Leading Employees: A Balancing Act

It’s such a tired old saw: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Tired or not, there’s wisdom in it, but the idea only works if ambitious employees take it beyond just how they dress and think of it also in terms of how they communicate, explain, and express professionalism. As a leader, you’ve had the experience of knowing an employee has all the job-related skills to move up the org chart. They’re a great project manager, analyst, or marketer. However, there’s something about how they present themselves and interact that doesn’t seem ready to project authority and earn trust and respect.

Of course, you need to take a balanced view of the people you’re considering for promotion to leadership roles. Yes, they need the job skills, but they also need to embody capability and competence. On the flip side, someone may project a lot of surface cues that they’re management material, but something deeper is missing. Leadership communication training—that specifically focuses on shaping people’s approach to communication in order to prepare them for advancement—is an important step in reconciling ability to do the work with ability to lead.

In this post, we’re going to talk about the balance between the surface and the substance. Let’s imagine you’re a leader at a company that makes assistive devices, like canes, crutches, and walkers, but also does custom work for hospitals, rehab centers, and even para-athletes who need special equipment for their sports.

Projecting authority

Camila is a young engineer who comes from a top university and has a lot of solid internship experience. She’s learned your systems like she invented them, and it’s easy to see she’s become her team’s go-to problem solver. She’s also the one who comes in on Monday mornings with homemade cookies and remembers the names of everyone’s children and pets. However, when she’s outside the comfort of her own team and in meetings about broader issues, she pads her excellent ideas with a lot of “maybe” and “just” and “what do you all think?” The challenges she has as a young Latina engineer—especially one whom people see as embodying feminine qualities like caretaking and family focus—are intensified by her reluctance to actively demonstrate her belief in her own abilities and express her ideas with confidence. You know she’d make a great project lead in terms of the work, but you worry that she doesn’t have the intrinsic authority to run a team, earn trust, and have people listen to her.

Adapting to the audience

Ken has been your IT problem-solver for a decade. He’s especially good at integrating new software and updates into existing systems because he understands your business and knows what will work best for your people, most of whom are not exceptionally tech-oriented. The issue with Ken is that when it comes time to train people in new applications or workflows, Ken seems to forget regular English and presents in high-level Tech-Speak. You found out how bad it was when one of your brand managers was missing from her desk for hours, and it turned out she’d spent the weekend online, learning the new software so she could coach people who were confused after Ken’s training. Clearly, Ken needs some help in team communication so he’ll have an easier time translating his fascination with how the tech works into a useful and useable process for others to learn and get on with their jobs. That brand manager describes it to you like this: “Ken stands on his tall platform of understanding and wants us to be thrilled about jumping up to him. How hard is it to build a ladder for everyone to climb one rung at a time?”

Polishing appearances

Ethan started out as an all-purpose intern attached to the sales team. He’s smart, engaged, and interested, and he’s taken a lot of initiative to update and upgrade the team’s processes. He’s been good at explaining his plans, and so far, all the changes he’s made have been really positive. He’s been working for you full time for a year now in a position the VP of Sales invented for him, Sales Support Administrator. This means he helps the team with everything from finding new leads to creating sales materials to untangling supply-chain problems and managing reorders. It’s time to reward all this good work and make him a salesperson, but you and the VP of Sales are hesitant. Ethan doesn’t present a particularly engaging figure on first meeting. He’s clean, but his clothes look randomly chosen and slept in, he doesn’t make eye contact in difficult conversations, and he has every Millennial speech tic you can think of, from “like” to “LOL” (actually pronouncing it as one word, “loll”). You need to figure out how to let all of his intelligence, ability, and enthusiasm show more clearly if he’s going to have his own customers.

Living the brand

In general, your workforce is committed to their end-users and is very proud of the specialized work they do. Profitability is good, and customers are happy, so you’re mostly content to leave your teams alone to get their work done. Becky is an MBA with a lot of experience in other companies. You hired her to run a product team made up of some new hires and some long-term employees from other teams. Becky makes a lot of changes in her first month, including rearranging her team’s workspace and instituting daily team lunches. She’s also been calling your products’ end users “the elderly” or “the disabled,” which has gotten you some unhappy phone calls from external clients. You see a lot of potential in Becky, but you’re concerned that she just doesn’t “get” your company, how it works, or what team communication looks like in your culture.

Identifying and coaching future leaders

Let’s talk about a few things that potential leaders do that would help each of the employees described above. Some people have these habits from childhood, but it’s also entirely possible to teach these approaches to work, interaction, and leadership. People who project leadership capability—

  • Act strategically. Beyond actual team or company strategy, potential leaders play a sort of chess game in their heads in which they envision how a particular decision will ripple out over time. This can involve everything from how they communicate (“Do I send an email and leave a paper trail, or do I ask for a meeting?”) to how they dress (“If no one else is wearing a suit, will I look like a try-hard?”) to how they interact (“I need to send a reminder, so people do the prework before Tuesday’s IT training”). This is more than proactivity; this is how people work who conduct themselves strategically on an individual level. Ethan, the unkempt potential salesman, has it in him to learn this, but he needs to be shown that his outside appearance and behavior need to live up to his innate abilities. The short-term tactical plan of Becky the MBA is to dazzle everyone with her knowledge and methods, but she didn’t think strategically and take the time to learn about where she is and how the company works.
  • Define success. Part of being able to think strategically about pretty much every action and decision is having a clear view of what success looks like. A positive definition of success goes beyond organizational expectations. For example, one employee may define his role in part as getting to an empty inbox by the end of the workday. Another defines success as an empty inbox by 3:30 so she has time to work on other projects and new learning. One meets expectations. The other has a plan for success. Camila, our young engineer who lacks confidence, still sees success from a student perspective: having the right answer when called on. Coaching to establish her personal success goals will give her the permission and skills she needs to represent her excellent ideas appropriately.
  • Practice self-evaluation. As a leader, you’ve surely seen the person who could have leadership potential, but they seem incapable of viewing themselves from the outside or acknowledging the need for improvement. Self-evaluation is not self-absorption; instead, it’s a path to gauging how that person did in a specific situation, analyzing their findings, and committing to doing better in specific ways in the future. Camila can’t see how strong she is, and Ethan in sales hasn’t stepped outside of himself to see the difference between himself and the really successful salespeople at the company.
  • Prioritize empathy. Too many movies and TV shows have made heroes of characters who are brilliant and also kind of horrible to interact with because they avoid practicing empathy. (And I’m not singling out the neurodivergent, just calling out jerks.) A little bit of empathy would make it clear to Ken in IT that his fascination with new tech isn’t shared by everyone; people just need to know which icons to click to get their jobs done. Becky’s entry into the world of canes and walkers has been so focused on her own methods that she hasn’t made the effort to empathize either with her team or with her customers.

If any of the scenarios I outlined fit people in your organization, contact us at Turpin. We’d love to talk with you about creating a pool of strong future leaders, ensuring that the advancement pipeline in your company is full of smart, passionate people who are ready to take the reins.

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About the Author: Greg Owen-Boger

Greg Owen-Boger has been with Turpin Communication since 1995, first as a cameraman, then instructor, account manager, and now EVP of Learning and Business Development. Schooled in management and the performing arts, Greg brings a diverse set of skills and experiences to the organization. Greg is one of Turpin’s facilitators and coaches and holds a Bates ExPI™ (Executive Presence Index) coaching certification. When he’s not with clients, he manages the day-to-day operations of the company. Greg is an active member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and was the 2015 President of ATD, Chicagoland Chapter. He is a popular speaker, frequent blogger, and the co-author of “The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined,” “The Virtual Orderly Conversation,” and Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning,” all written with Turpin’s founder, Dale Ludwig.

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