By: Suzanne Weller
On your path as a leader, hurdles present themselves regularly, sometimes daily — whether they’re managing team performance, responding to market changes, the pushback you experience in moving your business forward, or the challenge of spending your time where you can make the most impact.
Whether the size of a speed bump or a barricade, each gives you the opportunity to pull over, take a look around you, and see if the road you’re on allows you to lean into the effective leader you want to be.
And as you pour over a map trying to find the best route, think about looking to your team for directions and trusting them to help you lead the way.
A leader’s job is not to do the work for others, it’s to help others figure out how to do it themselves, to get things done, and to succeed beyond what they thought possible. –Simon Sinek
There was a time earlier in my career that gave me a chance to plot a new course with my team — and what sparked it was the financial crisis of 2008.
Toward the tail-end of that year, I was leading a sales team who was scattered across the country. The money coming into the company was slowing down and we were feeling the pressure of clients decreasing their spend. As we inched closer to the holiday season, with many contract renewal negotiations in full swing, clients were doing everything they could to retain preferred pricing at the same time they were shrinking their revenue commitments.
As a result, my sales people were feeling hammered. How would they be able to achieve (or even come close to) their sales quotas with so much of the revenue they relied on evaporating? As I felt the team’s anxiety grow, I knew I had to do something.
I booked a conference room and carved off time for the group to vent their concerns. I was intent on hearing them and truly listening — not objecting to or minimizing what they shared. And even though I was worried it could evolve into a complaint session or pity party, my goal was to create a space for them to share, listen, and problem-solve together. I went home that night intent on coming up with ways to best do this.
I had always prided myself on being a leader who empowered her people — coaching them through situations where they were struggling, helping them to conjure up their own options instead of jumping in and directly advising what to do. I was fortunate to have been “coached to coach” by a leadership team that supported new ideas and embraced taking risks, which bolstered my confidence and opened up my mind.
But the current climate was showing me I wasn’t truly doing this as much as I thought I was — falling into a reactive mode rather than investing the time and patience that coaching requires. Steeping in a pool of stress, I learned my natural instinct in a high-pressure environment was to put on a director’s hat and move into the role of “fixer.”
My brain started to comb through my larger archive of scenarios and deals, pulling on past experiences to create solutions. I was preparing to step behind the wheel and lead my team down a path before they had the chance to plot the course themselves.
At the same time, my experience with negotiations had given me a valuable skill: knowing when to stop talking and listen. I, like many others, tend to over-speak, finding silence not only uncomfortable but at times unbearable. But silence can be powerful, in communication and negotiation, to help build connection and trust. I knew I needed to embrace it now.
We gathered the next day, with about two-thirds of my team sitting in the same room as me, the rest on a conference call. I opened the meeting by asking each of them to share how they were feeling about closing up the year and what they were hearing from clients.
And yikes, the floodgates opened! What had been eating at them over the past few weeks had quickly turned into a rush of anxiety. They vented, admitted to feeling unprepared for what was coming at them, with the majority throwing up their hands saying they didn’t know what to do.
This was coming from a seasoned team who were leading the industry — these were our rockstars. They were experts who creatively structured deal after deal, pulling rabbits out of a hat and consistently delighting their clients. In the years we’d worked together, I’d never seen this feeling of being lost.
A few became defensive, saying this was an impossible situation and blatantly telling me “the company better take this into account for next year’s sales targets, and give us a big break as a result.” I listened (and admit to a few moments when I felt as if I was wearing a muzzle) as they piled on top of a quickly-growing heap of concerns. The only question I asked as we went around the room was “What else?” so they could get it all out and purge their systems.
[Related: Why Every Female Leader Should Be a Mentor]
Then came the collective sigh, like the sound of shared exhaustion. All eyes (and ears) turned toward me. I knew the words that came out of my mouth, and the moment we were all in, mattered.
I shared that I recognized their fears, and validated where they were all coming from. This was new terrain for all of us, including me. I knew it felt like the bus we were on was quickly running off course. But our bus wasn’t some little van — we had built an amazing business together and it had taken us to so many incredible places. What if this roadblock was more of a detour, forcing us to change course and move in another direction?
Then I remembered the “How Might We?” activity a friend had recently introduced me to. I’d been mulling this framework over in my mind, with those simple three words allowing me to formulate new thinking when I was wrestling with a problem. This conversation with my team felt like the perfect moment to see how we all might step back and reframe how we approach the blustery path ahead.
So I dove in:
How might we continue to support our clients and learn from their challenges? How might we change our deal structures to accommodate immediate needs and ultimately make them work better in the longer term? How might we use this as an opportunity to build relationships with clients?
It took some time to get in the swing, but the discussion grew and the dry-erase markers came out for collective note-taking on the wall. Everyone spoke, with some of the best ideas coming from the folks on the phone.
The energy swelled and they started to take this on as a puzzle they couldn’t wait to solve. We kept going until we were kicked out of the conference room by the group next scheduled to come in, and we continued threads of the conversation with each other on the sales floor.
Despite the year ahead proving to be something of a slog, the team blew me away. They shored up the bulk of their revenues from clients, in addition to hatching new deals and unearthing gold where we least expected it.
More than a few struggled, and someone was consistently there to jump in to support where they could. My team had moved into peer coaching; another beneficial result of us going through this rocky time was the larger safety net we created. They dug deep, learned new techniques, and pushed themselves into a zone they didn’t think was possible.
Fast forward to the latter part of 2009, where we celebrated what the team had accomplished and prepared ourselves to tackle continued (and new) hurdles. A handful of people pulled me aside to say what a powerful experience it had been to come together and create solutions as a team.
One said it not only allowed him to think differently, but gave him something solid to grab onto when he was swept up in a flood of fear around impossibility and failure. We were working differently as a result, both as individuals and as a team.
In hindsight, I am both grateful and relieved that I tried a different approach, that I stopped to ask for directions instead of plowing ahead. The year we spent on this path together allowed us to build trust and help each other find the answers that were right for us as individuals and as a team.
The risk I took in stepping back to take on a coaching mindset was worth it; I gave my team the opportunity to create their own sort of magic. This experience showed me that taking time as a leader to gather insight from others isn’t just helpful, it can take us to unexpected places.
Suzanne Weller partners with clients to maximize talent, transform organizations and teams, and lead from a human-centered place. Find out more at www.wellercollaboration.com and discover more blog posts at https://wellercollaboration.com/blog.
Originally published at https://www.ellevatenetwork.com.