Motorcycles and un-learning leadership

In order to support and empower my team’s continuing growth and evolution, I have recently had to make a fundamental shift in my leadership mind-set and approach.

This has been a challenging and complex manoeuvre, and something I like to relate to performing a U-turn… on a Motorcycle.

A low-speed counter-steer turn

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of riding, here’s how to do a u-turn on a motorcycle:

Acknowledge, then absorb a moment of panic, and resist the temptation to fixate on the dead-end in front of you, which would lead you to run off the road. Apply the foot-brake, then squeeze the hand-brake to slow and centre the motorcycle. Look around, make sure your new path is clear. Indicate and slow to walking pace. Shift your weight to the side of the motorcycle and push the handle-bar on the side of the direction in which you want to turn, so the front wheel is pointing in the opposite direction. Turn your head to look in the direction you want to go, and brace as the motorcycle dips into the turn. Keep pushing on the handlebars until you have come around and are pointing in the right direction. Finally, straighten up and accelerate out of the turn.

Many people arrive in leadership positions having adopted a certain mindset, a drive to achieve their goals, and expertise in a set of structures and techniques to achieve them. Being the first to speak, being decisive, speaking in a commanding tone, telling people what to do. When the goals are achieved, they are rewarded, often with greater leadership opportunities. The mindset that ‘this is leadership’ becomes embedded, and the set of techniques easily becomes the only way to drive, deliver, achieve. You’re speeding down the highway towards your destination.

Then unexpectedly, comes the need for change. This can arise for a number of reasons — the needs of your team have changed or they have evolved, grown or matured. Perhaps the expectations of the senior leadership, or the needs of the organisation have shifted.

In an ideal world, the need comes from within at the right time. Because the earlier it’s recognised, the gentler the curve will be that sends you in a new direction. In reality, the need often appears suddenly, unspoken and not clearly understood at first. It’s easy to get caught off-guard when you are so focused on the goal. You suddenly see a dead-end up ahead, and you are quickly running out of road.

The challenge is to respond to the need and adapt. To cast aside the mindset and the techniques that have taken you this far, and find a new direction and a better way forward. Otherwise, you will hold your team back; stop them growing and evolving; fail to achieve anything more than you already have. In extreme cases, you will fail to meet new expectations; get left behind; become disengaged and ultimately become irrelevant. You need to do a U-turn, or you’re going to run off the road.

This sudden need to change arrived for me with unexpected feedback- that I was too process oriented and had been creating rules and boundaries which were inhibiting my team. This did not immediately resonate or make sense, and I found it frustrating. I viewed my ability to create effective process as a strength and had created guidelines for my teams with the intention of enabling them, so they could operate independently. But this feedback did highlight a need to change direction, one way or another.

At that point I could have made a decision to find an environment more suited to my ‘strengths’. This might have created a longer stretch of road for a while, but deep down I recognised that there was something amiss. There was an opportunity, and a dead-end looming. I started to apply the brakes, slowed down and began to look around.

Months later, signposts, one, and then another, pointing toward a new direction, came into view, as miraculously and as unexpectedly as the dead-end had appeared.

At a colleague’s suggestion I had begun listening to podcasts during my daily commute, and had chosen a range of leadership, business and coaching topics to explore. One evening I listened to a Podcast of an interview with Ricardo Semler, who shared a story which I found very powerful and which resonated immediately.

Semler spoke about while he was in charge of Semco, there were problems with employees stealing inventory at the factory. The process had been that employees could go into a store room to requisition parts and then would be searched on the way out to make sure they hadn’t taken anything. Semler felt that the searches were dehumanising and had the practice stopped, but the problem got much worse. In response, rather than bring back the searches, he then scrapped the requisition process and left the store room unlocked for anyone to go in to get inventory when they needed it. And the problem stopped! I started to shift my weight and could look in the direction I wanted to go.

Later that week, I received feedback from a member of my team about how some of the things I had said during a team retrospective might have made some people feel restricted. They felt they might be unable to adopt some practices about working from home that would have helped the team. I shared Semler’s anecdote and my reflections about my leadership approach. In leading my team I had probably ‘stopped the searches, but had not given the team the keys to the store-room’. You start pushing on the handlebars, and brace for the turn.

It was time to adopt a new approach, characterised by having complete trust in my team. Not expecting to get things right every time, but knowing that if things don’t go well we’ll be able to work it out together. By demonstrating through my language, tone, actions and questions, that they can trust me too, for support and guidance when it’s needed and that I am able to change, to lead towards growth.

In practice, this has meant throwing out the agenda in 1:1s to focus on getting to know my team members on a deeper level; speaking last; and only making suggestions if I can see things going off track; and making sure I never appear negative, sarcastic or cynical.

Instead of trying to be the most organised, ‘switched on’ person in the room, with the best answers or the best judgement, I tried being the most empathetic, and the best listener with the most helpful questions.

I also realised that while I thought I was making progress — heading down the highway with the old mindset, techniques, tone, language in tow — I had been eroding trust. This characterised what my team expected from me, and I had diminished the qualities I needed to draw upon in order to successfully navigate the new path. There will be a long way to go to prove myself and to make up lost time. You keep on pushing the handlebars until you’ve come around, and you’re facing in the right direction.

So when you are finally turned around, heading in the right direction, how will you know? Because impressions are hard to shift, many may not notice at first. But just like riding down the road, you’ll slowly see signs emerging. Tentatively at first, but of their own accord, people will start coming to you. The people you don’t expect, will come to you for help with things you don’t expect, when you least expect it. That’s the first sign that you can be trusted again.

This is where I find myself now, looking ahead and accelerating out of the turn. Knowing that while there is a long way ahead, going in the right direction makes it easy to keep going, and that I will never look back.

Keep it rubber-side down & happy riding!

Take-aways:

  • You may encounter a time when you have to dramatically adjust your mindset to lead for growth
  • Listen to feedback with curiosity. Keep exploring it until it makes sense to you and you can use it to adjust your approach
  • Try to see the dead-end early because if you have to turn-around quickly, it can be difficult and others may not recognise the change in you initially
  • If you need to learn rapidly; books won’t get you there quickly enough. Try Podcasts and YouTube videos to get the breadth you need, then go back to the books for depth.
  • You will know when you’re heading in the right direction
  • Doing a U-turn on a Motorcycle can be hard

Some Podcasts you might like (available on iTunes, Stitcher, BeyondPod, etc):

References:

http://tim.blog/2017/03/19/ricardo-semler/ 38:00–41:00

Semler, R. (2001). Maverick!. London: Arrow.

The physics of counter-steering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgUOOwnZcDU

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