The 3 most important leadership lessons I learned this year

The 3 most important leadership lessons I learned this year

One IT leader reflects on the leadership values she strengthened in 2019 – and how these lessons will shape her focus in 2020

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2020 is just around the corner, and with it will come change. Although intimidating, businesses across all industries must embrace change to remain competitive. And good leadership is a key component to accomplishing this.

So how can leaders ensure they’re at the top of their game in the year ahead? By analyzing lessons learned from the past year and using the answers to guide future actions. Here are the top three leadership lessons I’ll take away from 2019.

[ What’s next for the CIO role? Read CIO role: Everything you need to know about today’s Chief Information Officers. ]

1. Know your customer – whether internal or external

We often think of customers as those who reside outside the company. But that’s not always the case. Your customers are anyone you interact with on a regular basis. This may mean that your customers are other teams within your organization, like sales, engineering, or operations. And just as you would with your external customers, the best way to ensure success is to know your customer.

For example, when dealing with engineering, I know I need to take a more collaborative approach because we’re both working toward a common goal. With sales, on the other hand, I’ve learned to shift to a more responsive mindset, as our main priority involves assisting them in driving business.

You may be required to use different strategies and tactics depending on the particular group. What’s most important is that you’re actively establishing a rapport with these teams.

When everyone feels included, everyone wins.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being in a product management leadership position, it’s that cultivating relationships is the key to success. Make a concerted effort to meet one-on-one with other department heads. Discuss the direction you’re taking, why you’re taking it, and why it will ultimately benefit them and the business. In these meetings, you should also be open to listening to their suggestions, ideas, and potential concerns.

When everyone feels included, everyone wins.

[ Do you make thoughtful decisions? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]

2. Be prepared for negativity

No matter what you do, you will likely encounter a few people with negative outlooks. These individuals are quick to judge others and even quicker to challenge the direction in which you’re taking the business.

Most recently, I experienced this while implementing a new go-forward strategy. The strategy was met with skepticism and negativity, which I chose to tackle with a heavy dose of optimism.

Block out the noise and focus on explaining why you’re doing a task a certain way.

I laid out why this plan would work, and why it was in everyone’s best interest that it be successful. I emphasized the good, and I focused on the big-picture outcomes. I made it about the collective rather than the individual. In taking this approach, I was able to get everyone to feel positive and excited about the journey ahead.

When faced with situations like this, you need to block out the noise and focus on explaining why you’re doing a task a certain way and where it will ultimately take the business. Make sure you emphasize the end goal and how that’s only achieved if everyone stays on the same page.

No matter what happens, always remain positive and maintain your composure. Should anyone attempt to undercut you, stay even-keeled. Find out the thought process behind their actions and listen to their concerns. However, it’s your job to reiterate the importance of the task at hand and why you’re choosing to go about it in a certain way.

3. Accountability and trust are musts

You want to be able to turn tasks over to your employees and have faith that they’ll get the job done. This takes trust and accountability.

However, trust isn’t just given; it must be earned. This only happens if you, as the leader, give people the opportunity to rise to the occasion and prove themselves.

This year, I challenged one of my employees to take on a bigger role in one of our strategic projects. This individual embraced the opportunity and rose to the challenge, which ultimately paved the way for them to take on a greater leadership role in the future. 

As a leader, it’s your job to empower your people: Show them what they should be doing and believe that they’ll deliver the work on time and correctly. This idea should extend all the way up the chain of command. After all, how can you expect anyone to follow your lead if you’re unwilling to hold yourself to the same standards?

Like every new year, 2020 will undoubtedly bring about new challenges to which leaders must adapt. To be successful, it’s critical that leaders reflect upon their experiences in 2019 and use the lessons they’ve learned to guide their future actions.

In 2020, I will continue to lead by example, emphasize the importance of accountability, hold a positive outlook, and focus on each team member as an individual to help them reach their full potential.

How will you adjust your leadership style in the year ahead?

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

Shawn Nelson has more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry and currently serves as a Senior Director of Product Management for Private Cloud and Security Services at Sungard Availability Services (Sungard AS). She earned a Master of Business Administration from Point Park University, and a Bachelor of Business Administration from Loyola University Maryland. 

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