The Best Leaders are Visible, Accessible, and Present.
It seemed like a throw away remark at the time, to me at least. I was still early in my career, and I was having a ‘water cooler’ conversation with my colleague Susan about 15 years my senior when she told me the value of paying attention to your boss. Not in the literal sense of doing what you’re told, but watching how they handle themselves with you, with their peers, and their own boss. “You can learn a lot about someone, and about success, by just observing.” She couldn’t have been more right, and I’m glad I actually heeded her advice in the naivete of my youth.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I’ve worked for a lot of different types of people.
A few weren’t very good, lacking even the most basic professional and emotional competencies. Roughly half of them were ‘good’. They cared about their teams, they empathized with our challenges and they supported our efforts. They were honest, respectful in every situation, and built trust across many different groups. They were good to work for, and I learned a lot from them.
Thankfully I also have had the great fortune to work for some really spectacular leaders. They created teams that were greater than the sum of the parts, getting the most out of each of us to deliver incredible results. It was a pleasure to be part of those teams, hardly seemed like work at all.
The interesting thing, at least to me, is that these leaders weren’t carbon copies of each other. They each had their own style of communication, strategies, different perspectives, backgrounds, etc. They were unique, and yet they were able to create an esprit d corps that delivered real results for the organization at large.
The common thread, through my observation, is that they each went out of their way to be Visible, Accessible, and most importantly, Present. No business school secrets, no high-powered executive training, just a dedicated approach to being there for their team. None of this is rocket science but it does take hard work and willingness for self-reflection.
What does this look like in practice?
Being Visible isn’t just accepting awards when things are going great. As a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite. Any football fan will tell you that when teams win, great coaches praise the players. When they lose, especially games they should have won, great coaches take responsibility for not preparing their players. In short, wins belong to the players, the coach owns the losses. The same is true in business.
Being visible also means being an enthusiastic and consistent advocate for the team. It reminded me of an old manager of mine at IBM that intervened every time when another manager criticized our team in a public forum. I felt extremely lucky to be part of her team and I would have walked through fire for her for the rest of my time working in that group. Visible is being there for your team when they need you the most.
Next, great leaders are Accessible. Again, this goes beyond having an open-door policy. It means they are open-minded and understand that good ideas come from everywhere. Accessible leaders are not married to their ideas or their way of doing things. They are willing to be challenged, expect it even, and encourage the team to explore new and better ways of doing things. They don’t pretend to know everything and are confident enough to ask for help or clarification.
Not too long ago I had the good fortune to work for someone who really understood what it meant to leverage the strength of her team. Each of her direct reports were experts in their own right, with decades of deep experience, that didn’t need anyone to tell them what to do. She asked questions out of genuine curiosity, to challenge us to constantly improve, and as a means to coordinating our efforts. She could have flexed her institutional authority, but she resisted the temptation to exert her control for its own sake, and we were all the better for it. As was the company.
Finally, and most importantly, great leaders are Present. Time together is focused, collaborative, and positive. At its most basic, it means turning off notifications and closing the computer. On a deeper level, it is being what each individual needs most to improve. Any effective leader will tell you that not everyone responds to coaching the same way. Some need to be challenged, others need encouragement. A great leader takes the time to know what each of their team needs to be successful and is adaptable enough to provide it.
I’m reminded of an article I read about a coach who at different times led a country’s men’s and women’s team at the Olympic level. To paraphrase, he said he can’t coach the women the same way he coached the men. He yelled a lot at the men, telling them how awful they were, because he knew deep down none of them believed him when he said it. Alternatively, to get the best results from the women’s team, he provided more encouragement as they were more likely to internalize the message coming from the coach. I tell this story not to comment on men’s and women’s learning styles, but to illustrate that people do better when their coaching is personalized. It takes a lot more effort to do this well than to just give everyone the same message, and that’s what separate great leaders from the rest of the pack.
I have learned a lot from my managers throughout my career. From some I’ve learned what not to do. From most, I’ve seen some good things and can respect them for their efforts. But for those precious few, no more than 3 or 4 that really made an impact on me and my career, every single one was Visible, Accessible, and Present. It’s what I look for now in places where I work, and it’s what I try to be for my teams.
Thank you Susan!