Empowered leadership, and how I as the boss tried to show up authentically

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Miriam Lahage, Co-founder COO of Aequip

After listening to Frances X. Frei’s podcast on Value through Vulnerability, and starting to read her fascinating book Unleashed, with co-author Anne Morriss, I have been thinking about how I show up for work authentically and create a culture of empowered leadership.

In my last couple of roles, I was lucky to spend quality time with the team before I officially joined. In my last role, for three months, I spent one day a week in their offices getting to know them and more importantly, letting them get to know me.

Why was this so important? A new boss in an organization is a scary thing. Allowing people to really get to know me is the only road to building trust. While this might sound self-centered, it is actually not. In Frei’s words, ring one is ‘It’s not about you.’

unleashed

My first visit, I let them know that I had heard a lot of great things about the team, and I knew that they were a team that loved working together and worked hard, but were disappointed that for all of their hard work, the business fell short. I did not have the answers, but we would come up with the answers together. I had a belief that together we would develop a winning strategy and each one of us would grow as the business grew.

TRUST FREI TRIANGLE

Earlier in my career, plagued as many of us are by the imposter syndrome, I would not have dared to admit that I was walking in on Day 1 with none of the answers. Now all I can do is laugh at myself. Did I think that anyone really thought that I had all the answers? The wasted energy of creating that imposter persona. Because I was not yet on the job I was more able to be authentically me, what a gift.

Secondly, I needed to be transparent about decision making, explain choices made and the reasons why we came to a conclusion, based on the principles set out. I acknowledged that there were things that we needed to experiment with before we could set the strategy. An expectation of living with some uncertainty as we figured things out together was unsettling for people uncomfortable with ambiguity, but it was the only way I could see operating.

‘Strategy is so needed because it really guides our discretionary behaviour and we’re making 100, 200 decisions every day. And we’re not telling people how to set strategy. We’re telling people how to communicate strategy with a common voice, it will help people find inconsistencies in their strategy. So it’s more like it will help tune it up and then communicate it throughout the organization,’

Frances Frei

I got to know each person in a series of one to one chats. Make them see that I cared about them and their career and wanted them to succeed. This was going to be a time of great change, but we would go through it together in the best possible way.

There were some things that I could just not be transparent about. Some staffing decisions needed to be made swiftly while maintaining confidentiality. The water cooler chat told me that none of the staffing changes came as a big surprise.

So three months of bringing my bag lunch in, hot desking around the office, and talking to people before I was even in role finally came to an end. I am glad to say that the time I spent helping people to get to know me paid off. By the time I was in place I had earned many people’s trust. In Frei’s words, ring two is we need a foundation of trust to accelerate and raise the bar on everything else that can happen.

Not everyone, of course. Many long-serving members of staff had been let down in the past, and kept themselves at arm’s length in order to avoid letting their guard down. I am not everyone’s idea of a leader and that’s ok. Some individuals probably did not like the direction that the business would be taking, and decided to look for a role better suited to them.

In my one to ones, I communicated three principles that are important to me as I lead a team:

  • Everyone counts
  • Everyone has a chance to stretch in their job
  • The team is more important than any individual

None of these principles are particularly groundbreaking, but they do help others to understand what makes me tick. Anyone who has worked with me in the last 15 years will recall some version of these principles. To sum them up:

  • All people have a voice and deserve to be heard
  • The company has a responsibility to help you develop in your career, for this company or for the next
  • Collaborate, for together as a team is how we succeed

Frances Frei’s wise words resonate with me.

‘It’s a leader’s job to set the conditions for the best version of us to show up. Taking that a step further. Why limit it? Be the best version of who you would like, if we can do it, of the person we’re likely to become if we interact with that person.’

France Frei

I needed to be present and really connect with each person on the team. And at the same time that I was setting a higher standard than they had ever been able to achieve, I needed to model coaching of my direct reports so that they could coach their own teams. Hold the duality of creating a really high standard and setting an intention of helping each person stretch beyond what they had achieved before.

None of us can get anything done on our own. We need to operate as a team. And for a team to be optimized for peak performance, it needs to trust each other enough to share knowledge and to constructively challenge. Many times in my checkered  past, my bias towards action compelled me to bring a collection of individuals together, call them a team, and then try to make decisions to drive performance before evaluating the team dynamic.

Is this really a team? Do they trust each other? Do they trust me? Do they know what each other even does? Do they understand each other’s challenges? And if they were faced with a difficult problem to solve, would they come together to make sense of it?

So the next piece of work was developing a strong leadership team. I was lucky to have some great individuals who were very good managers on their own, who each had one or two colleagues that they already were comfortable collaborating with. Next order of business was to role model allowing ourselves to trust each other and commit to each other the ways of working we would live by. Not to be wary of our differences; rather, to embrace our differences and leverage them in service of growth. Building culture one step at a time.

Begin with Trust FREI PERFORMANCE HBR

As Frei says, ‘teams that celebrate that uniqueness and set the conditions for the uniqueness will thump the sameness. So… it has a beautiful moral imperative.’ It creates a competitive advantage as well.

I have often recommended Michael Watkins’s The First 90 Days as required reading for people entering an organization. I still believe it is vital to learn what your boss needs and how they want to communicate in order to hit the ground running. I now believe that especially for senior leaders, including CEOs, that it is vital to go out of our way to show up authentically for the staff, and to encourage the best version of themselves to show up as well. Absorbing Unleashed is a great start.

As you reflect on your own career path, thinking about those first 90 days, ask yourself:

  • Did I show up as my authentic self?
  • Did I gravitate to people just like me?
  • Can I say that I earned people’s trust?
  • Was I willing for people to see the real me, including the uncertainty?
  • Did I communicate what is important to me in the work that I do?
  • Did I give individuals an opportunity to tell me what their ambitions are?
  • Was I willing to create a shared strategy or did I come with the strategy pre-planned?
  • Did I communicate the strategy as we were developing it, making the effort to include everyone?
  • Is this really a team?
  • Do they trust each other?
  • Do they understand each other’s challenges?
  • If they were faced with a difficult problem to solve, would they come together to make sense of it?
  • Did I hear a diversity of voices?
  • Could I still learn what wasn’t said?

Aequip exists to help everyone thrive, starting in the workplace. We at Aequip are inspired by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss’s book Unleashed. May we all learn to create cultures of empowered leadership.

Miriam Lahage has more than 30 years of leadership experience at global companies such as TJX, eBay and Net-a-Porter. Miriam was most recently CEO of Figleaves, where she led a product, digital, and organisational transformation. She is Co-founder and COO of Aequip.

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