There’s lots of ways to figure out what the emergent trends and issues are in leadership. No shortage of newsletters, thought-leadership articles and other resources flow into our inboxes and feeds.
But one small but meaningful way in which we think about what’s really going on for leaders is to reflect on the work we are doing at Fluency. What are the conversations we are having? What’s the work that we’re doing? What problems are leaders trying to solve?
In recent weeks, it’s been a lot about leadership standards.
That work starts with comments like these:
“We need to grow people to the next level, but we’re not clear what that looks like.”
“We’re disappointed that our next level leaders aren’t meeting our expectations.”
“We have some ideas on what good leadership looks like, but I don’t know if we’re aligned.”
It’s a fact that many leadership teams struggle to see their next-level leaders consistently perform at the level required for success. They feel a sense of disappointment that their leaders aren’t hitting standards and expectations, and as a result they lack defined succession plans.
So when we become engaged with those leadership teams, we always ask, “how clear are your expectations on what good looks like and how clear are your next-level leaders on the standards?”
Sometimes that question leads to an awkward pause. Sometimes it’s quickly reflected that, “we actually don’t have clear standards.”
The reality is that unless leadership standards and expectations are known, realistic, spoken and agreed upon, there’s no clear pathway to achieving those standards.
The mildly humourous version of this truth for me is ‘The Invisible High Jump Competition’. In this mythical leadership sport, competitors are asked to clear the high jump bar. The trouble is, they can’t actually see the bar because it‘s invisible. But they are committed and they jump as high as they can, and then land in the foam pit only to be told “you didn’t clear the bar! Try again.”
If you don’t know where the bar is, how do you know how high to jump?
And then there is the disappointment. According to Brene Brown, who is the top expert on emotions and their associated descriptions, disappointment is defined as an unmet expectation. As she explains in Atlas of the Heart, when we develop expectations we are going through an active process of painting a picture in our heads of how things are going to go and how they will look. It’s a big set up. And it often leads to that emotional drop of disappointment when people don’t meet our unspoken expectations.
On the path to disappointment, we make many assumptions. And as the great Tony Randall said in his golden moment in The Odd Couple, “When you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME.” 😉
And here’s where it gets really interesting…we find that many leadership teams themselves are unclear on the leadership expectations to which they are being held. They themselves don’t know what they are being measured on, what good looks like, and how influential they are as role models within the organization. The lack of clarity flows downhill from that higher elevation and rests in the valley of all the people working on the team.
It’s not like those leaders don’t have ideas or well-founded thoughts on what good leadership looks like. They just haven’t had the explicit conversation and alignment around what those leadership standards looks like.
It reminds us of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. In this story, we have a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and imagine what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant’s body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They each share what they are feeling; one says, “it’s a spear” when they feel the tusk, and one says “it’s a rope” when they feel the tail. They are all being honest about what they are experiencing; but without seeing the whole picture, they would never be able to appreciate the elephant and describe the full situation.
It’s the same with leadership standards. Without seeing the whole picture and alignment, it will always be incomplete and somewhat purposeless.
As we work with leadership teams to define their leadership standards, here are the three major touchpoints for our journey:
Be Clear on the Standard
It starts with leadership teams digging and defining the standard of what good leadership looks like through a set of questions we use to inquire and get curious. It takes thoughtful and deep work but it leads to amazing conversations. We encourage teams to use stories and real-life examples of the people they lead to make it real and tangible. “I really see Charlene as a great example of accountability in how she manages and owns her projects,” and, “I really see Mohammed as a great example of empathy because of how he nurtures open conversation and caring within his team.” These archetypes are powerful, relatable, and really get the team to clarity around the standards.
Set Your Measurements
We also want to know if the juice is worth the squeeze. If we set leadership standards and our people are achieving those standards, how would we know? What evidence would we look for? What measures or data could we point to that indicates a positive change of behaviours? That can be measured through processes like team health surveys or indicated by data like retention rates and manager satisfaction scores. It also will show up in less data-oriented ways…the elevation of the conversations and the feedback we gather about how our people are leading and contributing.
Role Model – Always
As a leader, the camera is always rolling. Being a great role model is the most powerful way in which to raise the leadership standard in an organization. The ever-sage James Clear tells us, “leadership begins with your behaviour…people gravitate toward the standard you set, not the standard you request.” Any set of leadership standards can’t be directive and one-directional; to be meaningful and effective, it requires all senior leaders to live and embody the standards, every single day.
Setting leadership standards is one of the most important priorities for leadership teams. It sets the course for the future and provides clarity that the next-level leaders need and desire for them to learn and grow. It also makes the unspoken into an explicit and powerful framework that enables people to see where the high jump bar is set, so they can clear it and achieve their full capability.
Do you have the clarity that enables you to see the whole elephant?
How clear are your next level leaders about your expectations?