The Evolution of Leadership

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During a luncheon last week, the question arose “how can we develop those with raw talent into exceptional leaders”?  For a curious mind, that craves intellectual stimulation and challenges to expand in new ways, probing questions like these are the great elixir.  This is an idea I have struggled with along my own leadership journey.

As an entrepreneur, one of the biggest challenges I have personally faced was the doldrum of midlevel management.  One of my first jobs out of college was working for a local real estate management company as a property manager.  I did not enjoy the non-creative, stifling and bottom line focus of what we were required to do in order to be “rewarded”.  So I vowed to never again be tortured by midlevel management and to provide a service focused culture for my teams and clients!

Surprise!  As an owner now, although I kept my service vow, I was still functioning as a midlevel manager.

In a college town, property management is a highly adversarial market.  Competition is stiff.  Supply exceeds demand.  Students are accused of being totally destructive and owners of taking advantage of students.  Yet I vowed to create a service environment and I did!  My residents treated my units with respect because I treated them with respect!  They would send me thank you notes about their amazing experience because I took their calls, fixed their issues, and valued their business just like any VIP client!  My rents were oftentimes even higher and my units stayed 100% rented.

The problem is I was exhausted.  Anytime, I was not “managing” quality control it seemed to dip, response times were slower and momentum seemed to slow.  The thing I dreaded most “midlevel management” – I still found myself doing and not effectively either.  I’m taking care of my grandparents, 3 small infants, rentals, real estate clients, some passion projects and although my clients and staff are happy, I am not!

Slippage is the enemy now.   I’m not very playful or too fun to be around!  

There is simply not enough of me to shore up all those cracks.  Instead of fully recognizing my weakness, I start to convince myself my time was worth more, and therefore needed to be managed more effectively.

I had to dismiss you quickly if you had “no value” to the advancement of my “to do list”.  Every hour of every day was booked solid and with infants crying up through the night.  This constant “high need” showed up as “demanding and relentless” and although I believed it was the key to much “success” it certainly was not the long term path to happy and fulfilling relationships.  I was often frustrated, leaving situations feeling disappointed with a belief others had fallen short.  My children saw me wound so tight that even baking cookies became a “project to manage” devoid of  joy.

During this time it did not occur to me how my highly managed life was leaving those closest feeling devalued and like an action item to be “handled” on the to do list.

“They may forget your name, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

One thing to ask yourself is how you think people feel after interacting with you?  Do they feel motivated, inspired, or joyful?  Do they feel valued?  Chances are if you are walking away feeling disappointed they are too!

At the peak of my success I found myself bordering on emotional numbness.  This is dangerous to our mental health and to our personal relationships.

If left unchecked, this can lead to a total breakdown – a Brittany Spears or Tiger Woods total destructive meltdown.

A state where we push everyone away, question our worth and hide in the abyss of that dark force called self doubt.  

Brene’ Brown refers to breakdowns as breakthroughs!  And certainly they can be, if you have the desire to turn whatever disruption comes into your life as an opportunity!  Disruption can be painful.  If you happen to rise and fall in the public eye it can be brutal.

In my case, a lot of confluent events transpired that resulted in my breakdown!  We had just returned from vacation and our 4 year old has a seizure and slips into a coma with a  a 50/50 chance of survival.  The real estate market crashes and so did a lot of my equity.  We made an investment that very quickly and publicly goes south.   No amount of highly effective leadership can plug all those holes, and trying lands me in the hospital with a life threatening illness.

Surprise again!  I find myself scanning the help wanted ads right back into midlevel management.  

Although I brought decades of sales and service experience, I was still struggling with how to nurture great leadership in others.  I turned around a new construction lease up project on the verge of bankruptcy relying upon project management, marketing and sales skills.

Sales is just a numbers game; hire salespeople, provide passionate sales training and conviction and fire them up to hit goals with commission incentives along the way.  We smashed the project goal with half as much time to do it.  But this is entirely different from what is required once you have systems in place and need to manage to them while also creating new goals and revenue streams.  Now you need a management team for operations, sales and maintenance.

A lease up, like many start ups, is like an infant always crying for MORE.  The skills to manage this baby are vastly different from nurturing your baby through to maturity.  A lot of companies lack maturity.  FB being the latest example.  Sometimes individual immaturity leads to professional exploiters, like Madoff, or damaged leaders who nefariously crush their competition and screw others on their way to success.  But those of us learning to mature into wiser roles, have a desire to contribute to the world in a meaningful way and evolve.

Part of evolution is learning to leverage our time more wisely by creating space for other talent to grow along with us.  

How can we develop leaders that can keep the daily grind going but also posses the skills to take initiative?  Does this exist?  Can salespeople looking for the next rush, living for the next commission check learn to be happy managers?  Can managers that have to manage the grind and foundational pieces learn to pick up their nose and look ahead to future growth?

Exceptional leaders can be defined as those who take initiative, who represent some of the same qualities you appreciate or display as a business owner or top executive; people you can count on to get out of the weeds long enough to develop and execute growth strategies.

So basically we want someone that can be an extension of ourselves; so we can relax or focus on other projects, and trust the same standards are being met. 

I must thank my children for being my greatest teachers in this area of “how to develop talent”.  Unlike employees; we can’t fire them.  They don’t have to listen, and even if we threaten them, at some point they will refuse to listen.  So how do we develop conversations with our children (teams) that create space for them to develop?

“Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.” Stephen Covey

Create Roles Around Talent

First, I’m a firm believer that we should create roles around talent and not force talent into a role.  That is a sure fire way to kill creativity.  This requires flexibility and a willingness to allow time for organic growth.  We must pay attention to assess key strengths and weaknesses and build processes and structure around those teams.  This is also a tedious and intricate process that requires time and a high level of focus and energy.

Most companies do not think in terms of talent because of the initial investment this fluid approach requires.  It is also very difficult to implement with teams that have tenure or are entrenched culturally.  In established teams it would take an intentional shake up to cause discomfort and stretch teams into new areas.  This means making sure teams are being positioned effectively.

“Operations keeps the lights on, strategy provides a light at the end of the tunnel, but project management is the train that moves the organization forward.” Joy Gumz

Assign Project Managers

Second, you have to put someone in charge.  If you shake things up, or things are in the process of being created, you must assign projects and empower a project manager to take the lead.  You have to make it clear, regardless of the hierarchy, the project manager is responsible for and in charge of the project.  This will also help teams learn how to collaborate.

Most people know how to lead, or how to follow, but very few know how to collaborate.

We’ve all sat in meetings (or on hold with AT&T) where the entire executive team is present wasting time trying to figure out why something is not working.  This means no one person knows who’s ultimately accountable and so each department does the circuitous finger point.  Ten minutes turns into two hours!  What a waste of highly paid talent.

Once it’s clear an issue is mercurial then stop the meeting and commit to dropping off the call as quickly as possible.  Clearly this team is not ready for next steps and didn’t do their homework.  Ask one person who can step into a leadership role or pick the person who should be managing this area because if it was clearly being managed it would not be mercurial!  Empower this person to have other departments report to them on this project, identify root cause of issue, and develop a solution or menu of options to correct the issue.  Then top leadership needs to drop off the call!

“I learned to always take on things I’d never done before.  Growth and comfort do not exist.” Ginni Rometty

The challenge with top leaders is that we are often problem solvers and so it’s a challenge for us to step back.  Unless we want to play “whack a mole” though it’s a critical skill set for us to develop otherwise we are playing “leap frog” over our leadership team and preventing them from FAILING UP and GROWING OUT.

Failing UP means they are learning and evolving.  Growing OUT means they are given opportunities to out grow their current role and expand their skill set. 

It also means they might grow out of your organization and go create their own unless you are prepared to keep them heavily incentivized.

Help Project Managers Sketch Out A Strategy

Project managers need to sketch out a strategy. Teams might meet and get fired up with a list of “ideas”, which is one step in the creative process.  However, where teams often fall short is leaving the meeting with a clear executable strategy.  As a project manager, I come with an agenda, and leave with a spreadsheet that lists tasks, who’s accountable, next steps and a deadline.  When I first implemented this it was met with a tremendous amount of resistance from both internal teams and external support teams.  The key is  to push past resistance and manage to the change we wish to see.  This means require follow up action lists, request agendas ahead of meetings and train yourself and those around you to be prepared!

There has to be a strong project manager capable of having an organized and tactical approach to the daily grind required to manage ideas to fruition.  Project management is not intuitive for many, and like most professional development must be gained through proper training and experience.

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.” ~ Peter Drucker

Owners struggle to be effective project managers as well.  We often like to go fire everyone up, set the example, and then exit to the next thing demanding our attention.  We expect our teams to take note and run with it. How does that work out?  We often find we are in a constant state of “whack a mole”.  It is hard to stop the frenzy of crisis management.  Let’s face it we already feel pulled thin so how do we make time to nurture talent?

When you’re standing in a queue, stuck in traffic, or simply enjoying an unscheduled moment – create space to be present without impatience.  Practice being still.  Enjoy the opportunity to slow down your body and mind.

“If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned to live.” Lin Yutang

Create Space For Creativity

Crisis management is the killer of creativity.  Leaders need enough down time to recharge their battery.  They need space to step out of the frenzy and get their creative juices flowing.  There are busy times, seasons in the business, fiscal planning periods where it’s nose to the grind stone.  Even then, those who can pull out of the frenzy and plan ahead are going to be the most effective.

Lean is mean, but too lean is destructive and will grind down top talent.  

We talk about work life balance.  Some companies like Google provide on site access to wellness campuses.  Other firms provide gaming areas and outdoor seating for meetings.  Companies have adopted time off that you can take as much as you need as long as your work is completed.  The bottom line is all these outside resources are great but not if you overwork your teams.  Too much leads to waste and to little leads to anemia.

“Meditation, more than any other factor, has been the reason for what success I’ve had.” Ray Dalio.

From a billionaire with almost infinite resources, that’s a pretty powerful statement and testament to the importance and power of being present, really present, not just for loved ones but especially for ourself!

My personal mantra “I am a playful, present, powerful and joyful women”.  Whenever I’m off kilter I proclaim since “I’m a playful, present, powerful and joyful women what would she do?” and then I work to live in that space.   I fail a lot!

My goal is to maintain a present and joyful state so that I can spread and share that with the world and help end suffering (both from my own internal dialogue) and to be a boost for those around me.

No matter how tough life has been and these past few months have been a real bruiser, I come back to this quiet place within.  It has given me the wonderful opportunity to love people when they are unloveable, to forgive people that are dark, to show up in amazing ways in the midst of great loss.

This is the leadership example I choose in my own life.  Who are you?  What do you live in?

“I alone can not change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.” Mother Theresa








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