Almost two years ago, I shared what I learned about leadership from my experience in a leadership development program. The takeaway? In order to be a strong leader, especially in times of crisis, it’s imperative to be vulnerable and create a psychologically safe environment for your team.
I was reflecting recently on my leadership style and how it may have changed over the past two years. In some ways, I am the same person, the same colleague, and the same leader. In other ways, I have evolved and adjusted my style to fit the new ways that we engage and work together.
Three distinct words came to me during this reflection time (and I do love alliteration!). These three words represent what I think is most important in effective leadership today, maybe more so than ever.
This has always been an important leadership verb if you want to build and maintain successful teams. If you don’t engage with your associates and connect with them regularly, you’re not doing your job as their manager or leader. But this verb became even more important in the last 2+ years as we’ve all faced many challenges outside of work. With the abrupt shift to full-time remote work, leaders were challenged with figuring out new ways to maintain connections with their teams.
[ Also read 9 essential soft skills for IT leaders. ]
Engaging with my team has always been a priority for me, but I knew that this was even more important than ever considering the challenges we’ve endured – figuring out how to keep the team feeling connected to each other, engaged with their work, and excited about our mission.
What I’ve learned over the last two years is that it doesn’t matter how you engage with your team; it just matters that you do it and do it regularly. My team has a meeting every week, whether it’s an all-hands meeting, a laid-back virtual happy hour where we play games or share personal stories, or a brainstorming session where we discuss different topics as a team. Spending time together virtually helps keep us feeling connected. We use our Google chat room to stay in touch outside of calls and emails, and I make sure to check in with my team as often as I can to see how they’re doing.
I started using a stoplight model to ask the team how they were feeling: Green = all is well, Yellow = not great but not bad, and Red = not doing well. For red and yellow lights, we talk about why, and I ask if there is anything I can do to help them get to green.
Engaging with your teams is important, no matter what form it takes. In what ways do you engage with your teams? What have you found to be effective or not effective?
Think about the kind of leader you aspire to be. The leadership quality of empathy became much more necessary when the world tilted on its axis amid a pandemic and social unrest in the spring of 2020. Being an empathetic leader is a differentiator now more than ever, and how empathy is prioritized can make or break a team.
You might be thinking “Do I have to empathize with my team, or can I just be compassionate?” Some might argue that compassion is enough, but I believe going a step further and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is the best way to support your associates, build their trust, and develop a strong, lasting relationship that will extend beyond just the immediate work relationship.
[ Read next: The new CEO: Chief Empathy Officer ]
Get to know your associates on a personal level – be authentically curious and ask them questions. Be vulnerable and show them by example that it’s okay to open up at work and be your true authentic self. Tell them about your personal experiences. If they’re comfortable, they might share more of themselves with you, and this will allow you to fully support them and help guide them through various work and life challenges.
I’d love to hear your thoughts – do you find it easy or difficult to be truly empathetic with your associates? What have you found to be effective or ineffective in your leadership experience?
In order to be an effective leader, you need to bring others up with you, enable them to do their best work, and empower them to make decisions and take risks. If you try to make all of the decisions on your own and don’t involve your next level of leadership in the decision-making process, then you are not doing yourself or the team any favors in the long run. Set your associates up for success: Give them the tools and resources they need to be successful and allow them the freedom to learn from their own experiences.
This is easier said than done sometimes, especially for leaders who are used to having all of the decision-making power, or who like to maintain control over the direction of their teams. Over time, I realized that the more I allowed and encouraged associates to take risks and make key decisions, the more they grew and developed into strong, confident leaders themselves – and in this situation, everyone wins.
Try asking this simple question: “Do you want me to hear you, help you, or solve it?” It can be used in any context, with colleagues, mentees, and direct reports, and I’ve even used it with my partner and children. This simple yet powerful question empowers the receiver and gives them the opportunity to determine how they want to engage. It also helps you determine what they really need from you.
If you give your associates the freedom to take risks and they do fail, be there to support them and help them learn from the situation. This will help establish trust.
What have you done in the past to empower your teams? What have you learned in the process?
Taking time to reflect is important. Think about how your leadership style has evolved and what qualities you have adopted or emphasized due to the changing times. It’s important to observe what’s happening in the world and what your team needs most; then adapt and evolve your approach accordingly.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Has your leadership style or approach changed in the last couple of years? What have you learned from your experience leading in a time of crisis about being an effective leader?
[ Leading CIOs are reimagining the nature of work while strengthening organizational resilience. Learn 4 key digital transformation leadership priorities in a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. ]