Heard and Valued: Three Short and Useful Bits of Advice for Improving Your Leadership Skills


Yogi Berra famously said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” In this article, Payson shares some of what he’s learned about leadership just by listening. Learn how transparency and iterative improvement can maximize the results of great leadership.

An uncommon amount of wisdom has been shared with me recently that I want to pass along. I’m not sure if the stars aligned, people came back from the holidays rested, or I’m doing a better job of listening, but some obvious truths about leadership have been there for the taking.

Helping someone else resolve a tough problem can be a growth experience for both the coach and the person helped if the coaching is well delivered and well received. Dale Emery offered a clever idea about coaching a few years ago that stuck with me: “The first thing you need to coach someone effectively is his or her permission.” Since most of us have been the victims of unwanted “help” at some point, the power of this idea is apparent.

I was having coffee with a friend, Tim, the other day, and he was talking about a new project executive that he liked. “Rather than saying, ‘Tim, please go help Mary with X,’” my friend said, “this guy would tell Mary, ‘Mary, I suggest you ask Tim for help with X.’” Brilliant. This hadn’t occurred to me before, but it helps work out the “permission” to coach in a professional setting. Tim said it also makes clearer that the problem is still Mary’s responsibility, for the problem has not been shifted to the coach.

Incremental Improvement
Usually one actionable and memorable idea a month is a pretty good pace, but the gifts kept coming.

One way to get a discount on my gym membership is to attend a series of classes they offer on better living (eating, exercise, etc.). I was only marginally interested in the content, but it cuts your monthly dues by $20, and my regular racquetball partner—a young and starving bachelor—was taking the classes to save some money, so I figured I would tag along and save some cash, too.

The dietician teaching the “eating right” class was a fit and knowledgeable lady of about 50. I imagined that her entire career consisted of trying to show people how to improve their food selection process, and clearly she was used to facing audiences with different opinions, experiences, and expectations that caused resistance to her message. Once I realized she was advocating process improvement, I heard what she said from a whole new perspective:

I’m not suggesting you go from a fast-food, fat-rich, vegetable-free diet to a vegan diet consuming only of things you grow organically in your backyard. What I’m suggesting is that you look to make modest improvements over time—a few more vegetables, water instead of soda occasionally, and maybe having two slices of pizza rather than three. Over time, if you integrate these small changes and see some results, you can ask yourself if you are satisfied, or want to go a little further.

I’ve probably been told something similar a hundred times, but this was the first time I’d framed it as a process improvement suggestion. It immediately called to mind the off-putting process improvement zealots I’ve encountered with the one true way of doing things and for whom anything less is unacceptable. This dietician’s approach gave people in the class permission to try something without threatening established patterns. We’ll see if it sticks, but I have consciously made a couple of healthy choices during the past week or so, and I’m more conscious of when I’m making unhealthy choices, as well.

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