Leadership Lessons in Amsterdam
Hello my friends!
I’m writing this after an incredible week in Amsterdam, where I spent time with two different clients exploring the roles leaders play in creating extraordinary work environments. Totally one of those weeks that’s left me feeling like the luckiest gal on earth—I can’t believe I get to call this my job.
Because I’m feeling so inspired after last week, I thought it’d be neat to summarize what we talked about. So—without further ado—here are the things I believe we must do as leaders in order to better take care of our people.
Let’s do this!
Build real relationships: A leader’s role is to create a sense of belonging for others. When people feel they belong, they feel they can show up as who they really are—the good parts and the messy parts—and be totally accepted for all of it. In order to create true belonging, we must give our people the opportunity to build deep, authentic relationships. Yet I think we’ve unintentionally created this divide at work: We have to keep work…work. We can’t allow people to bring any personal anything because it’s “unprofessional” and it “crosses the line.” The reality, though, is that we are human beings—we are bringing everything we’ve ever experienced and are currently experiencing with us everywhere we go. We can’t simply “turn it off” when we walk into the office or forget about our bad day right before the meeting. It’s all coming with us, and we’re lying to ourselves if we believe it won’t affect our work. Even worse, when we feel we can’t talk about it, we don’t feel authentic and we can’t connect on a meaningful level. As leaders, we must set the example. We have to be vulnerable so that others feel safe doing the same. We have to talk about what’s really going on in our lives and ask people to share more about the things that are weighing on them. We need to talk about our upbringings and the experiences that shaped us into who we are today, and we need to learn more about our people and the experiences that shaped them. The only way we can meet people where they are is if we understand who they are and how they got here.
Questions to ask yourself: Can you take one person to coffee every week to get to know them better? Can you begin meetings with “personal check-ins”—a chance for those in the room to share personal updates before diving into work? Can you put some restrictions on technology so that people are communicating face-to-face and not only from behind screens?
Understand your needs and the needs of others: I truly believe you have to serve yourself before serving others. If your cup is empty, how can you possibly give anything to anyone else? It took me a long time to learn this lesson. Actually, it took gaining 30 pounds and being in the worst shape of my life—physically, mentally, and spiritually—to recognize that I had to do something different. Putting myself last was affecting me in all areas of my life—in the way I showed up at home and in my relationships, and most definitely in the way I showed up as the leader of my company. I made a goal last year to get in the best shape of my life, and I started by identifying what the “best shape of my life” meant to me. For me, it means working out every day, eating healthy, drinking lots of water, getting enough rest, reading something every day, writing every day, meeting with my executive coach and my creative coach, and blocking out thinking time. It also means being intentional about scheduling time with my family and friends. What I realized is that when I scheduled my days, I put all my needs last—but at the end of the day I was too tired to do anything for myself. So I switched it up: All the things I had to do for me would come first (even if it meant scheduling meetings later in the day) so that I could be at my best and be more effective in my role. When I realized how much doing so made me a better leader and put my company in a better place, I began to think that maybe others on my team would benefit from the same way of thinking. I asked them the same questions I asked myself: What did they need to be at their best? And how could we put ourselves first and still get work done? Leadership, I’ve learned, is about flexibility. It’s about giving people the space and freedom to live their lives to the fullest so that they don’t resent their work. When you can give people that, they are more effective in their jobs and more fulfilled by the work that they do.
Questions to ask yourself: Can you have the same conversation with your team? Can you identify the things you need to do to be at your best? Can you start scheduling your needs first, even if it means pushing meetings?
Develop leaders around you: The best leaders develop leaders around them. They look at every opportunity as a teaching moment and as a chance to help people realize their potential. So often we jump in to solve people’s problems instead of giving them the chance to think for themselves. It’s actually more work on us when we do all the thinking. I have a little trick I love: I call it “ask instead of tell.” The next time someone approaches you with a challenge, don’t give a solution. Instead, simply say: “What do you think? Give me two ideas.” Talk through the ideas with them and have them choose the one they think is best. Know what happens if you choose the solution and it works? They will view your involvement as the reason for the success. If we want people to grow, we have to teach them that they are capable. That means they have to own coming up with the solution. Developing leaders also means helping our people identify where they want to go. It requires sitting down and investing our time to map out their goals and help them get there. Sometimes these goals will take them out of our organizations, and that’s okay. We aren’t here to clip people’s wings. We are here to help people get their wings and then step back when they are ready to use them.
Questions to ask yourself: Can you ask more and tell less? Can you meet with people one-on-one to create a growth plan and hold them accountable to it? Can you encourage your people to feel safe sharing their dreams with you, even if those dreams will take them out of the organization?
Communicate honestly: It’s human to want to avoid tough conversations—they are uncomfortable and usually painful. It’s never fun to tell someone they are letting you down, especially when you’ve worked hard to build a relationship with that person. But here’s the irony: We avoid tough conversations because we think they will hurt people, when not having the conversation at all is actually what hurts people the most. Think about it: Don’t you want to know where you stand with others? Don’t you want to know the truth? Don’t you feel a loss of trust when you find out after the fact that someone was frustrated with you and never told you? Of course you do. It’s our job as leaders to help people grow and become the best they can be, and that means we have to be willing to have the tough conversations. Avoiding them because we are uncomfortable is selfish, and it also erodes trust. But we don’t have to pretend it’s comfortable or easy. It’s perfectly okay to start with something like, “Look, I’m really dreading this conversation. But I care about you and that’s why I want to have it.” And when people feel we communicate honestly with them, they will communicate more honestly with us. (PS: I wrote an entire post about the best way to approach feedback, so check it out here if you want to learn more!)
Questions to ask yourself: Can you commit to having at least one growing conversation a week? After you give feedback to someone, can you ask them if they have any feedback for you? Can you learn to see tough conversations as trust-building moments so that you have a different mindset going into them?
Create meaning at work: It’s our job to connect people to the bigger purpose of their work. (If you know my dear friend Simon Sinek, you know all about starting with “Why.” If you don’t, check out his TED talk here.) So often we get caught up in the day-to-day that we forget what we’re working toward. That’s when we begin to feel disengaged, unfulfilled, and all kinds of other crappy feelings. The key, I’ve found, is storytelling. In my company (which is a cleaning company, mind you, so we really need to be reminded of deeper meaning), we collect stories that remind us why it all matters. Stories of team members who have been there for clients. Stories of team members who have grown and reached their potential because of our culture. At every team meeting, we end with a “Why” story to keep the message front and center: This work is hard, but it matters. It’s something we need to remind our people of every day.
Questions to ask yourself: Can you collect meaningful stories from your people? Can you end meetings by asking someone to share a story of why your work matters? Can you use more storytelling in your leadership approach?
Hope this helps. I’m still learning every day—just like you.