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Leaning Out

20 Aug 2022

Leadership is a hot topic. There’s so much written about leadership! Loads of podcasts, books, and articles. Every second post on LinkedIn has something to do with leadership …. how to be an effective leader, how to be inspirational, motivational, successful, career focussed, culture-led, a people leader, a good leader, a bad leader, the top 10 habits of great leaders. It’s exhausting! The reality is, that the expectation doesn’t always reflect the reality. Leadership is portrayed as the golden ticket. We’re conditioned to believe if you don't lead you’re not successful - the big team, the big title, the big bucks.

Giving people permission to be proud of what they do, enjoying coming to work to do their job, and understanding not everyone wants to be a boss is a conversation we should have more often! For those that know me you have heard me say, quite boldly, “Not everyone wants to be a leader!” I get the odd raised eyebrow, the astonished look, sometimes an ‘AH HA’. When you say it out loud it's not a revelation. After all, you know what they say about too many cooks in a kitchen.

Managing and proactively addressing workers’ job satisfaction should be the single most important thing leaders do. The great resignation has affected all industries from the very entry-level employee up to CEOs. When it comes to employee happiness, leaders and supervisors play a big role, and relationships with management is a top factor for job satisfaction and the second most important determinant for overall well-being.

The reality is there is no definitive playbook to make someone a good leader - each day is marked with challenges; culture, diversity, conflict, personalities, decisions, goal setting, HR, KPIs, mentorship, expectations, P&L - the list is endless.

I own a business and employ people so by default I’m leading a team. What I’ve learned is that honesty and regular conversations are the most important thing I do. I recognise that not everyone wants to manage people or lead a team. Establishing individual career paths, identifying aspirations, understanding personalities, and checking in regularly are invaluable.

About 10 years ago working with a national food client who was growing in a significant category, I learned a valuable lesson. I made a point of taking a regular shift on the manufacturing line (about once every two months). I was able to chat with and hear straight from the cold face. Some may say that with Covid, remote working, and being a digital world it’s harder to manage by walking around but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Keeping one’s ear to the ground can help leaders understand what’s really going on. A case in point for me is that I was able to not only talk to but I could observe. I was born a voyeur and love to watch and observe people and I like to think I have a highly tuned e-Q. So in the case of the food client, my initial goal was to get into the weeds and find out: What did they think of the product? Did they have any insights? Ideas? Improvements? After all, they lived and breathed the products every day. The factory floor was home to over 90% of the staff, everything from goods received, to goods out and everything in between. Spending a shift and then finishing in the tea room for lunch I observed the staff, they were happy, laughing, joking, sharing meals, photos of the kids, and banter - the culture looked good.

Workplace culture was only just emerging and there certainly wasn’t a dedicated department for it. But I learned more than I thought possible; the production team wasn't bored or yearning for more, they enjoyed coming to work, punching in, doing their shift, and punching out. There was very little take-home stress, they embraced the simplicity of life. That’s not an arbitrary comment - I spoke with them many times: Did they want more from their career? Were they satisfied? Were they satisfied with what they were doing? When I resigned they passed the hat and bought me a gift, some even cried and said they would miss me. I had connected. I think they appreciated the time I took to understand them, their job, their lives, and their aspirations. It was humbling.

So, for what it’s worth, I think the terms “Leaning Out” should emerge, so I’m staking the claim and putting the flag in the ground. After 3-decades of working for hundreds of companies globally, nationally, and locally I’ve observed a lot and I like to think I’ve learned a lot.

So, here are my top 12 outtakes:

  1. Make people feel important.

  2. It’s about the person, not their role.

  3. Leadership should be a choice, not an expectation

  4. Give people permission to lean out and respect them for it

  5. Leadership doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness

  6. Leadership doesn't equal success

  7. Identifying contributors in your team it’s just as important as identifying leaders

  8. Professional development and growth aren’t just for leaders, it comes in many forms - including greater responsibility.

  9. Give everyone a seat at the table it fosters diversity of thought

  10. Leaders may be good at seeing the big picture but individual contributors are really valuable - they understand the mechanics, the granularity, and the nuances within the strategy.

  11. Foster lateral opportunities for everyone - left, right and middle can be very satisfying career paths and financially rewarding.

  12. Give everyone a voice, and check everyone's ego at the door.

In closing, whatever the career, cultivate every pathway, recognise and grow your strong independent contributors, identify your leaders and ask both about their aspirations. It takes all kinds of people and all kinds of roles to achieve success and spending as much time as we do at work it's important we’re all satisfied and love what we do.

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