Lean Thinking

20 March 2018

Leaders Are Not An Alien Speciees

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I have been talking a lot about leadership and the part leadership plays in agility. A lot of the feedback I get on that are comments along the lines of "that's great but I can't talk to leaders". When I dig further, there are two separate problems here. One is an access problem. Some organisations make it difficult to talk to leaders, and sometimes someone will be in an engagement at a level where access is extremely difficult to arrange. Team coaches can often find it hard to get access to senior leaders because they are engaged at the team level. There isn't much I can do about that problem. The other class of people are ones who basically respond "because I don't know how".

The facetious answer is "well you engage your brain, open your mouth and words come out". But so many people have said it that it got me wondering why. Why do so many people have this in their heads? Why do so many people say to me that " you can't just walk up to leaders and talk to them, you need to handle them differently". Why do I keep getting told that "only specialist leadership coaches can talk to leaders"? Apart from specialist leadership coaches trying to secure their future work pipeline, that is all absolute crap. Leaders are people just like the rest of us, with the same concerns and pressures as the rest of us. They are not some alien species that needs to be handled in a special way. I think the main problem is a language one. People start talking to leaders in the same way they talk to teams and it just doesn't connect. Then they get discouraged and leaders become this remote species that you can't talk to. So I'm going to give you my 7 point cheat sheet for leadership communication to help get those conversations started.

1 - Leaders are time poor. Or think they are. Everyone is time poor these days but leaders have a great many demands on their time, many of which are caused by the very problems you are trying to solve for them. On the plus side, this gives you something to talk about - how the problems you are solving will make their lives easier if the solutions are more widely adopted. On the down side it makes them hard to get hold of. Book a meeting. Trying to catch them in a corridor for a quick chat is next to impossible unless you already have a relationship built up. Talk to their PA and get a time in their diary. When you do get a time, you won't have long so you need to be to the point.

2 - They operate at a different scale to you. Telling them how you saved $10,000 on one project means exactly zero to them. Tell them how if whatever it was you did was extended across all hundred projects in their department, they would save $1,000,000. Don't tell them what you did with one or two teams. Tell them what could happen if you extend what you did across their whole department. Their care factor has a few more zeros on it than yours. Think big. Extrapolate.

3 - They are not technical. That may or may not be true. They may have a technical background. But assume that they are non-technical. If you start talking about specific technical practices and tools you will lose them. Talk more generally. Avoid specifics. Talk about the impact of the practice rather than the actual practice (efficiency, risk, cost etc).

4 - What's in it for me? Just like everyone else, leaders want to know what's in it for them. Something that is great for their teams is fine but if it has a specific positive impact on them, even better. Remember those problems that are making them so time poor? How is what you are doing making those go away? How are you making them look good?

5 - Leaders look at things through a financial and risk reduction lens pretty much all the time. The higher up in the organisation you go, the more true that is. So you need to use some financial language. Talk ROI. Talk cost reduction. Talk about efficiency. Talk about operational risk.. I wrote a primer on that sort of thing a while back - here.

6 - Status. Depending on your organisation, leaders are highly status focused. Their next step up the corporate ladder depends on them looking better than their peers. How can you help them do that? Remember those problems that are making them time poor? They are impacting all their peers as well. Solving them would make them look awesome.

7 - Don't forget that they are real people. Just like you and me. They have lives outside of work. They have families. They have hobbies. They play sports. All those things you do to build a connection with other people? They work just as well on leaders as well. It might take a little longer because communication will be less frequent but it's definitely possible. Build that connection. Once you have that, you can just walk up to them in the corridor and have a chat.

Leaders are people just like the rest of us. Look at those 7 points above, and apart from scale (and maybe the technical one), how many of them apply to pretty much everyone else around you? Who isn't time poor? Who doesn't want to look good in front of their peers? Who doesn't want to know what's in it for them?

Talk to your leaders. You don't need special executive coach Jedi powers. You just need to open your mouth and have words come out. Just remember to engage your brain first, to make sure they are the right words though.

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