Conversations For Career Transformation
Mounica Veggalam | 04-06-2023
Read time: 9 mins
Your leadership career gets into a non-linear trajectory when you have a team of highly effective leaders, not followers.
Specifically, when you don’t leave out developing their leadership to chance (aka company trainings) or wait for them to figure out their growth. This happens when you don’t procrastinate on high-stakes conversations with them. Which models to them that they shouldn’t procrastinate either.
Grab a cup of coffee and settle in, we have an important topic to cover (or add this to read later when you can focus).
Last week, I sent you a step-by-step guide to have such a conversation when you sense misalignment.
We talked about how abrasive posturing and empathetic collapsing happen for the most brilliant people in the industry.
But, having this awareness is not enough.
You must live by entirely different set of rules to master a new way of showing up as a leader.
Today I want to talk about 4 mindset shifts you need, to have these conversations with more ease:
- Give agency, not advice
- Set commitment containers, not expectations
- In-the-moment feedback, not annual reviews
- Lead powerfully, not from power
Before we get to it, I want to reveal about 2 projects I’ve been working on, that I’m super excited about.
- A short e-booklet: This is an ultimate mindset guide to leveling up to senior leadership. It’s a complete summary of what I’ve gathered over the past few months on what makes a powerful executive mindset. Today’s post is one of the chapters from that book.
- A cohort-based course: This is for managers to learn how to coach their reports. The big idea is to learn how to have coaching and influence conversations, by practicing. It’s one thing to read about how to influence but another to learn through practice. So, there will be a lot of role-playing, coaching each other, and taking that to your day-to-day work. I’m still designing it. If you have input on what you want from such a course or wish to help me develop it, please reply to this email and tell me. I would really appreciate it!
Stay tuned for more updates.
Alright. Let’s dive into today’s issue.
The old way of commanding people to do your bidding is dead.
Nearly every aspiring leader shares this daydream in common:
“If only all my engineers and team leads worked efficiently and showed amazing results, I could get so much off my plate. There would be no more firefighting! Then I could get to solving bigger problems. I could finally, finally work on the strategic direction of the product.”
So the solution is to command sometimes and set up rules, processes, best practices, and boundaries.
You might say, “What rock are you living under? Tech leads run the show in the tech industry. Not managers.”
The command-control is not so prevalent in tech, especially in high-growth startup environments. Maybe still a little at tech giants like Amazon (even that varies from team to team).
Yet, in the name of promotions and speaking up for your reports, you hold significant power in your hands. You innocently (and not so innocently sometimes) set up rules to follow. You resort to flexing this power when you have to get stuff done and show results.
But suppose you want to move up the ladder to handle larger teams and a more prominent scope of work while ensuring your work environment doesn’t suck. In that case, you want to develop leaders, not followers. (If that’s not you, then what I say might not interest you. You can stop reading).
Why does command-control happen?
We’re trained from an early age to be friendly, avoid conflict, not ask for too much and do what is told. Though now we can question rationally in our minds after growing up, the underlying training still lives.
So you assume the role of either an authority figure or resign to a follower of the system, depending on the context— kids, parents, managers, or direct reports.
The problem is not that you don’t follow better leadership models such as coach-like leadership, compassionate leadership, or leading with vulnerability. The real problem is that you don’t follow them all the time. Your way of being is not fully embedded with these new models.
You want non-linear growth and more fulfillment from your leadership career (and better results for your company). It’s time to show up differently.
Here are the 4 rules to live by:
Rule #1: Give Agency, Not Advice
I’m a recovering advice-giver.
If I feel I know something (and I have researched a ton about it), I “know” the right way to do a thing and the absolutely wrong ways to do it.
“No no no no no, that won’t work. Because I know this other thing will be the better way to do it.”
I mean, look around. Even the kids don’t listen to any advice. Forget a brilliant engineer.
Yet, we resort to advice-giving because of the inherent authority and the experience you have as a manager (and because when people ask for it, it feels nice to be the person with the answers).
The problem is, what you know is only a data point. Your data set is limited to a maximum of 50 people and 50 experiences.
Whether they like it or not, people thrive when given full agency.
As a leader, you want to stand for your report’s creativity to develop solutions. You want to stand for the person’s choice in their career. You want to stand for this intelligent, brilliant, and resourceful person to take full responsibility for themselves and their actions.
Believe it or not, some of the best executive coaches spend an insane amount of time and mentoring dollars to GET this one specific thing— retract from advice-giving. (And CEOs spend an insane amount of money on hiring such coaches).
You would think it’s so easy to do, right? "Just bite your tongue."
So, always be asking— “How can I give more agency? How can I empower this person more?”
This might look like you asking them these questions: What do you want to do with this time? What is your request for this issue? How do you want to deal with this conflict with the team member? How do you want to handle the pushback?
Then, their career is truly their own.
Does this mean you never give your input? No. You can provide your input. But be wary of corrupting their thinking with it. Or giving your 2 cents, because it’s easier than sitting in the discomfort of not being the expert in the conversation.
Rule #2: Set Commitment Containers, Not Expectations
“Set Expectations” is the most popular leadership advice on the internet.
There is no other concept that sets someone up for failure quicker than expectations.
Wait, what is the problem? The companies run on expectations, rules, and best practices.
In the words of Steve Chandler, one of the highest-paid leadership coaches,
“Expectations are cowardly and self-defeating. They are cowardly because by expecting things of others, I place all responsibility outside myself. I expect my co-worker to do his job right, I expect my family member to behave a certain way, and the list goes on. When I am unhappy, it’s because of them. Expectations lead to disappointments. It’s a miserable life expecting so much of others and suffering so much disappointment and betrayal.”
People honor mutual agreements. And they keep their commitments to those agreements to a far greater degree than they live up to expectations.
Create a good commitment container and both sides win.
“I notice you’re late for the third time. We start on time, and we’d like for you to be here for the important decisions. Do you want to be involved? If yes, do you commit to coming to the meeting on time? What support do you need for that?”
(Notice the inherent agency you give the person to choose their participation in important decisions. You’re not advising them to come on time.)
Start thinking of every relationship and issue as a commitment container. You suddenly start appearing as the leader in all areas of life.
- Your team is a container. Goal: Deliver business results.
- Each team meeting is a container. Goal: Solve a specific problem.
- Your marriage is a container. Goal: Growth partnership.
- Your family is a container, Goal: Mutual joy.
When you’re disappointed by someone because they didn’t meet your expectations, take a pause. In almost every case, you are responsible for not speaking your expectation into a commitment. And you’re the one responsible for the impact— ineffectiveness, forgetfulness, and the resulting pain.
Rule #3: In-The-Moment Feedback, Not Annual Reviews
Your leadership capacity is limited to the extent that you can give in-the-moment feedback.
Nobody wants to hear, “Remember, you did that thing 6 months ago… yeah, you seem to have a tendency to do that. Don’t do that anymore if you want the next promotion.” Not only is it ineffective, but it’s also the safe way out for you.
It leaves the person clueless about what to do next and feels like a failure who tries to change desperately (and probably fails at that too).
Performance reviews are too little and too late. You’re on the other side of it too. Have you ever thought, “Wow, I know my blind spots now that my manager told me about them in the annual review!” It’s simply not enough for your career growth (and the career growth your reports want).
So, don’t give feedback when things have settled.
Give it when it’s fresh— when it’s edgy to point out and when it’s risky for your position to be seen as a ‘not-so-nice’ manager. Your high-performers will thrive.
To be clear: I’m not saying that you have a license to be abrasive by saying whatever criticism comes to your mind. Leadership is also the ability to sit with the responsibility and the impact of your words. You also need to support the person through the feedback without making them wrong or incompetent for being a certain way.
The easiest first step is to ask for in-the-moment feedback from your manager. Ask them to coach you high-flame on specific areas you’re struggling with— the ones that arise from your conflicts and frustrations.
That’s how you become aware of your blind spots.
A professional coach can help you in this area (shameless plug,🙋♀️) immensely. The key is to have in-the-moment feedback modeled to you, before you go create a rampage with your feedback.
Rule #4: Lead From Inner Power, Not Hierarchy
If you think you don’t lead from hierarchy, think again.
If you have kids, do you believe you are superior to them? Do you feel superior to your partner or parents? Do you think you’re better than them? At least in some aspects?
I must confess I do. In some areas, I always tend towards, “I know better.”
There lies your subconscious power dynamic.
Which is exactly what results in blaming, expectations, the ‘should’s and the ‘must’s. And then, there is a general declaration of how “they” should live their lives. This dynamic causes immense suffering and a disempowered experience for the other person.
It manifests as, “What a bunch of morons! Why can’t they see how ‘my way’ will fix their problems? They have no right to complain.”
Our ego thrives on this ‘knowing’ and ‘power.’
Only when you intensely focus on your own blind spots and cultivate radical ownership and responsibility do you become aware of your ego’s brilliant strategies. Only then can you appreciate the gift of human relations, whether at work or personal life.
When you lead from this internal focus, you lead from trust, power, and confidence, which makes you magnetic as a leader.
People are attracted to work for you and stay with you. Because they sense that you can re-direct them to their own inner trust, power and confidence.
On the other hand, when you have to flex your authority muscles, it’s a clear sign that you’re either posturing abrasively or collapsing empathetically.
And like I said above, when you don’t have to command people into your bidding, any given time, all the time: You develop a following of leaders, not a following of followers.
4 rules to develop leadership in your directs, said differently:
- Don’t help people. Empower them.
- Don’t set rules, best practices, or boundaries. Set commitment containers.
- Don’t settle into the comfort of non-confrontation. Give in-the-moment feedback.
- Don’t lead from your power dynamic. Lead from your inner power that comes from trust and confidence.
Said differently, don’t run the ship. Be the coach: