Recently, I was thinking about the hardest assignment I ever had and what it taught me. Have you ever had one of those? I compare those moments to my high school biology class. It was the hardest class for me, and I received the worst grade, but I ended up learning the most from that class because the teacher challenged me like no other. Well, that was me a few years ago.
I had taken on a new role and inherited a team that I was excited to work with. Like most bosses, confident in their own leadership style, I knew exactly how my team and I would work. We’d collaborate, brainstorm ideas together, arrive at a consensus when it came to major decisions, and we’d knock out one goal after another. Seems doable, right? WRONG!
My beautiful dream was crushed from day one and subsequent weeks after that. I realized that my predecessor had trained my inherited team in a way that did not align with my values. My team didn’t see us as a “team.” To them, I was simply their boss and they were to do as I say. They did not make one move until I gave my approval. Even if they had a brilliant idea that would greatly progress our area, they did not move on it until they had 1) run the idea by me and 2) given the idea to me so that I could implement it. You read that right. I not only had to approve, but I then had to implement. My team was paralyzed and trying to turn myself into what they wanted made one exhausted, frustrated, and cranky leader.
By week four, I reached out to my mentor, who taught me everything I had learned about leadership. She listened as I vented and didn’t interrupt once. When I was done, I asked her what I should do and she gave me the best advice:
“Give them what they need.”
Listening to her words, I began thinking of what I dreamed of as the ideal team and what they might really need from me. Then it hit me. The past few weeks were all about my team needing my approval. Every request, scenario, not wanting to budge until I had ok’d everything- all about approval (and fear of making a mistake). So, then I had to think about how I could provide what they needed in a way that moved us all closer to the ideal team that I pictured, and that was the start of my plan.
Over time, I provided the approval that was needed while challenging my team to take on initiatives, resolve challenges themselves, and not be afraid to offer new ideas that would make our area better. I can’t say that we achieved my dream team, but we did achieve “our dream team.” It was collaborative, challenging, and productive, which is exactly what we needed. This definitely took time and revision, but the result was wonderful and worked for everyone.
If you ever inherit a team that you need to transform, think of these three questions:
What do they need?
Every group needs something and it’s your job to figure out what it is. Underneath the complaints, refusals, and fear of change is a root problem (need). Figure that out and you’ve overcome the biggest obstacle.
How can you provide what is needed?
As leaders, we can’t always give people what they want, but we (usually) can give them what they need. So, how can you provide what is needed for your group and in what ways? Think of 3-5 ways that you can achieve this.
What’s your plan of action?
Now it’s time to bring answers to questions 1 & 2 together for your action. Think of your end goal and devise a plan to reach it. For me, it was about forming a good team and allowing me to use the leadership style that I ascribed to. I had to figure out a way to get there, while giving the team what they needed: approval. So, approval came from saying “yes” to projects, but also from encouraging team members to take on projects themselves and supporting them through it. It came from hearing their ideas and adding my thoughts to it, instead of dismissing it. Approval comes in many forms, so I used those various forms to build confidence in my team members. What are ways that you can give your team what they need, while inching towards your end goal?
There’s so much that we can learn from the most challenging situations, but those lessons make us better people in the end. What’s the most challenging leadership situation you’ve been in and what did it teach you?
Keep leading and stay safe,