How to Lead: Part One

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
(Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

The best way to lead people - and the easiest - is to figure out where they already want to go and show them how to get there. Of course, some people don't know where they want to go, and other people want to go somewhere other than where you want to go. The trick in both instances is to show these folks that where you want to go is where they wanted to go all along - they just didn't realize it yet.

Where do people want to go? Well, it varies a bit from person to person, but generally:
  • People want to be heroes. 
  • People want to be liked. 
  • People want to feel valued. 
  • People want to grow.

Your job is to show them how to get there, provide the resources for them to get there (this includes any necessary training and support), and sit down with them regularly to measure their progress, offering advice only when asked. (Making their own mistakes is part of the process.)

The perfect employee to apply this to first is the one who, in meetings or in front of their fellows, complains about everything. Often, they are otherwise good employees (or you would have fired them, right?), but they need some help growing. Usually, their real issue is fear of failure. They mastered the old way of doing things, they were perceived as a hero for their skill at it, and now you come along and threaten their status and self-image by proposing change.

Let's call this employee Tim (in my mind, I hear 'timid'). The moment you hear Tim fire up his engines, and in front of as many people as are nearby, say this:

"Tim, I'm glad that you brought this to my attention. You obviously have a strong understanding of the issues involved, and we/I appreciate you volunteering to find a way to resolve it. Let's go talk in my office about what resources you think you'll need to do that, and agree on a timeline."

Then do exactly that, right then. Don't wait.

They will push back, of course - this is well outside their comfort zone, and the complete opposite of where they want to be. But: You've addressed their "want to be a hero" need by acknowledging them as knowledgable and brave. It was in front of other people so, if they back out immediately, they look like nothing but a whiner - the exact opposite of their desired self-image. No one likes a whiner. You have shown that they are valued (again, in front of other people) by giving them an important project. And you have held out the prospect of growth. The obstacle that you will address in your office is fear.

First, no matter what, don't let them wiggle out of it. The moment you do, you have effectively lost a valuable employee. Their self-image will never recover. They will have failed, you and their coworkers will know they failed and, worst of all, they will know it, and it will ruin them from that moment on. Their performance will speedily decline, and you will eventually have to let them go.

They deserve better than that, and it's up to you as their manager to give it to them.

These are the steps that must be completed before Tim walks out of your office:
  • Agree on the parameters of the issue. (You can't expect someone to hit the target if you didn't agree on what the target was.) 
  • Let Tim tell you what resources he initially needs to address the issue. Be flexible - after all, this is probably his first time having to think this way - but make sure that Tim is the one doing the bulk of the work. And if he comes to you later and says, "I think I'm going to need X, too," and it seems reasonable, give it to him. 
  • Break the issue down into chunks - tasks, teams or departments (if it's a bigger issue), components, etc. This will do a lot to dispel Tim's fear. If he's still giving you the wild eye, you can even address just the first item, let him succeed at that, and use his increased confidence to leverage the remainder of the project. 
  • Ask him for a completion date. Then strongly suggest a date one week earlier (or one month earlier, if he's just being silly). Set milestones and dates for those milestones. 
  • Agree on how often you will meet to assess his progress. Set a day and time and, no matter what, don't miss it or allow him to. 

By the time the project is completed, Tim will have grown tremendously, and his outlook regarding change will have changed (not completely, but it's a step in the right direction). He will also be a lot less likely to complain - and so will everyone else.

Here's the most important part: Once Tim has successfully completed the project, publicly and loudly celebrate his success. This serves several purposes. First, you are celebrating his victory over fear. He will begin to believe that he can do more than he thought he could, and at some point may even ask to take on greater responsibility. Second, his coworkers will see not only his success, but that recognition and value are bestowed on those who define issues and address them. Third, morale and culture grow, because you have shown that you value employees, want to help them grow, and reward them for taking risks.

What if Tim fails? This will happen, and it's most likely to happen Tim's first time at bat. But the worst thing you can possibly do is let him off the hook. Your regular meetings with Tim are about helping him to succeed by making sure that he hits those milestones. If you fell down on your end, acknowledge that, apologize for it, and give him the support that he needs to finish. If the failure was outside of his control, he is likely to want to throw up his hands. Don't let him. Regroup and rethink, then set new milestones to address whatever hit you unawares. If the failure was Tim's, ask him why he thinks he failed. He may hem and haw on this - remember, he doesn't want to see himself as anything but a hero - but you have to define it in order to move forward. Don't criticize him for failing. You have failed plenty of times; tell him so. The important thing is to learn from the failure. Now he has something to prove to you (and to himself), and is more likely to ask you for advice on the way.

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