One of the best parts about leading an RIA firm is the independence. I love that our people get to think their own thoughts and make recommendations based on their own judgement. We encourage this. However, it is not without challenges. Independent people who come from different backgrounds, life experiences and generations rarely see things eye-to-eye. This introduces the opportunity for conflict and emphasizes the need for leadership to create unity.
I’ve been reflecting on this as it relates to who we serve. I believe we are all, in one way or another, leaders. It might be within the family, on a sports team, in a business, charity or even a religious organization. All of these groups have diverse people who may not align on everything. But the question becomes, “How do we lead?” Here are some ideas for influencing unity when leading independent people.
THE FUTURE IS UNCERTAIN
One of the biggest challenges of leading independent minds is that there can be very different ideas about what the future holds and where we should be going. As leaders, we are always operating with imperfect information it seems—blind spots if you will. None of us know or can predict the future. The challenge of leading is often complicated by the strength of the convictions or opinions of people we are supposed to lead—people who will question our vision of the future.
This introduces one of our greatest paradoxes. We have to lead with confidence and certainty toward that which is very much uncertain — the future. This is a fine balancing act that requires a lot of patience, constancy and a willingness to listen to others while still communicating a vision for the future. Here is what I mean.
If we project overconfidence and a sense that we know everything that is coming and already have a plan for it, we run the risk of being seen as arrogant and rigid. Very few people want to follow someone with that attitude. But if we don’t have a plan and a willingness to stick to it, even through adversity, we run the risk of being seen as weak, listless and lacking conviction. No one wants to follow that kind of leader either.
So how do we lead effectively and create certainty for the people on our teams and in our families—even when we can’t see the road ahead?
SIX IDEAS FOR TODAY’S LEADERS
I believe that being a leader today is a challenging job, but also very rewarding. After reflecting on some of the most effective leaders I’ve ever worked with, and some leaders from history, I’ve come up with six ideas for today’s leaders:
- We need to keep our vision foremost and clear.
- We need to have flexible plans.
- We need to communicate effectively to people of all generations.
- We need to be inclusive.
- We need to unite people in areas where they agree.
- We need to use influence carefully.
WE NEED TO KEEP OUR VISION FOREMOST AND CLEAR
One of the biggest and most important jobs of a leader is to communicate a vision for where we are going and what we’re trying to achieve. As leaders, we don’t control the attitudes or efforts of the people on our teams and in our families. We might influence this, but we don’t control it. Only they can do that.
In business especially, the performance of the team will be defined by the collective outcome of individual effort. In other words, performance and effective outcomes are not about us, about what we do, about how much we give—even though we need to set the right example. Great outcomes result from the people on our teams giving their best.
There are three key reasons why keeping the vision foremost and clear is essential:
- It’s easy to get lost. In the day-to-day hustle, it’s easy to forget why we’re doing what we’re doing. When leaders keep the vision foremost and clear, this helps remind everyone of the importance of their daily role.
- The vision serves as a true-north to guide decision-making. Most of the decisions that people make day-to-day are not in direct consultation with their leader. This means we are asking them to use their judgement to make the best possible decision. The vision serves as a measuring stick to ask themselves this important question: is this decision in line with our vision?
- The vision inspires people to give their best, even when no one is looking. It’s easy to give best efforts when the leader is around. But when people believe in the vision and have a heart-felt commitment to wanting to achieve it, they become far more self-directed and self-motivated.
So I ask you: what are you doing for your team, your family, your group to keep the vision foremost and clear for those who follow you?
WE NEED TO HAVE FLEXIBLE PLANS
The best-laid plans are often laid waste. As leaders, we need to recognize those key moments when it’s time to pivot because the plan just isn’t working. This can be very challenging. I believe this means we shouldn’t make big changes very often, because they can be highly disruptive.
But sometimes changing the plan is necessary. Let me give you some examples:
- A charitable organization loses a major donor. This sets off a chain of events that require a re-thinking of the budget and even what’s possible for the future.
- A newly hired leader produces an outraged response from long-term employees who threaten to quit.
- Board members recommend closure of a business venture that’s been incubated for years but has never achieved its full potential.
- A primary income earner in a family loses their job or their business fails.
- A loved one contracts a disease.
These types of situations require us, as leaders, to re-think our plans and to be willing to make the adjustments that are necessary to protect and sustain our teams and families. If our plans, or our minds, are so rigid that we cannot roll with the punches, everyone loses.
So I ask you: can you be flexible and adapt to changing situations that might disrupt what you hope will happen?
WE NEED TO COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY TO PEOPLE OF ALL GENERATIONS
In our office at Whitnell, we have members of at least three generations. Most of the families we serve are multi-generational. This creates interesting dynamics when it comes to communication. I don’t think this means that we should change the way we talk to try to appeal to a younger generation. But I think it should institute in us, as leaders, a sensitivity to how people from different generations and age groups hear the things we say—the way they interpret our message.
Let me give you a specific example. Let’s assume an organization is preparing to give pay raises company-wide because the business has done well. Now everyone is thinking about what they’ll do with the money.
- Mature people might be thinking of putting it into their retirement account or setting up an educational savings account for their grandchildren.
- People with young children might be thinking about sending their kids to a private school or paying down some debt.
- Young people who are just entering the workforce might be thinking about buying a home, earning an advanced degree or even taking a vacation.
In this scenario, the message is the same—a pay raise is coming. But what people hear and how they interpret what the message means for them could be very different. I believe we would be wise as leaders to consider, before we craft and deliver our messages, how people from different generations will take it.
So I ask you: do you think about how people of differing age groups will interpret the things you say?
WE NEED TO BE INCLUSIVE
As the leader of a spirited group of very independent people, I rarely lack for input from my team. They tell me what they think with few reservations. I find the same to be true for leaders of families. Sometimes we may not always want or be looking for input, but I believe it’s important to listen and to seek it out. This is especially true for the quieter people among our groups.
The old saying is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. We should listen to those who are vocal. But I think it’s wise to ask for input from those who may not be as forthcoming with what they think. I’ve often found that the more reserved among a group of people actually have insightful things to say. But they may not offer their opinions unless they are asked.
So I ask you: do you seek to be inclusive in getting feedback from the people around you?
WE NEED TO UNITE PEOPLE IN AREAS WHERE THEY AGREE
As our nation becomes more politically divided, it seems harder and harder to find common ground. Politics can ruin a family dinner rather quickly. Differences of opinion on any number of issues in business can also fracture teams and create disunity. This is why I believe effective leaders look for areas where people agree and emphasize these.
I often find that when people are embroiled in a disagreement, they actually agree on far more points than they disagree. I like to start with this question: “what can we agree on?” In some instances, by starting with common ground and then slowly working toward areas of disagreement, I find that disagreements are resolved far more amicably.
So I ask you: do you seek to find common ground among people who disagree? Do you emphasize those points of view that they share to help foster unity?
WE NEED TO USE INFLUENCE CAREFULLY
Leadership is influence, not so much authority. I find that these two are often confused. Don’t get me wrong; as leaders we bear responsibility to make decisions and live with the outcomes. Authority is about decision rights. But leadership, as I think of it, is about guiding a team or a family towards a future destination. This requires a great deal of trust in the leader. So, the question becomes, “what cultivates that trust?”
The most effective leaders I’ve worked with use influence to guide their teams and build trust. I see this playing out in three ways:
- Questions more than statements. The best leaders seem to ask a lot of questions. They prefer this to making statements because they know that statements can be interpreted as directives. When people answer questions for themselves, they tend to own their decisions and follow through on them.
- Suggestions more than commands. Great leaders also seem to make quite a few suggestions. They seem to prefer this to commands. This creates a feeling as if they are coaching and helping problem-solve rather than demanding compliance.
- Public praise and private admonishment. No matter whom you lead, at some point there will be problems. The best leaders seem to publicly praise the behaviors they want to see and privately admonish behaviors they don’t want to see. This preserves the dignity of people who’ve made mistakes and that builds trust.
So I ask you: how are you using influence to guide others toward a great future?
LEADING INDEPENDENT PEOPLE
Leaders in business, family, charitable organizations and even religious groups face many challenges today. Projecting a sense of certainty when leading toward an uncertain future is no easy task. But I believe we do our best work when we have a vision, communicate it clearly to all stakeholders, make pivots when necessary and listen to our people. When we prize common ground, use influence carefully and remain calm through adversity, we become leaders that others want to follow.
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