The Art of being Helpful

True story. Friend A had just had a baby and was struggling to come to terms with how to keep his nipper happy. He was overwhelmed by all the new information he had to absorb, and the seemingly endless list of possible issues that he had to triage and solve. Life wasn’t much fun and he was fraying at the edges (understatement). Friend B had been watching this unfold and, at the right moment, gave him some stellar advice. “Mate, when he’s crying, 95% of the time it’s because he’s either hungry, tired or gassy”. Lights went on, fireworks went off, friend A hugged and kissed friend B and bequeathed his entire fortune to him. The struggle was over. Okay so this wasn’t exactly what happened but you get the idea. A mind-blowingly simple framework had cut through the noise.

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership recently, trying to pull together everything I’ve learned (quite often by doing poorly) into some kind of simple thesis that I can use to cut through the noise and make sure I’m doing the right stuff. I’ve drawn two obvious, but I think useful, conclusions:

  1. The best leaders are those that actively help others be successful.
  2. Anyone can be more successful if they have growth, belief and direction.

Growth

Growth is about learning skills and behaviors to become more capable and experienced. In my experience, two drivers of growth stand out — feedback and opportunity.

The secret to giving good feedback is to ensure it’s grounded in data and that you’re unattached to the outcome. But more than that, the most helpful leaders give feedback directly and specifically in the moment. Daniel Coyle explains it well in his brilliant book ‘The Talent Code’:

“The teachers and coaches I met were quiet, even reserved. They were mostly older; many had been teaching thirty or forty years. They possessed the same sort of gaze: steady, deep, unblinking. They listened far more than they talked. They seemed allergic to giving pep talks or inspiring speeches; they spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments. They had an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each student’s personality. Patience is a word we use a lot to describe great teachers at work. But what I saw was not patience, exactly. It was more like probing, strategic impatience.”

Opportunity is all about giving people exposure and stretch early in their career. This not only accelerates development, but also sets the standard for the pace of learning they should be pursuing throughout their career. A recent client of mine, Privia Health, do this really really well. They are a high growth start-up, based in Arlington, that is disrupting the healthcare system by building an alternative to the inflated costs of hospital networks. Privia is moving so fast (10 to 300 employees and $5mm to $70mm revenues in the last 3 years) that they don’t have time to play the long-game with their talent. If you show promise, then you’re given significant responsibility, regardless of your age. It can feel a bit scary but it’s proving to be highly motivating and effective for their predominantly millennial workforce, as Tara Goldenberg, their Chief People Officer, attests:

“At Privia, we see potential. If someone is hungry and capable then we’ll give them every opportunity to step up and take responsibility. The deep end is the best place to learn, especially when you’re not old and cynical enough to feel fear.”

Belief

Belief is about confidence and building a positive attitude towards your own ability and the mission you’re on. It’s built through positive experiences and putting trust in people.

Mr Pafford was the most intimidating teacher at my school. He taught Geography and coached the Under 16s rugby team. He was short and Scottish with a very very loud voice, and the right half of his ginger beard was white. Legend had it that he had been hit on the head with a javelin at sports day and had had a stroke. Nobody would dream of confirming this with him though.

I was walking back to the changing room at the end of trying out for Mr Pafford’s rugby team when I heard him shout my name. I feared the worst but instead he told me that I had huge potential and was good enough to play for my county (the English equivalent of state). I was blown away. If Mr Pafford thought this it must be true. That season was the best I’d ever played. I trained hard to live up to his billing. I took more risks and pushed the boundaries of my abilities. And at the end of year I was indeed selected to play for the county rugby team.

It was not my natural ability that got me there; I believe it was the attitude that Mr Pafford had created in me. He energized me to give 100% and this made all the difference. In other words, my belief was more important than my ability.

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and author of ’The Art of Possibility’, describes it as giving an A:

“Give an A. If you automatically assume the best and give everyone an A in life, then you let the best come out in them and you remove a lot of the barriers that may have held the relationship back.”

Direction

Direction is about channeling your talent into areas that mean something to you, and that will allow you to achieve your potential. Direction in this context is not organizational direction but individual direction. At Vega Factor, we describe this as making sure your job is ‘high tomo’. Tomo (short for total motivation) measures, amongst other things, how much Play, Purpose and Potential you have for your role. Play is how much you enjoy the work, Purpose is how much you value the outcome of your work, and Potential is how much progression or development you feel. The best leaders are ones that help others figure out what type of role is ‘high tomo’ for them, and/or help them shape their role to be ‘high tomo’.

So how do you do this? It’s boils down to asking a series of simple questions and translating the answers into actionable ideas:

Play — What do you most enjoy about your work? What would make you enjoy it even more?

Purpose — How could you have more impact? How could you better understand the value you create?

Potential — What are you learning? What do you want to learn?

Growth, belief, direction. It’s a mind-blowingly simple framework but sometimes that’s all you need. Just ask friend A.