On Leading through Conflict

One of the main responsibilities of Team Leadership is Conflict Resolution. This is both Intra-team conflict – Conflict between Team members and Inter-team conflict – conflict between your team and other teams within or outside the organization.

In this Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world, conflict is almost inevitable. However, as pointed in my article – Conflict in High Performing Teams conflict is not always a bad thing, in fact, conflict can be used to stimulate intellectual growth and trust among team members.

“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

As a Team leader, what are some of the tips or nuggets can you use to manage and resolve conflict within the team? Here are Two:

  • Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood

In his book 7 Habits of Highly effective People, Author Stephen Covey points out that most people do not listen with the intent to understand; but rather they listen with the intent to reply. Yet in order to effectively resolve conflict, the ability to understand or at least to intentionally seek to understand the point of view that is in contradiction with our own is one of the most important skill to develop. There is a reason we have two ears, and one mouth. Many times I have caught myself preparing my response when the other party is trying to put their point across while at the same time assessing their point of view from my own biases.

“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” – Leonardo da Vinci.

If you want to have or be great at handling conflict with your teammates, first, purpose to intentionally understand their point of view, ask for clarification on what is not clear, probe and ensure you truly understand their side of the story and secondly, be conscious and fully aware of your own biases then intentionally put them in check. If there is something that leaders must constantly do, is to constantly question our own assumptions and biases.

  • Don’t Just Communicate, Connect

The ability to effectively Communicate is one of the most important skill a leader must poses. To get people to work together or as a team – which I define as a group of people who TRUST each other, three things are important, Shared Vision, Shared Goals and Shared Purpose, all these must be communicated to the team. In his book “Everyone Communicates, few connect” Author John C Maxwell points out that Connecting not only increases your influence in every situation, but it also ensures that you as a leader are able to build consensus.

“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” —Abraham Lincoln

When conflicting ideas come up, what you say and how you say it are both just as important as what your body language communicates during that time. As leaders, your teams like children in a family, they not only listen but they also watch how you treat those you do not agree with as much as mimic how you address conflict or disagreement. During these times,, ensure you are using non-threatening language that serves to reinforce your understanding of the other person’s view as well as communicating clearly your points of agreement if any and your point(s) of departure from that view.

  • Keep a Positive Attitude, Think WIN-WIN

Few things determine the outcome of a conflict like the attitude of those involved in the conflict. William James captures this very well:

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”

So simply put, have a POSITIVE attitude, always believe that after the conflict, both or all parties involved will come out better. This is such a simple yet difficult aspect to grasp during a conflict. It is so hard to program our minds that something with a negative connotation like conflict can actually result in a positive outcome and that we need to keep a positive attitude and mindset throughout or during the engagement.

Death by Meetings aka Reviews

About three years ago, I decided to remove the recurring Team meeting from my calendar and that of my direct reports. Instead, we decided as a team that I will send an invite every week on a need basis. This has turned out to be one of the best stress relieving medicine we as a team have taken over the last 24 months.

Why is it that managers find the need to have reviews? Why is it that particularly in this part of the world we like to have a review to review the last review meeting? How come most employees HATE reviews especially with their direct bosses?

To put this into perspective, I am not saying meetings are bad, I am for meetings and by extension reviews, it is one of the many ways Teams, managers and leaders get feedback, a manager who hates meetings is like a surgeon who hates operating on people, really all that managers do is meetings aka reviews -okay, mostly 🙂 , and the solution is not the elimination of reviews, but rather making them meaningful, engaging and relevant. Here are some ways we have used to make our team reviews less painful , stressful and boring.

Sales Force…..Microsoft Excel et.al In my line of business, Sales Force and the old age excel have been of great help. If something can be obtained from a Sales Force report or an excel sheet, why do we need to review it in an actual physical meeting? As a team, we have found that sharing the report and strictly highlighting areas that need clarifications saves everyone’s time and makes life fun. So next time before you schedule that meeting, try logging into your company’s reporting tool and see if you can get that information from the “system” as opposed to wasting valuable time getting people into a room.

“Mr. Watson–come here–I want to see you.” these were the first words of Graham Bell in 1876 when he invented the Telephone. It is over one hundred years since the phone was invented yet a big number of managers are yet to use this revolutionary invention to hold a conference call with their team and quickly agree or plan on what needs to be done. Pick up the phone, conference your team and get it going. Do not drag everyone into that room that doesn’t have Air conditioning in the middle of the day.

long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest. aka short and sweet

Agenda….. Agenda….. Agenda….. Stick to the agenda. Keep the meeting short and sweet. In Africa, greetings , pleasantries and unnecessary stories find their way into meetings almost 90% of the time. As a team, we decided that only the first 5 – 7 minutes will be used for this purpose – this also caters for the African time (Time between the scheduled start time and ACTUAL start time), which tends to be longer but over time we have shortened this to ensure that the agenda is followed and stuck to. Every meeting MUST start on time, remain focused and have clear action points – including ownership and timelines.

In summary, First, embrace the technology that you have invested in, secondly keep the meetings short n Sweet and if possible schedule it Every single time, do not have a recurring meeting for over 1 month!!!.

What other things do you do to make your meetings productive?

Leaders are comfortable with not knowing

Leadership is tough, being a Leader is difficult.

This is a simple yet universal truth that most if not all leaders have always known. Some accept it, some are intentionally blind to it and yet some still think leadership is a walk in the park. It is easy for us to point a finger to the leader and say He or she is not great, He is doing a bad job, he doesn’t know how to lead a team….” Theodore Roosevelt captured this very well in his “The Man in the Arena” or if you like “Citizenship in a Republic” speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, on April 23, 1910.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again.

Leadership, like greatness is a meal not for all men. It is especially difficult for leaders in the information and digital age to deliver on their mandate. As the man in the arena, and as the person whom the back stops with, what are some of those three critical things that you need to be aware of when you do not know the answers? Here are some:

Be comfortable and confident in NOT Knowing

Those we lead usually expect us to Know, however, the reality is that as leaders and indeed as humans, we are not able to know it all. It is especially difficult and takes a lot of courage and confidence for a leader to admit and say these words “….I do not know. ” when asked something. In my leadership journey, I have often had dissonance in delivering this feedback to my team while simultaneously having the need to provide guidance and solutions to my team. Admitting to the fact that as a leader you do not have all the answers does two main things in my view: First, shows that you are human and are deeply SELF-AWARE of your limitations (both technically or otherwise) at that particular time , Secondly, it builds TRUST among your team members and gives them the confidence to put forward their solutions and shows them that it is alright NOT Knowing.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” — Robert Kennedy

In the digital world where information and by extension knowledge is increasingly becoming pervasive and ubiquitous, leaders must learn that there is no room for “fake it, till you make it”. By having the confidence and comfort to openly declare that at that point you do not have the answers, you open up yourself to accepting new knowledge and continuous learning as a leader. The first step to learning in my view is having the humility to admit our own ignorance, the second step, to seek out that which you do not know.

Delegate and TRUST the Team

One of the most important tasks of a leader, is to assemble and bring on board the RIGHT team. The right team is one that not only is able to deliver on its mandate, but most importantly where there is deep trust of each other. When team members KNOW and trust that each and everyone of them is looking out for their success, they deliver.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to to , We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” – Steve Jobs

As a leader, it is particularly important that you not only TRUST your team, but also build their trust in you. First, that you will not get into their way to do what they are in the team to do and secondly, that you will support the team in their effort to deliver on their mandate. Not only is trusting the team important for their and your success, it is especially important that you are SEEN to be the chief advocate of your team. As seen in the article I wrote some time last week on taking responsibility (There is enough success for all) of the team, leaders can only drive the right behavior by emulating the behavior they would like to see.

As a leader, create the right culture, clearly define the goal, then have the confidence and trust to delegate. As pointed out by Steve Jobs, hire smart people so that they tell you what to do, especially when you utter those four words of confidence – “I do not Know”.

Bringing it all together

Leadership is a life long journey. The first step to becoming a better leader is being SELF-AWARE of our own limitations, and having the humility to acknowledge them. When we become confident and comfortable in not knowing, we open ourselves to learning, and we show those we are leading that we TRUST them and that it is okay not to have all the answers. Secondly, as leadership is about bringing out the best in those we lead. Getting the right people and ensuring they are playing in the right positions and then getting out of their way is important for both their success and ours as leaders. In the end:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly”;

There is Enough Success for all, Says the Leader

Confidence they say, has no competition and Winners, love to see other winners win.

Early this year, I purposeful started priming two of my immediate team members to be able to perform and take up my role and effectively perform my duties within the Business Unit that I lead. One to be able to take up both operational as well as strategic duties, while the other to shadow me only on the operational matters.

Although I had practiced some form of this type of Leadership or if you wish management style since 2016 (just year after I took up my first official team leadership role in my career), I only got yo take it up much more seriously after setting up the necessary processes and strategic direction. This way of thinking I will tell you for free is not easy and comes with a great deal of challenges. First and foremost, as a leader, you have to understand that:

You can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility.

The responsibility for success is shared, however, the back really stops with you as the leader of the team more so when the team Fails. Here are two key lessons I have learned from this:

Only when you WIN does your team Win

As a manager, one of our primary roles is to ensure that those we are charged with leading or managing WIN. What does making sure they WIN mean to me. First, I have to make sure I WORK with them – the leader has to roll up his or her sleeves and get into the gutters with the team, failure to do this leads to lack of trust and confidence from the team. However, what every team member does in the gutters is different. Clearly defining your role as the leader and delivering on it is critical in order to gain and sustain the trust of the team. As a team leaders, your Actions speak louder than anything you say.

Secondly, INSPIRE your team. Leadership really is about inspiration, this in my view is about bringing out the best in each of your team members. In so doing, this will definitely involve putting the interest of the team before my own personal interests and encouraging team success as opposed to individual glory.

Finally, NATURE And NURTURE – the debate on these two is ongoing, however in our context, we will stick with the two. Whereas leaders need to nurture the right not only correct) behavior, we also need to ensure that we nature the right behavior. Studies have shown that human behavioral development is affected both by peoples’ natural disposition and the environment in which they are raised or are in. As a leader, select and assign roles with this in mind and ensure you cultivate the right environment to drive the desired behavior.

WIN – Work, Inspire, Nature and Nurture.

Be Quick to give Credit and Slow to pass blame

Leading a team especially of knowledge workers is especially challenging. As a first time people manager, In the beginning, I struggled with the fact that a large number of my team are much more technically knowledgeable than me -( see this article on Finding Comfort in NOT Knowing) However, having come to the realization that my success as a leader actually rested with my ability to hire and bring on board people who are smarter and indeed different thinkers than me, I quickly accepted the fact that I do not have all the answers.

True leaders pull the thumb, before they point the finger. They take responsibility… for EVERYTHING

The sooner as leaders or managers we realize that we do not have all the answers, the better our chances for success. In my area of trade (Technology) where most people end up as managers due to their ability to be star contributors individually, we are tempted to continue with this kind of thinking when we get into management. Indeed I have seen many a managers “get their hands dirty” and pride in their ability to resolve “technical challenges” forgetting their primary duty as leaders – Inspire, coach, et.al. and take up the credit while being quick to throw the team under the bus when things go south.

As a leader, one of your primary responsibility is to ensure that you not only prepare your team for winning, but also that when they win, you give them due credit as well as the opportunity for them to learn from their failures. It is not enough to just keep your team engaged and motivated, ensuring that their successes are celebrated is equally important so as to drive satisfaction.

Bringing it all together

In summary, Leadership is about Inspiration, it is about ensuring that you as a leader you are in it to WIN – Work, Inspire, and Nature. It is only when you are confident of your own abilities and aware of your limitations that you can drive the right behavior. Leaders do not have all the answers, harness the abilities and strengths of each team member to ensure the success of the team. Remember, there is enough winning and success to go around for everyone, and it is your responsibility as a leader to ensure that team success always takes precedence over your own glory and indeed over individual golden goose success.

It is only by lifting others that we rise! – (See this Article on Finding Comfort in Not having the answers as a Leader)

Corporate Bad manners: A manager’s guide

There are many things that Block-chain, Machine learning, Natural Language Processing et.al can solve, but one thing that they are yet to sort out is plain old bad manners.

Last week I was having a discussion with a friend of mine on the evolution of the workplace and how the ever changing workplace demographics is affecting what we call organisational manners. One of the things we quickly agreed on is that whereas on the one hand technology and the whole digital transformation has impacted how we work, play and live, on the other hand the bureaucracy at the work place especially among the older generation has not evolved much in terms of delivery of employee experience – how the employees interact with the whole organizational machinery. We agreed among other things that corporate bad manners is a major occurrence in today’s evolving workplace.

So what exactly is corporate bad manners really?

The phenomenon of Corporate Bad manners (As we coined the term) simply put, is behavior by employees, particularly senior personnel or people in leadership positions within the organization (since naturally they are expected to lead the way even in mannerism) that is essentially ego driven and has no rationality whatsoever. Here are a few examples:

  • Hoarding International/business Trips: One of the things that people in leadership positions MUST avoid is putting self interest before practical business or professional and people management decisions. There is no better way to communicate to your team (especially junior staff) how self centered you are as a manager than to take trips just because you can (or to earn Per diem 😊 ). Simply put, this is BAD MANNERS. It goes a long way to ensure that your direct reports or the team you lead are given an opportunity to attend both “their level” events and “above their level” events. .
  • Taking More Pens/Books/Cake/Free Beer than you need: This is one of the craziest thing I have observed in organizations. Whenever free beer, cake or even chocolates or indeed T-shirts , water bottles et.al are brought to be shared, people for some reason feel the need to take more than what is enough for them. Recently I asked a colleague of mine why they find it necessary to take almost a full bowl of Cake yet first they can afford to buy it if they wanted, and secondly other people were yet to take a piece – the eye roll that i received and “shida yako ni nini?” I walked away and asked God to teach me silence. Guys, taking more cake than you need or more notebooks than you need is a poverty mentality that you need to exorcise out of your system and is plain BAD MANNERS.

“Every Office has two people who do all the work and 12 people who walk around with bottles full of water, cucumber and lemon”

  • Peeping behind People’s workstations: Micromanagement in the digital age is one of the best ways to lose talent. As managers, sometimes we are tempted to want to go into the details of what our teams are doing without decorum. Looking at their workstations – particularly PC/Screens is a classic example of not “minding your own business” and just plain BAD MANNERS. Resist the temptation to walk around looking at what people are doing as it is not only uncouth but also plainly creepy. It helps to accord people personal space in the workplace and in this age, there is probably nothing more personal than your employees electronic devices and their lunch/snack boxes.

Bringing it all Together

There are indeed many things and benefits of technological advancements in the workplace, however, there are a number of things that Blockchain, AI and Machine learning et.al still cannot help us overcome at the moment, one of them is plain old BAD MANNERS. As managers, or leaders, let me know what other things you would classify simply as bad manners.

Remember, the real test of good manners is to be able to put up with bad manners pleasantly.

Have a fantastic Weekend!

Tough Spots – Leading when we are not winning

We closed our Financial Year last month. And as I looked back at my Journey during the FY and my overall time leading the Customer Experience and Collaboration team in my organization, I realized that in the 4 years that I have been the captain, we have had so much done yet we still have quite a long way to go. As a team, we have had many highs and indeed many lows, winning opportunities we never thought we stood a chance to win, while losing some we were so confident that we would come out on top.

In addition to these we have also had highs and lows as a team that are outside our core business at the organization and what makes us individuals that we are. In family as well as at personal levels. Looking at all these what I have come to realize is that it is that in our team, we will always have moments and times when we are winning and those that we are loosing and indeed learning. The moments when we loose, the moments we are not winning as a team are the moments that have greatly tested my leadership of the team.

In these moments when we are down I did learn some key lessons:

  1. My Team members are human beings with emotional needs: As managers it is sometimes very easy for us to “forget” that our team members (even the golden goose 🙂 are humans and they just like us more often than not also feel the pain of not winning. As the team leader, the Revenue and GP target rests with me and more often I may feel the pressure of not achieving the Quarterly targets, but this year more often than not I saw it in my team especially the more senior technical guys that indeed they felt my pain every time we lost an opportunity. As the team leader, my role in charging them forward in these moments proved vital as we had to keep moving forward. Being acutely aware of the emotional strain they too had proved to be a great asset enabling me to learn and value their feedback every time we took a review on why we didn’t win.
  2. Real Leadership is at the moments we are NOT winning: It is easy to lead when the ship is a float, it is easy to lead when the deal is closed and the champagne bottle is being popped. However, it is much more harder to lead when you just lost a contract you have had for 3 years. It is in these moments that my leadership and ability to rally my team and to share the hope and vision of a better future were tested. During these moments as a leader, my attitude, confidence and indeed feedback to the team members who were involved in the particular project or opportunity is very important. Not only was choosing my words critically important but also my behavior and actual reaction were critical.
  3. How I bring myself everyday, impacts my Team: This is probably one of the most critical things I learned in FY18, that each morning presented me with a new opportunity to not only re-invent myself but also give my team the opportunity to do better than we did yesterday. As a leader, my team always read into how I brought myself every day. In FY19, we had a tough year , however when the calendar finally turned to a new FY, our resolve is clear and I have purposed that we will bring our A game each time.

Indeed there will be moments we are winning and those that we are not winning. These moments will be our tough spots but it is at these moments that I will purpose to bring myself in the right way and as a result the team will do what we have to do.

Bringing it all Together

Leadership is indeed a tough and long journey. As team leaders, we ought to realize that our teams are composed of people with emotional needs, people with families, people that want us to succeed and every time we do not win ( or have conflict) , these people like us, also feel the pain and the disappointment. Our leadership will be greatly tested in moments when we do not win, it is during these times that our resolve, our attitude and “whom” we bring to the table will determine our long term success as a team and by large as an organization.

FY21 Lego!

On Legitimacy in Leadership

Although my mum was the only female in my family for almost three decades, she got and has always gotten more than 90% of family decisions go her way – thanks to her slippers throwing skills but also to something else. Being a mother of 5 boys, a career woman , a dedicated Christian and handling my father (who for some reason has become more playful as he ages) is not stuff of the faint hearted.

As I reflect on my childhood, I couldn’t help but notice how profoundly it has shaped my choices in life particularly in the career choice and trajectory but more so in how I try to lead and manage those in my charge. Growing up in a family of five siblings and particularly all men is not exactly a walk in the park in Africa. This was particularly challenging and fun at the same time during our teenage years.

But what is it that made these two legends run this sort of military camp with precision? What is it that these two lovebirds put in place that resulted in what I would consider by all standards a successful family? What has made this “Band of brothers” (This is our WhattsApp Group name) stay true to each other?

Three things that I would consider gave them and continues to give them legitimacy and that leaders and managers should embrace if we want to create and develop winning teams.

Give them a VOICE

My father has a strong voice. Those who know me can attest to this. I also have one. However, the voice I am talking about here is the ability of those in position of authority to allow those they have authority over to be heard. Those who are asked to obey must always feel like they do have a voice and that if they raise it, it will be listened to and heard.

Being heard in my view comprises of two critical aspects, one , Listening and second one Action. Ask yourself, how do I listen? Do my employees consider me a listener? Do I seek to first understand?

Consistency and Predictability

Picking up your plate from the dinning table and putting it back in the kitchen sink is one of the practices my father has ALWAYS done. This same practice has followed me and now I am passing it on very strictly to my son.

In ensuring team synergy, and leaders need to do this, consistency and predictability of actions either towards reward or reprimanding should be in place. People need to have an idea or know that the rules by which they play are largely the same. So if the team Webex meeting gets locked 5 minutes after start, then that should be the case no matter who is not into the meeting by then. These simple things ensure that the team is always aware of the rules of the game and work to give the leader the legitimacy she requires.

The next rule for my son Mich, making his bed no more than 15 minutes after wake up time.

Compassion and Gratitude

Being grateful and compassionate may not come out as related at first glace. But a closer look into these two shows how important they serve as a basis for building social capital for individuals and particularly leaders. When we are compassionate, we are able to appreciate the struggles that people within our teams go through and become more grateful for the space we are in in our own lives.

When we are grateful, we develop an abundance mentality, this in turn enables us to be more compassionate towards those we lead. Our teams need to feel that they can come to us without necessarily being victimized or judged , but rather appreciated and understood. At both personal and professional level, the spaces we create for the team in terms of culture gravely impact the outcome and the quality of work they produce.

Finally, practicing these two enables us to be even more fair in our dealings.

So for my parents, I believe that these have worked out well, by giving us a voice, they have made it possible for us to appreciate the fact that when we speak, we will be heard and not only that, that every action that results from the voice will always be consistent and predictable to a large extent. In addition, they will listen to us not in judgement, but with compassion each time and offer sometimes advise, other times just appreciation or gratitude for the effort we have put in life.