A senior manager recently shared his disappointment with me that a business proposal he had been working on for the past six months was shot down by her Board of Directors in five minutes. Her greatest disappointment, however, was that she had failed to notice some glaring mistakes in her proposal, that ultimately sent her back to the drawing board. When I asked her who she had discussed her proposal with before the presentation, to my surprise she said, “Why nobody, of course!”
Very often in their desire to justify their position (and their pay), leaders feel obliged to demonstrate to their superiors that they can go it alone; they know everything about their job, they have the best ideas, and, most crucially, they do not depend on their team to succeed. Their teams are often kept in the dark when it comes to their work, particularly the work that they do for C-suite consumption.
Leaders tend to forget that the only reason they have their position is because they are leading a team of people, and the only reason they have a team is because it would not be possible for them to achieve the results without the input of others. Often, leaders see the sole function of a team as a vehicle to get their own ideas executed and nothing else. No wonder that achievement-oriented team members leave their team at the first opportunity.
Whilst your position as a leader may be partly attributed to your expertise, in the 21st century it is not the sole domain of the team leader. Successful team leaders know that they are limiting their own potential if they do not tap into the existing knowledge, skills, and competencies of their team members. If you are not nurturing an environment in your team where everyone, including yourself, is sharpening each other’s expertise, then you are certainly missing a trick.
One of the most effective ways that leaders can exploit their team’s capabilities is by treating it as a lab. The team is where hypotheses are tested – it is where half-formed ideas turn into genius innovations. The team is where leaders should bring their ideas and ask team members to attempt to shoot holes in them and, to use an analogy from manufacture, test it to failure. If your idea can withstand the assault of your team members, there’s a much higher chance that it can survive the boardroom test.
It goes without saying that for team leaders to be able to create such an environment, a high level of trust within the team is a prerequisite. If you become defensive at the first signs of critique, then it is hardly surprising that your team does not give you any constructive feedback and blindly supports any initiative you bring to the table. Also, resist the temptation to present a fully-fledged idea for the team to give you feedback. It is very awkward for team members to critique your report when it is already printed, bound and ready for distribution. Present your ideas as a work in progress or a prototype, and you will notice that others will feel more comfortable to help you refine your ideas.
For leaders to successfully harness the expertise of their teams they need a lot of humility and must be prepared to show vulnerability. That is not a weakness. That is courageous leadership.
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