Thursday, February 6, 2020

How to Lead When You're Not a "Leader"

It’s not uncommon for employees to feel like they are at the mercy of an ineffective or absentee leader. During coaching engagements, we will discuss the ways someone can respond and manage the things within their control - which usually turns out to be a lot more than they realize. The solution to this situation usually requires some assertiveness/independence on the part of the employee and some patience/support on the part of the leader. Here are three things employees can do to lead when they aren’t technically the leader and improve the situation for everyone.

Over the years I have watched and coached leadership from different levels and perspectives. I have noticed a common theme among employees that report up to them: there is a frequent leadership lapse in which all the burden for leadership is placed at the top.

Two examples:

1) someone who is a mid-level manager/director that defers to their leader for decision making or problem-solving

2) someone who is not in a titled management role but is subject to negative behaviors and decisions of their leader, but takes no action

In both cases, when I ask why they don’t take more initiative to be leaderly, they say it’s not their place. Some are concerned about appearing too aggressive and overstepping their bounds and some are concerned that taking the lead on something could threaten the “official” leader. Executive leaders tell me that they would love to see more leadership coming from all levels of the organization. So how do you take a stronger position without crossing the line? Here are a few pointers on ways to do just that:

  • Provide insight. Do some research or analyze trends that affect the work group’s day-to-day output. This shows that you are adding value by thinking about better ways to work and/or making suggestions for removing obstacles that only those on the front lines can see. We were working with a finance company and one of the analysts presented a business case for changing the way information was being disseminated to the entire group. The recommendation was accepted and that analyst was viewed as a leader by demonstrating that they could do some critical thinking that extended beyond their own job.

  • Handle issues before they escalate. Every leader I know really appreciates the employee who is able to manage conflict, squelch gossip and be a positive influence on their peers, direct reports and office colleagues. At a family-owned company, a new policy was implemented that was not well received. One of the employees in the group heard the grumbling about it and instead of joining the complainers and fueling the feeling that they had no say in it, identified the ways it could work successfully and focused on a positive way to respond to their coworkers.

  • Get better at giving feedback to others. In one example, a senior leader was showing some questionable judgment and the staff level employees were sharing their concerns with the senior director. That person initially felt equally victimized by the behavior of the senior leader but realized that if anything was going to change someone had to bring it to their attention. Some think it is easier to do nothing and hope things improve on their own. Or worse, wait for it to get so bad it hits the radar of HR or even higher up in the organization. The senior director decided instead to sit down with their leader and share the growing departmental concerns. With much appreciation, the senior leader changed their responses and the credibility of the senior director went up with everyone.

Leadership isn’t about a title. It isn’t about an organization chart. Leadership is a behavior that anyone can exhibit and use as a tool for positive influence. Go for it!

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