One of my leadership principles is that our team members are our top priority. People are our work and as leaders we need to make ourselves available to support them to ensure their success. However, we can’t effectively support them if we don’t take care of ourselves.
Years ago I went on a kayaking trip to the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior with my son and his scout troop. Our trip was run by a local outfitter; the man who ran the outfitter and our trip in particular guides adventure trips around the world and has logged some of the most miles in the Arctic and Antarctic of any living guide today. He and I chatted quite a bit as he has a lot of interesting stories, but his hiring strategy stood out to me. As he explained it, he not only needs guides that know their craft well, they have to know it so well that they can take care of themselves transparently while making sure everyone else on the trip was safe and cared for.
This extends the principle of making our team members our priority with the notion that our problems, our feelings, shouldn’t impact our teams. In fact, I’d offer that our feelings and problems don’t really matter to our teams, especially when they have struggles of their own. More to the point, when they look to us for leadership and guidance, we can’t respond with our own problems as an excuse for not helping them.
Imagine if I was on this kayaking trip trying to figure out how to put up my tent (I was) and the guide, instead of helping me, told me he didn’t like the tone I took and wandered away. Or if on an Antarctic trip with him, I told him I was worried about frostbite and his response was “yeah no doubt, i’m pretty sure I’ll need a couple toes cut off when we’re done.” The former is infuriating as we see our leaders’ job is to help us regardless. The latter would make us question the competence of who is in charge.
On the other hand, I don’t think we should try to appear perfect and invulnerable. We are human after all and demonstrating that is one of the best ways to build loyalty and trust as a leader.
In the balance, it is our responsibility to provide a steady, human hand to our teams, especially in the face of difficult situations. As I edit this we are faced with a pandemic the likes of which is unprecedented in my lifetime and this principle needs to hold more than ever to make sure we provide our teams what they need, at least as best we can. Our team members are going through a lot of stress, anxiety, and a gamut of emotions we may not be aware of. We are likely to encounter more difficult discussions than normal because of the escalated emotional stakes in our current world environment. This includes us leaders as we are all under increased stress, and yet we still need to provide a steady hand.
This doesn’t mean we should bury our stress or emotions. Going back to my guide’s original statement, he didn’t talk about sacrifice, burying needs, or not having to struggle. A good guide gets their group moving and gives them focus and support in a way that still enables the guides to have time to take care of themselves. On the trip I was on, the guides would get us all working together to set up a tent or the cooking area and then would quietly and quickly step away to set up their own area without us even realizing it.
A good leader needs to do the same - in fact we have to. In order for us to provide the stability required by our teams in difficult times, we need to make sure we are feeling sane and calm enough, even in the face of high stress.
As leaders, we need to make sure we are checking in on our teams and giving the support they need, but to not forget that we too need support and to seek it out (from peers, from our leaders) when we need it. In any kind of crisis it is easy to be overwhelmed by the stress and dump it down on the team, but we need to do our best to not let that happen.
Some of this can seem more challenging for folks that are moving to remote work for the first time, but the basic steps are easy:
Ultimately, our job as leaders is to take care of others, but we can’t do that without taking care of ourselves.
Perhaps the best way to appear more like a leader is to learn to speak in terms of outcomes rather than simply tasks, timelines, and deliverables. In fact, one of the best ways to be a better leader (and contributor) is to think in terms of outcomes.
There are two broad categories of outcomes: intended and unintended. Intended outcomes are the impacts we are deliberately seeking to make. Unintended outcomes are the impacts that we inadvertently make (e.g. making a team work extensive overtime to hit a deadline can result in poor quality and team attrition as unintended outcomes). It’s important as a leader to expand our mindset to embrace both.
It’s easy to confuse outcomes with tasks, deliverables, etc., so I’ll provide an example to help clarify, starting with intended outcomes. Let’s say we want our leadership team to be informed regularly of our financial status, so we decide we need a monthly report. Creating the financial report is a task. The report itself is a deliverable or artifact. People receiving and reading the report can create the outcome of being informed.
This is where good outcome-focused thinking really makes a difference. What have we achieved by sending out this report? If the driving outcome is only to inform people, it’s likely that we’ll develop a report that is so full of information and data points that no one knows what to do with it and so it gets ignored. Sound familiar?
Instead, what if the intended outcome was to “enable our leadership team to actively make resource allocation decisions to improve our margin.” This isn’t simply informing or building knowledge. This drives to truly achieving something - improved margin through better resource stewardship. Depending on the environment a report may or may not be the right means of achieving this. But if a report is the right vehicle, there is far more clarity on why we’re building the report that we are far more assured that it will actually be useful.
Outcome focus is so important in my mind that it forms a core principle for my approach to leadership:
This is perhaps a nuanced difference, but it’s a matter of shifting our thinking from “we have to do something” to “we have to achieve something”.
The power of this can be seen when one of the people I coach had a situation where if she didn’t complete a task over the weekend there would be significant repercussions with the client. The thing was, for various reasons she couldn’t complete the task as specified. After a brief moment of panic she stopped thinking about the task and thought through what outcome that task was supposed to achieve. With that in mind, she was able to take a completely different action that wasn’t blocked and could still achieve the needed impact. End result was that she kept the client happy.
Moving to an outcome focus gives us a why, a purpose. It’s what gives our work deeper meaning. Ultimately, it gives us clarity on how to do our work far more than any micromanaging can achieve. Learning how to focus on outcomes and how to guide your teams through outcomes will transform how you engage with the world around you and make you truly effective.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.