Leadership: Who’s Trainable?

The ubiquitous question: Can anybody be trained (or better phrased, learn) to become a leader? From my perspective – NO! Many yes, possibly most, but not anybody.

Another way of asking the question: Who’s trainable and who’s not?

The prerequisite to this entire topic is about intent; given a potential leadership candidate, do they want to become or have the motivation to become a leader of people? This is often forgotten or ignored in the effort of promoting employees into the management ranks.

Given the starting point of a motivated leadership candidate, the following characteristics establish the best scenario for success:

  1. Introspection:  Becoming a leader is a process of learning and development that requires an individual to be open minded about their strengths and weaknesses. This not only requires the ability to accept criticism but to seek out feedback proactively.
  2. Willing to listen and learn:  Growing into a leadership role requires a person to be coachable. Learning from a great leader is a highly rewarding and unforgettable experience.
  3. Big picture thinker:  In addition to having industry expertise, leaders need to place emphasis on finding balance cross-functionally and in relation to organizational objectives and goals.
  4. Responsive versus reactionary:  Running any business is an endless string of solving problems, resolving conflict, and meeting challenges. Leaders set the tone to ensure the best result.
  5. Perspective as a follower:  Leaders start as followers and should never lose perspective on what people need from their manager to reach their potential.
  6. Lifelong learner: Read any biography or autobiography of a great leader and you will find some element of “I never stopped learning”.

Being a “top performer” in a position did NOT make the list. Although it is nice to have it does not provide substantial (enough) value for success as a leader. For followers it helps lend credibility to their manager, however, certain required characteristics necessary to be a super-star contribute to failure as a leader of people.

Real-World Team Building Activities to Enhance Engagement

Team building exercises can range from simple to outrageous and from highly effective to worthless – it just depends on who is hosting, the budget, and most importantly, the purpose. Yet, team building activities are essential to creating high performance teams.

Team building activities play a pivotal role in building and maintaining high performance teams. You can literally draw a direct line from employee and team performance to overall organizational success. Therefore, one of the most important organizational activities is one that makes team building a priority.

There are a variety of organizational benefits gained by engaging in team building activities, including but not limited to:

  • When properly executed, team building activities improve relationships and strengthen the bonds between team members by illustrating the interdependent nature of teams and how working together synergistically is fundamentally important to the achievement of the stated goal or goals
  • They also help team members understand the importance of and improve the quality of communication as it is a hallmark of all high performance teams to effectively communicate and coordinate their activities and actions
  • They can help improve trust, which is the glue that holds all high performance teams together, and the elements of trust include but are not limited to capability, credibility, and consideration

Team Building High Performance LeadershipThere are a variety of ways to engage teams in these types of exercises. One school of thought is to present real world problems. This is especially true when the exercise is targeted toward management but can also work well when the exercises are directed at other or all levels. Simulation exercises under the right set of circumstances can also work well.

A couple of my favorite activities focus on improving communication skills within teams.

For the Back-to-Back Drawing exercise, the leader divides the group into pairs and has each pair sit on the floor back to back. One person in each pair is given a picture of a shape and the other person is given a pencil and pad of paper. The people holding the picture are to give verbal instructions to their partners on how to draw the shape without actually telling the partners what the shape is. After they’ve finished, each pair is asked to compare their original shape with the actual drawing and the following questions can be discussed:

  • How well did the first person describe the shape?
  • How well did the second person interpret the instructions?
  • Were there problems with either the sending or receiving parts of the communication process?

Mine Field is a great exercise if there is a large room or outdoor field. A “mine field” is set up using chairs, balls, cones, boxes, or any other object that could potentially be an obstacle and trip someone up. Enough space is left between the objects for someone to walk through. Next, the group is divided into pairs with close attention to who is matched together. This is a perfect opportunity to work on relationships, so it is wise to put together people who have trust issues with each other. One person becomes the “mine walker,” is blindfolded and is not allowed to talk. His or her partner is asked to stay outside the mine field and give verbal directions, helping the “mine walker” avoid the obstacles and reach the other side of the area.

Before beginning, partners spend a few minutes planning how they’ll communicate. The activity leader should make sure there are consequences when people hit an obstacle. For example, perhaps they have to start again from the beginning. This activity can enhance trust, increase ways to verbally communicate and instill a sense of accomplishment for the teams.

Organizations must determine how important it is to tailor the activity to a specific group to avoid resistance and poor participation. This is a logical concern as it is critical to ensure that employees build upon what they have learned when they return to work. One sure fire way to create apathy is to engage in an exercise that is unrelated to their work. Now don’t get me wrong, there can be a place for these types of activities as having employees engage in purely fun activities as a respite from the constant bad news may reduce stress and foster togetherness and engaging in a philanthropic activity can make employees feel good about their company. However, neither translates into helping to solve an immediate or pressing business problem, such as how to streamline a process or readjust to new circumstances.

Finally, it is important to remember to account for different styles and personalities. Whereas one employee may love a certain exercise, another may hate it. It’s important to engage in activities that have different roles to account for personality differences or those that are varied enough to place employees in different roles than those they’re used to, so they can appreciate what other team members are going through. Also, choosing a facilitator who will tailor the program to you is a must. Make sure the person or company you choose to work with will evaluate your organization’s needs and will focus on what you want to accomplish rather than insist on what they think you need.

Top 5 Easy Ways to Engage Employees This Week

Whether you’re in that position or already managing a team of employees, there are five qualities you should examine to make sure you’re ready to engage your work-staff to make a real and lasting impact on every aspect of your business, ensuring better communication, committed employees and organizational success.

Often times, top five lists like this about leadership focus on the traditional paradigms like strength, charisma and how to build power. However, in today’s world, the more successful leaders are those who empower their staff to achieve more. With that in mind, here’s a list of the top 5 leadership qualities you need to possess to actively engage your employees.

  • Inspire Leadership. Start by investing in your employees and showing a genuine interest in their needs. Find out what their goals and aspirations are, and help them reach those goals. When an employee feels valued and their contributions are regularly considered, they are more engaged. Focus on creating a rewarding environment allowing employees to succeed.
  • Freedom. Give employees the freedom to complete daily tasks. As long as employees are respecting the rules, they should be given the freedom to make decisions and accomplish work in their own manner.
  • Praise. Concentrate on employees who exceed expectations, giving praise when it is deserved. Giving praise consistently will create an uplifting atmosphere, and employees will have an incentive to surpass their goals in the future. Tell your employees what they did right, rather than honing in on their mistakes.
  • Provide Opportunities for Growth. Engaged employees have the opportunity to fully use their skills and are encouraged to develop certain skills required for success. Discuss goals with your employees and provide adequate training and development opportunities to help them advance within the company. Take the time to meet with your employees to discuss their future, and create a plan to help them along the way.
  • Be People-Focused. Companies with an engaged workforce actively invest in their greatest asset—their people. Listen to what your employees have to say, promote the sharing of ideas and suggestions, and encourage employees to develop a sense of camaraderie with one another. A work environment in which employees feel valued, heard and trusted is crucial to employee engagement.

Managing Conflict in Teams

Ok I admit it—I like a good fight, always have and probably always will. My attitude about conflict is somewhat unique in the world of business leadership, but should it be? As you may guess, I don’t think so. However, not for the mindless purpose that the first sentence of the article might have you believe, but because research and experience have proven otherwise.

What people to infrequently realize is that most teams, and dare I say even the most effective teams, will have bouts of conflict from time to time. Why is this so often the case? Well, if your team is filled with high performing people (more about them in a future article), it will also come with its fair share of competitive tensions. These include rivalry, trust and vigilance—just to name a few. It should not be the goal of leadership or management to try and eliminate these tensions, when properly managed these very traits can be the key to creating a high performance team and organization.

Rivalry among team members can help identify and eliminate inefficiencies, and the competition can help keep the members of the team operating at peak performance levels (just ask any coach). So the idea is not to eliminate conflict or competition, but to harness conflict so it benefits not just the team, but the individuals as well.

Let’s explore some ways to get more comfortable with conflict.

  • First, do not confuse what things feel like with what things are like—what may initially feel like dysfunction may be perfectly normal. Remember, all conflict will feel awkward initially. Contrary to popular belief, harmony in teams is far more likely to be the consequence (not the cause) of performance. If people have no opinions, no objections, and no emotions it usually means they don’t care (good luck getting their help when you have to actually implement your idea).
  • Come on admit it—most meetings are boring and people spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming or playing games on their iPhones (Sen. McCain). In these instances conflict can shake people out of their daze and grab their attention in a way that creates an opportunity to defend your idea, so you can win over hearts and minds.
  • It is important to remind both ourselves and our teams that differences of opinion are inevitable and useful. Whenever you put a team together, you force people to work with others who will annoy them from time to time. These conflicting opinions are important not only because they smoke out assumptions and enlarge the pool of available information, but because they reveal what matters most to those involved. So it should be understood that the annoyances which occur are most likely the consequence of diversity, and diversity of opinion is necessary for the team to succeed.

So what are some ways to manage conflict? How can leaders ensure that it does not escalate out of control? According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument there are five key styles for managing conflict:

  • Forcing – using your formal authority to satisfy your concerns without regard to the other parties concerns
  • Accommodating – allowing the other party to satisfy their concerns while neglecting your own
  • Avoiding – not paying attention to the conflict and not taking any action to resolve it
  • Compromising – attempting to resolve the conflict by identifying a solution that is partially satisfactory to both parties but completely satisfactory to neither
  • Collaborating – cooperating with the other party to understand their concerns in an effort to find a mutually satisfying solution

As a rule, I would suggest collaboration is the way to deal with important issues, although forcing can sometimes be appropriate if time is an issue. For moderately important issues, compromising can lead to quick solutions but doesn’t satisfy either side, nor does it foster innovation, so when time permits collaboration is usually better. Accommodating is the best approach for unimportant issues as it leads to quick resolution without straining relationships.

In closing, remember that conflict does have a positive side; it can promote collaboration, improve performance, foster creativity and innovation and build deeper relationships. As Jim Collins wrote in his book Good to Great, “all the good-to-great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate’, ‘heated discussions’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and transcripts from all these companies”. The more skilled the leaders become in handling differences and change without creating or getting involved in conflict, the more successful their teams and companies will become.