Q: How can I really ever hope to get better as a leader, with all the emails, voicemails, meetings, and everything else on my plate? I don't know how I can ever do it all.
A: The management sides of our jobs are endlessly screaming at us. And we all know why. It is those management activities that are most closely measured, reviewed, and valued. And importantly, they also are the basis of our pay. No one gets a free pass on achieving today's results. And the primary focus of our management responsibility is just that: delivering results each and every day.
As leaders, you also must tackle the added responsibility of preparing the organization to change, grow, and prosper over the long haul. That means you have to be continually building future capabilities while consistently making the monthly numbers.
Successful leaders simply cannot avoid this seemingly competing set of demands. That's why we call it the leadership challenge, not the leadership cakewalk! But the following ideas might help you start making progress in resolving what often seems like a conflict between your role as a manager and as a leader.
- Check your personal level of commitment to your own growth as a leader. How much are you willing to stretch? Are you prepared to deal with some anxious and uncomfortable moments? What or how much are you willing to sacrifice? You need to be committed because you already know how difficult it will be to change how you work in an overscheduled, "everything is a priority" environment.
- If you are committed, do something immediately to directly invest in your leadership development. Think about this: if you desperately wanted to learn to fly a plane, you would enroll in Ground School, as your first step, and then you would make time to attend. You would likely stick with it if you paid the full tuition upfront (rather than on a per-session basis). So consider how to apply this same approach to your own leadership development. Putting some 'skin' in the development game right away makes it harder to back away. One immediate action you could take would be to complete the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), to more fully understand the areas in which you have proven strengths and those that may be derailing your efforts. You cannot grow without valid feedback, and if you are indeed committed, you cannot ignore it.
- Let other people know your intentions and ask them to help you. This is so important. And yet, it is so often overlooked. Developing your leadership should not be a secret, which you feel you must pursue independently and alone. Always remember that people with whom you interact directly benefit as you become a more effective leader. They probably want to help you, if you will let them. Finding a confidant, mentor, or coach will also be helpful.
- Finally, identify a first small win that you want to achieve and remain focused on it. Bite-size pieces to start might include:
- allocate one hour per week, allowing no interruptions, so that you can think about and consider new ideas
- devote 30 uninterrupted minutes each month to spend with each of your direct reports, listening to their ideas, current struggles, and aspirations; become more closely connected with them
- pick 2 people from other departments to have lunch with each month in order to start breaking down silos
One thing is for certain: in order to find the time to fulfill your current management obligations and still become a better leader, you must change. Sometimes you must change what you do, which means saying "No" to work that might be comfortable but is simply not valuable enough to keep doing. Do not underestimate how hard that is to do. And often you also must change how you do your work. For example, spend 10 less minutes in reviewing results with people and devote it to brainstorming ideas instead. Set meeting times for 20 minutes or 40 minutes, vs. the standard half or full hour. Or start out your meetings by genuinely recognizing the efforts of people deserving credit, then use the remainder for your management work.
Be fully committed to your growth as a leader and you will find many creative ways to free up the time to lead.
Steve Coats is a managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm. For nearly twenty years, Steve has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers in several countries around the world is one of the leading authorities on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.