Foundational Leadership Practices

Effective leadership can make or break a project. Here are some basic leadership practices and implementation strategies that have served me well working across a variety of organizations from Fortune 500s to non-profits to mom and pop shops.


Keep your hand on the pulse

As a leader, it’s impossible for you to have all the information, and yet you need to have a broad understanding of how everything works together, and what’s happening. How do you get it? Get curious and build relationships with stakeholders. This article provides suggestions for getting curious.

Intentionally get into conversation with your stakeholders and demonstrate you are really listening. This builds trust and opens lines of communication. The key is having enough dialogue that you discover things you didn’t even think to ask about. Inquire about the person as well as work. Be empathetic and compassionate: celebrate with them, ask what they need, offer support, connections or resources if possible. As these relationships get stronger, you’ll learn about challenges sooner and sooner so you can adjust plans before problems arise.

Have a “red flag mechanism”

In addition to seeking information, create safety and mechanisms for team members, customers or other stakeholders to initiate sharing bad news without you. How do you and other leaders react when bad news is shared? Do your words and body language convey safety and appreciation? Does any subtle retaliation take place? How can you publicly celebrate the courage of the sharer?

What mechanism would help you and your organization know when you’re veering off track? In the book Good to Great Jim Collins talks about the importance of “red flag mechanisms” to make sure we don’t ignore the brutal facts of a situation. Jim Collins allowed each student to point out once per quarter when his teaching style wasn’t working for them and when they felt he was going off topic. Amazon’s no-hassle refund policy is a red-flag mechanism. It builds loyalty by removing the risk of buying from them while simultaneously creating a leading indicator for catching potentially faulty products. What information does your organization need to remain nimble and responsive? What are ways you could gather that information?

Discover and share beliefs, motivations, assumptions and goals

At the start of new projects, get the leaders of all departments together and flesh out the beliefs, motivations, goals and assumptions of each. The beliefs can be tricky, because we may not want to sound silly in naming what seems obvious. But what’s obvious to us, may not be to others. Try approaching this as a playful, brainstorming session. Maybe work individually at times (for efficiency) and then create avenues for sharing with the group and building on each other’s ideas. In well-oiled machines, problems often arise because of incorrect assumptions. I touch upon that here: Delivering Quality Projects On Time.

Manage your reactions

As the leader, people look to you to get a sense of whether things are going well or not. If you had a rough morning at home and carry that into work, people may assume they’ve done something wrong or there’s trouble brewing that they aren’t privy to. What practice would support you clearing your head and getting grounded before interacting with others? One practice I found helpful was to spend 5 to 15 minutes in my car in the parking lot to get centered before heading into work.

If you’ve built strong rapport with your team, they may start to mimic your reactions, which can be good or bad. Last fall as our deadline was approaching, I become frenetically driven to develop a full year’s program calendar. Fortunately, when I saw my team getting as crazed as me, I slowed down. I checked whether everyone still supported the calendar goal. They didn’t. If I had kept racing in that direction, I could have burnt out my team and lost their commitment and support. This lesson really stuck with me. Now I check my state of mind before entering important meetings or conversations. If I’m not feeling grounded, I take some time to understand what’s driving me. This helps me decide what questions to ask and whether it would be best to discuss the matter at a future time.

Customize your communications

You’re all on the project for a reason, but the importance and priority of the project may vary by individual. Find out how the success or failure of this project will impact each team member, what they care about, and their schedule. Use this information to craft your communications. Sometimes we assume others know as much about the project as we do, so we under communicate. When you find out people don’t know what’s going on, you could overreact and communicate too much. John Wooden, who coached UCLA to 10 NCAA national championships over 12 years, wrote the book You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned. The big idea is communication is determined by what the other person hears, not by what we say. People hear what’s relevant to them and what fits into their contextual framework. What does each person or department really need to hear and how? It may be more work for you in the short run to customize your communications but communicating effectively ultimately saves a lot of time and rework.

Be Inspiring and Get Inspired

Most people spend more time at work than doing anything else. They desperately want to feel like what they do matters! Show them why it does. What’s the noble purpose of your project? If this doesn’t seem obvious, step back a bit. What would be the impact if this project failed or simply didn’t exist? How would failure impact the team, the organization, your customers, the world? If people can connect to the bigger why, they will be more inspired to make sure it succeeds.

On the flip side, get inspired by your team! What can you learn from them? How do they contribute in ways that you didn’t realize before? What is inspiring about how they approach their work? How are they contributing outside of work? When you see what makes people special and you celebrate it, magic happens. Don’t forget to look for and celebrate what’s special about yourself too.

Two of my strengths are seeing connections and creating stretch, yet achievable, action plans. This helps me help my clients see connections and possibilities that seemed hidden before. I use proven methods to help my clients grow and achieve their objectives. I’m proud to be able to say that my coaching and programs produce reliable, predictable results. If you want to create a change or learn a new role faster, I’d love to explore this with you.

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