Our job as leaders is not just to succeed in our own careers and deliver results for our organization. It’s to nurture and grow our talent – both personally and professionally. It’s to prepare our people for the next stage of their career, whether that’s with our company or not.
When I joined NASCAR in March of 2020, I held one-on-one meetings with each of my 70 employees to learn more about them, their skill sets, their areas of expertise, and what they wanted to do. I discovered that many of them had been doing the same job for years, and they really wanted an opportunity to evolve.
I knew we needed to put in place training – after all, it had been years since many of them had participated in any leadership development. But rather than reserve leadership training only for managers and directors, I decided that we would include and elevate everyone on our team.
There were a few reasons for this – first, you just never know where your next leader is going to come from. Second, leadership training was critical to evolving our organization into a servant organization for the rest of the company. I needed our team to embrace a different culture and know that I look at each one of them as a leader – to set the tone in meetings, be empathetic, and listen. What I didn’t realize, however, was the profound impact this training philosophy would have on our IT organization.
[ Read also: 6 leadership rules I rewrote during the pandemic ]
Why you should nurture both personal and professional development
We signed a multiyear contract with Harvard ManageMentor, which I was drawn to because the modules weren’t just about leadership in business – it focused on leadership in life and moving people forward both personally and professionally. We picked a different topic in the training module every five weeks, then had conversations about what it meant to each individual, what they learned, and how they might continue to embrace that concept.
One week, during 2020, my team and I were discussing the possible leadership topics to dive into for the next month, and the group selected “Stress Management” due to the impacts of the pandemic on everyone’s lives. The following month my team selected “Managing through Change.’’ These were incredibly relevant topics to everyone at the time as the world was changing, but even more importantly, these were lessons they could also share with their families, teenagers, spouses, and friends.
My vision around the Harvard ManageMentor training program was to provide my staff valuable life tools to share with those around them, to help them re-evaluate their journeys, their thinking, and to encourage personal growth, not just professional growth.
From my 30-year technology career, I have learned that successful IT departments should be well skilled in soft-skills; therefore I also focused on improving my team’s technical soft-skills and customer service skills by becoming certified in an IT service excellence training program offered by Dan Roberts, Ouellette & Associates. When we went through this program together, I noticed there were a variety of ways our employees interacted with customers, and some needed to improve their soft skills. This program level-sets empowerment and underscores the notion that we’re all in this together – and provides the necessary skills for our IT organization to be supportive of our internal customers, empathetic to their needs, and good listeners.
[ Are you an advisor and partner at your organization? Read CIO role: How to move from gatekeeper to advisor. ]
While this training helped them advance in their IT customer service expertise, they also came away with better skills to serve our business units. Today, they’re able to have effective technical conversations without being tech geeks. That’s what makes you a leader within IT – you can talk to and help internal and external customers, understand their challenges, and work to solve them.
When you’re providing your team with both technology training and leadership training, you’re empowering them both as a professional and a person. You are enabling them to understand how to innovate with technology and how to communicate its value with key stakeholders throughout the business. That empowerment makes them feel like they have a stake in the success of every single thing they do, whether it’s for the team or the company.
Small actions have big impact
Last year was really difficult for everyone, and some of my staff members had an easier time embracing change than others. I listened to an audiobook during this time and when I finished it, I knew it could have a positive effect on my team.
In December of 2020 I purchased 75 copies of the book Mindset by Carol Dwek and wrote a personal note in every copy for each member of my team about how proud of them I was, about specific accomplishments they had made over the past nine months, and that I was looking forward to watching them grow.
The book is about shifting your mindset from being narrowly focused to embracing change. It’s not necessarily a business leadership book, but the takeaways are applicable no matter the environment. I’ve had staff members comment how it completely transformed how they deal with their children, their kids’ mindsets about virtual learning, personal struggles, and their professional lives.
Never underestimate the influence your actions as a leader can have on your team. Taking the time to personalize and hand deliver this book to each member of my team sent the message that I am invested in their growth and that I want them to set time aside to continually learn and improve. Similarly, don’t underestimate the value of unstructured time to learn and grow as a team. The ideas and conversations this unofficial team book club sparked have brought us together and opened up new ways to collaborate – especially welcome in these turbulent times. I’m planning to pick a new book for 2022.
Today’s leaders have a responsibility to develop their team and help them evolve into great leaders, and truly listening helped me do this. My first question to every single person on my team was not “What can you do for me?” it was, “How can I help you? What can I do for you?” A good leader is a servant leader, and that’s something my team has picked up on. I’ve watched them take on these qualities, and it’s transforming the way they engage together and in meetings. They know they don’t always have to have their voice heard; sometimes just by listening they’re able to be more effective in their solutions. They’re showing empathy, they’re showing compassion, and they’re listening with intent.
I read a quote from Adam Grant that said, “Bad managers keep people trapped in dead-end jobs. Good managers create opportunities for people to grow and advance. Great managers encourage people to pursue growth and advancement, even if it means leaving for another organization.” I’ve embraced this throughout my career, and I encourage future and current leaders to do so, too.
[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]