The Art of Strengths Coaching

L is For Learning From Great Leaders

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How can you develop your leadership skills? One approach is to attend courses and read many books on leadership.

Another approach is to watch and interview great leaders. It is to ask them specific questions about their experience of leading teams and organisations. You can then integrate the ideas into your own style of leadership.

Since the 1960s I have met and learned from leaders in therapy programmes, education, sports, business and other fields. Before such meetings I would send them a list of questions I wanted to ask to tap into their knowledge.

Many leaders have been happy to explore these questions. They have often moved from talking about concepts to giving concrete examples. They explained what they actually did – in behavioural terms – to lead teams or organisations.

The pieces written below highlight the themes that the leaders described. In some cases I have fused people’s ideas together but the summaries reflect the spirit of the answers they gave. Here are the questions that I invited the leaders to explore, together with the gist of their answers.

What are the key pieces of advice you would give to somebody who wants to be a leader and build a successful team or organisation?

First

Start by deciding if you really want to be a leader. There are both pluses and minuses to being in a leadership role.

The pluses are that you can make decisions, set the overall strategy and build a great team. You can create a positive culture in which motivated people can achieve peak performance. People can then co-ordinate their strengths to achieve success. This can create a great sense of satisfaction.

The minuses are that you may need to manage challenging stakeholders, such as your bosses. The autonomy you appear to have on paper may not always work out in practise. You will also have to make tough decisions that affect the lives of many people.

Bearing these answers in mind, decide if you want to accept the whole package.

Second

Learn how to manage your stakeholders. This particularly applies to managing your bosses. You can do your best to achieve this goal by doing the following things.

Meet with them and show you understand the world from their point of view. Show that you recognise the organisation’s aims and its picture of success. Then make clear contracts about:

The specific things your team will deliver towards achieving the organisation’s picture of success.

The specific things you will do to proactively keep all the stakeholders informed about the team’s progress towards achieving these goals. 

The specific early wins that the team will deliver on the road towards achieving the organisation’s picture of success.

Keep managing your key stakeholders. Be proactive and find an appropriate way of informing them about the progress being made towards achieving the goals.

Your stakeholders are under pressure and may worry, so reassure them by delivering the goods. They are your key customers so try to, as far as possible, keep them happy.

Third

Build a team that implements the right strategy with the right people in the right way. Make sure everybody knows the team’s strategy and goals. Make clear contracts with people about their parts in contributing towards achieving the picture of success.

Build a team of people who have similarity of spirit and diversity of strengths. Make sure that people demonstrate the attitudes and abilities required to achieve the goals. You can then encourage and enable them to deliver the goods.

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What do you do to try to act as a positive
model for the people in your team?

Below is a summary of the answer given to this question by a soccer coach I interviewed. He had got a rude awakening when realising he was always on stage. He summarised this in the following way.

Being a good model as a leader was something I did not understand until I was in my second season as a soccer coach. I sought advice from a mentor outside sport.

The first thing he did was to film me during matches and on the training ground. He then gave me the chance to play back the video by myself and return with my own comments.

My body language was awful. I was shouting, grimacing and giving off many negative messages. This was not helping the team or my own blood pressure.  

People watch how you behave, rather than what you say. So now I prepare properly before, for example, walking from my office to the training pitch.

Nowadays I try to give time to people and really listen – whether they are players, coaches, admin staff or canteen workers. I remember the personal attention that was given to me when I was a youngster in clubs. This encouragement stayed with me for a long time. 

Being a good model can be difficult, especially when you have other things on your mind. I aim to be positive but in a realistic way, even after setbacks. If the boss is not up for it, how can the other people feel enthusiastic? 

What do you do to build on your strengths
as a leader and get people around you
who can compensate for any weaknesses?

Below is a summary of the answer given to this question by the leader of a pioneering digital company. He had been strongly influenced by doing some work on strengths with the Gallup Organization. He summarised this in the following way.

The breakthrough for me came after listening to Tom Rath who worked for the Gallup Organization. He said:  

“Great leaders are not well rounded but great leadership teams are well rounded.”

My strengths lie in having a clear vision and communicating it to our people. I am also good at working with customers, selling and then maintaining the relationships. This leads to increased income streams.  

My strengths do not lie in operations. So I need good co-ordinators who can run the daily business. Sometimes they also have to manage me.  

Looking at sports, for example, the leaders often play to their strengths. They then get people around them who cover the areas where they were not so great. This is the model I try to follow in my work.

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What are the key characteristics you look
for in people who you want in your team?

Different leaders described different characteristics in their answers, but many highlighted three themes. They wanted people who were positive, professional and aimed to be peak performers.

Here is the summary of an answer given by the leader who I worked with for over five years. The company believed in providing great service to its customers.

We look for people who take responsibility, have a strong service ethic and are problem solvers. Being a service business, we rely a lot on collaboration, so people must enjoy working in a team. 

We pride ourselves in finding new solutions for customers, so it is not enough for people to be experts. They need to serve our customers to help them to achieve their goals.  

Recently we went through an exercise in which we revisited our values as a business. Looking back, we explored when people had performed brilliantly. What did people do right then? What were the principles they followed to help colleagues and customers?

The exercise reinforced our values. We want people who have good attitude and take responsibility. They must be prepared to step up and solve problems.  

Taking responsibility is the key theme we look for when interviewing people. They must demonstrate this quality to make a contribution to our business.

What do you do to encourage people
to demonstrate these characteristics?

The same leader gave the following answer to this question. The organisation kept aiming to ‘show what good looked like’.

We have a team of people who produce success stories that show when people live the values. It is important to have such mission holders who take responsibility for producing such stories.

Initially we simply highlighted what we called Values Champions and mentioned these at the weekly meeting. That was okay, but we needed something more tangible.

We therefore asked team leaders to produce examples of when people in their teams had lived the values. This worked for a bit, but then fell away.  

I then decided to create a small team whose job it is to find and publish success stories. This has worked well and people enjoy reading about these examples of best practice.

We now use these stories when interviewing to show applicants the kinds of values we want people to demonstrate. The stories also remind our own people about what we must keep doing to deliver excellence.

What do you do if some people do not
demonstrate these characteristics?

The leader of one values-driven organisation took the following approach when dealing with a person who behaved in ways that hurt the culture. They sat down with them and explained the organisation approach along the following lines.

As you know, the values we aim to follow as the organisation are:

1) To …

2) To …

3) To …

The reasons we have these values are because … 

I would like you to take time to reflect and decide if you would like to follow these values in the future.  

If so, then it would be good if you can come up with a specific action plan about how you would like to translate these values into action. Let me know if there is any kind of support you need to make that happen.

If not, then it is probably not the right fit. We need people who are willing to follow those values in the future.  

The values provided a guiding compass that helped people to keep working towards the organisation’s goals. They also provided a reference point for having conversations with people who seemed unable or unwilling to follow the values.

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What do you do to explain the team’s goals to
people and ensure they know the strategy for
working towards achieving the picture of success?

During the 1980s and 90s I interviewed many people who led knowledge organisations. They explained that knowledge workers were often on their own agendas.

Such workers were often loyal to their own values, rather than an organisation. It was important to treat such people like intelligent adults and give them context about what the organisation aimed to achieve.

Good leaders therefore started by explaining the big picture. They explained the organisation’s goals and the guidelines people could follow to achieve these aims. They also explained the benefits of achieving these goals. People could then decide if they wanted to opt in and contribute to the organisation.

Below is a summary of the approach used by the VP Europe of an American Company. He and I worked together for over 10 years. This is how he approached the process of involving people in understanding the strategy. 

The planning process starts about 3 months before the beginning of the financial year. My leadership team and I begin by clarifying the specific goals for the European part of the business. 

This sometimes means guessing what we will be required to deliver to our bosses in the US. We do, however, have a good idea. We need to deliver a certain Scorecard, otherwise we will be in trouble. 

The leadership team and I then visit each country and the various departments to communicate the desired outcomes. We explain that some goals are mandatory, but we also give each department the chance to add to the overall plan.  

This is a real rather than false exercise. It helps us to incorporate their ideas and build a much more realistic plan rather than simply pulling numbers out of the air.  

The next step is to get everything signed off by the US. This can take some time, but we usually end up with a clear plan. We also know how to build in some early successes to satisfy our bosses.

We then do another round of each country. After presenting the plan, we make clear agreements with people about the results they will deliver towards achieving these goals. This approach seems to work.  

We then make sure that each country gives us regular updates on their progress towards achieving the goals. We do the same towards the US. We get some quick wins and make sure that we deliver the Scorecard. 

Different leaders use different names for the planning process. Whichever approach they use, however, they make sure everybody in the organisation knows the following things.

The Organisation’s Plan

The What. The specific goals
we aim to achieve are:

*

* 

* 

The Why. The specific benefits – to all the various
stakeholders – of achieving the goals will be:

*

*

*

The How. The specific strategies we aim to follow to achieve
the goals – and the reasons for these strategies – are:

* 

* 

* 

The Who. The specific responsibilities of the various
people on the way towards achieving the goals are:

* 

* 

* 

The When. The specific things we aim to deliver and
by when on the way towards achieving the goals are: 

* 

*

* 

People need to know and believe in the plan. They are then more likely to do good work on the way towards reaching the goals.

What do you do to make clear contracts
with people about their contributions
towards achieving the picture of success?

Many leaders now focus on managing by outcomes rather than managing by tasks. They agree with each department and each person on the specific outcomes they will deliver toward achieving the picture of success.

They then give people freedom, within parameters, regarding how they deliver these outcomes. At the same time, however, they ask people to proactively keep them informed about their progress towards achieving the goals.

Different leaders use different models for making this happen. Here is one framework that some leaders invite people complete. They then make clear contracts with the individuals to agree on their contributions.

My Contribution 

The specific results I want to deliver
towards achieving the team’s goals are:

*

*

* 

The specific things I will do to proactively keep people
informed about my progress towards achieving the goals are:

* 

* 

* 

The specific kinds of support I would
like to help me to achieve the goals are:

*

*

* 

The specific early successes
I will aim to deliver are:

*

*

* 

The specific things that will be happening that
will show I have achieved the goals will be:

*

* 

*

What do you do to give people the support
they need to achieve the picture of success?

This question produced varied responses from leaders. One leader answered this in the following way.

I try to encourage people. My style has been to spend time with individuals, but I could probably do more.  

Every quarter I have informal lunches with the individuals in my team and ask about their development. I then follow up and try to provide them with any resources they need. 

I also have informal breakfast sessions with people from across the business. These normally start with me outlining the plans for the quarter and the progress we are making towards achieving these goals.  

I then invite people to describe what they think the business is doing well and what we can improve. People seem to like the sessions and we implement many of the ideas they suggest.  

Support is crucial. Sometimes this can be accomplished by simply asking each team and person what support they need to do the job. You can then do your best to provide what they need to deliver the goods.

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What is the process you follow as a
leader to try to make good decisions?

Good decision making plays a crucial part in leadership. The decisions that leaders make can affect the lives of people both inside and outside the organisation.

It was therefore interesting to ask leaders about the process they followed to make decisions. Here are some of the themes that emerged from the interviews.

Good decisions makers often stay calm during a crisis. They act to stop the haemorrhaging and quickly put a holding strategy in place. They then buy time to explore the possible routes forward.

Bearing in mind what they can control in the situation, they ask some of the following questions.

What are the short, medium and long-term goals? What are the real results we want to achieve? What is the picture of success?

Looking ahead, they clarify the possible options for going forwards. They also clarify the pluses and minuses of each option. If possible, they take time to reflect and explore other creative solutions.

Good decision makers then commit to the chosen way forward and translate this into an action plan. They make clear working contracts with other people and get some quick wins. They do whatever they can to achieve the picture of success.

Different people use different models for charting the way forwards. Many use variations of the 3C Model. This involves focusing on clarity, creativity and concrete results. Here is an overview of the model.

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What do you do to keep
trying to develop as a leader?

This was an area that the leaders found challenging. Some talked about attending sessions at Harvard or other business schools. Others described the importance of having mentors and coaches with whom they consulted.

Although it sounds a cliché, many talked about feeling alone in the job. This was not a complaint, just a statement of fact. The responsibility of making decisions that affected many people’s lives weighed heavily on their shoulders.

During some interviews I asked the leaders to explore the following exercise. Being self-critical, many found the second part easier than the first.

My Development As A Leader

The specific things I do well as a leader and how
I can build on these things in the future are: 

* 

*

*

The specific things I can do better as
a leader in the future and how are:

*

* 

*  

The specific things I can do to develop by building on
what I do well and improving in the other areas are: 

*

* 

*

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What would you describe as the Dos and
Don’ts for being a good leader, retaining
your sanity and helping your team to succeed?

This section brought the interviews a full circle. Many leaders repeated the answers they had given to the first question regarding the advice they would give to budding leaders.

Some expanded on these themes, especially covering the piece about retaining their sanity. Here are some of the answers they gave to the Dos question. The Don’ts were often the reverse of these answers.

Do manage your bosses by delivering the goods… Do provide air cover for your people … Do build on your strengths as a leader and get people around you who have complementary strengths … Do build the right team with the right people who have the right attitude and abilities.

Do keep communicating the team’s story, strategy and road to success … Do treat people like intelligent adults … Do keep reminding people of the principles they can follow to achieve the goals … Do rehearse what you are going to do or say before talking with a colleague or client … Do keep showing people what good looks like. 

Do take care of your loved ones … Do take care of your health … Do take time to breathe, walk or find other ways to do some slow thinking … Do engage in an activity in which you can completely switch off and enjoy yourself … Do see things in perspective … Do remind yourself of your achievements each day.

You will, of course, have your own approach to learning from such people. If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things. 

Describe the specific things you can do to learn from great leaders. 

Describe the specific things you can do to integrate the learning and keep developing as a leader.  

Describe the specific benefits of taking these steps.

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