Q:I have worked in a very old-school financial services company for most of my career and I have now been promoted to a relatively senior position in which I run a series of cross-sector teams. I have always thought the leadership in the company was old-fashioned and I think that this is holding the company back. My main concern is that it is hierarchical and decisions are made from the top down with very little scope to challenge things. I now have a chance to change things with my teams, but I don’t know how to take the first step in the right direction.
A: In the not-so distant past, it was the norm for leaders to be distant and dogmatic, and to have all the answers. They would make decisions for their team who would obligingly follow orders. It sounds like you are still exposed to quite a lot of this. What is perhaps most important is that society is becoming less deferential, and the workplace is reflecting this change. Many leaders have realised that this top-down approach twenty first century, although it does not stop many others persisting with it.
Before you think about developing your style, start by examining how you go about things now. There are a couple of key questions you need to answer: first, how often do your team come to you for advice, versus how often do they come asking for permission? Second, ask yourself how often you provide instructions versus how often you work collaboratively towards finding a solution. In addition to scoring yourself, it wouldn’t be unheard of to ask your team how you are doing!
You may not think of yourself as domineering but if the two questions above reveal your style to be more about telling – rather than asking – you are probably stifling creativity and smothering initiative. This does nothing to develop the confidence or competence of the team and will keep your part of the business pegged back in the twentieth century.
As a starting point for a more contemporary leadership style you could look towards coaching. Many people make the mistake of thinking that coaching is merely a development tool for senior executives, but this is a long way from the truth. Coaching provides great tools for leadership and can provide you with some leadership hacks.
After all, the key to being a good coach is asking great questions, rather than providing great answers, and this is often a great way of leading.
It is now well established that leaders who ask incisive and challenging questions within a framework of support spend less time providing their team with instructions, and more time uncovering solutions. This is of course what coaches do, and from your point of view, there are a number of really important benefits from taking this approach. First and most critically, your subordinates will have the clear direction that they need to move ahead with their work. They will also be more emotionally invested in the work because they will have a greater sense of self-determination. In addition, with each conversation that you and your team have, they will have more faith in their own abilities and judgements. As you get better at the techniques, you will continue to build capability and deepen and develop mutual trust.
For many, this coaching style of leadership is seen as time-consuming, and it is true that things can take a little longer to get going at first. You may even be met with moderate resistance from team members who have become used to being told “what to do” because that is what they have been used to. With persistence, you will find that your team will be energised by the possibilities they can now see in front of them. Finally, the other great thing about this approach is that it is contagious.
Rupert Wesson is the academy director at Debrett’s.