seeker.
● Delegate on a higher level. Don't split tasks between two people. Don't even delegate tasks. Delegate projects and responsibility areas. Delegate the responsibility for outcomes, not only outputs. Set the goal and leave the choice of method to the doer within the budget constraints and needs of other team members.
● Take care of your energy level. Set a hard cap on your weekly work hours. Have enough time for sports, family and friends, learning, and recreation.
● Step back from functional roles as fast as possible. A model where you are the key expert in a function is not sustainable. You are responsible for communicating your heart's purpose and vision to the team (if you are the CEO), and leading and supporting the team to make the best decisions, and executing well and growing personally and professionally.
5. Negative mindset
To be productively paranoiac is good. But to mainly focus on the negative is not. Mindset is contagious for the team. If you are pessimistic about future success, it cuts the team's wings. If you are negative about a team member, it is felt and poisons the team culture. In both cases, you materialize your negative thoughts.
● Practice shifting from a negative to a positive mindset - replace every negative thought with a positive (yet realistic) one. E.g., turn the initial thought “we are going to fail with fundraising” into “we will succeed with fundraising as we will learn new ways, persist, and good things will happen”. Both of those outcomes are possible, choose the one you want.
● Add fun. Why do people on the war front joke a lot?
My learnings have come from personal experience through trial and error and discussions with my mentor. And I still make mistakes. Paraphrasing Seneca, knowing what's good and striving and failing is much better than knowing what's good and remaining ignorant.
How do you know what's good? How do you become better at it?
sTARTUp Day is the most startup-minded business festival in the Baltics, bringing together over 3500 participants to celebrate entrepreneurship in the smart city of Tartu. The three-day festival combines an inspiring stage program, hands-on seminars, excellent networking opportunities, exhibition area full of innovation and vibrant side events. Highlights: Special program for investors and executives, Pitching contest showcasing the region’s top startups, Unique festival vibe.
.Cocoon is a personal and business growth mentoring program. They have supported over 200 founders by helping to see the behavioural patterns that are holding back the growth. The program is founded by .Contriber Ventures, one of the co-organizers of sTARTUp Day festival.
Check out also sTARTUp Day podcast with Hristo Neiland, COO of .Cocoon program (in Estonian).