Authored by Dr. Jeb. S. Hurley

Here in the Wasatch mountains, 2020 arrived with fresh snowfall and the promise of more powder to come in the first few days of the new year.

For those who traveled here for the Christmas and New Year holiday in hopes of an idyllic winter vacation with heaps of snow and cozy evenings around the fireplace, their wish came true. For me, the holidays have been a delightful mix of spending time with friends and family, reviving a tradition of skiing on Christmas morning, and with the arrival of the New Year a healthy dose of reflection—not just of the past year, but of the past few decades.

There is a temptation at the turn of a new year, and especially a new decade, to turn reflections into broad observations about past trends and grand predictions for the future.

For me, 2020 marks 30 years of practicing, studying, and thinking deeply about leadership. Across those years, I’ve been fortunate to serve in leadership roles within eight organizations ranging from multinational companies to startups. Many roles spanned the globe, adding richness and texture to my experiences that were both exhilarating and humbling. Along the way, I honed my skills and understanding, working with amazing people at the Center for Creative Leadership, Harvard Business School, and The Aspen Institute, and then later earning a doctorate in leadership.

More than ever, organizations depend on teams to deliver growth, innovation, and competitive advantage.

 I recount the above to make the point that, as experiences accumulate, the temptation to expound upon them grows. I started composing this article as a year-end retrospective and prediction about leadership trends in the new decade, then paused. I have a strong bias to give people insights that will be useful in their day-to-day work.

So instead, I offer what I’ve found to be highly effective practices, a sort of alchemy for leaders that helps identify and transform people into exceptional team leaders. I elaborate on them below in the hopes that, whether you are responsible for the success of new leaders or an aspiring leader yourself, these insights will help make the journey more productive and fulfilling.

Recognize People’s Habits

Last week at one of my favorite local cafés, I noticed there was a new barista/server, Jenny. I know from past conversations with the staff that, like many small businesses, there isn’t a formal training process. That can make the learning curve frustrating and stressful for a new team member and hurt the quality of service. It didn’t take long to see why this café is so popular. At every turn, the people with more experience seamlessly and organically took responsibility for supporting Jenny. One staff member, Jenna, was especially conscious of helping Jenny do her best.

As the café was getting ready to close, I asked Jenny about her experience being new. Without hesitation, she said, “I love working here! Everyone takes time to help me.”

What Jenna and her peers did was shared leadership in its purest form. They’ve made “helping others be successful” into a habit. If you look carefully, you can see that same behavior in many places. From children working on a school project to adults in the workplace, some people have developed the habit of helping others do their best and be their best in pursuit of a common goal.

Before you consider someone as a top candidate for a people-manager role, ask yourself if you have seen that person consistently behaving like a leader, paying particular attention to selflessness, and helping others do their best.

Then, ask other managers if they’ve seen or heard the same. When it comes time to fill a role, make sure that people who make a habit of helping others be successful are on your list of candidates. As a bonus, you’ll prevent future headaches by eliminating from consideration people who are seen as ‘high-potential’ through self-promotion or who position themselves for advancement at the expense of others.

Focus on Relationships

Today’s emerging leaders need and want coaches, not bosses who command the troops

A few years ago, I helped set up a new go-to-market organization within a large tech company. Soon after the roll-out, people on one of the country sales teams began to complain about the responsiveness and support from both the country service people and people at the regional headquarters. The new division manager’s initial response was to increase the number of meetings, clarify roles, and implement several new processes. While there was some improvement in communications, the criticisms intensified to the point of being unhealthy. When we dug deep for the root cause, it became apparent that a newly appointed team leader in the country was the source. His toxic behavior infected his people and metastasized into other teams, causing a rapid deterioration of trust among the people. Performance suffered, and turnover increased. Once he was reassigned and returned to an individual contributor role, the criticisms and bullying stopped. Rebuilding trust was challenging, but with the poison neutralized, there was a significant improvement in people’s relationships and performance.

More than ever, organizations depend on teams to deliver growth, innovation, and competitive advantage. Yet, when results fall short of expectations, the conversation and actions often focus on adding processes and controls, versus looking at the relationship dynamics

Healthy, trusting relationships are a common denominator among every extraordinary team. Place a high priority on leaders developing the ability to see and address toxic behaviors early and using those insights as coaching opportunities. That skill is essential when building and sustaining the trust that increases engagement, reduces risk, and inspires peak performance.

Leading is Coaching

Around five years ago, a struggling division at a large IT company restructured to improve the effectiveness of sales and customer success programs. The new team-based design was carefully thought through, as was the selection of the leaders. While the newly appointed team leaders had some people management experience, all of them were new to cross-cultural, virtual leadership.

However, this promising beginning was undermined by the division manager who didn’t believe that her role was to coach the new leaders. She was too busy “leading the division” in pursuit of sales targets, and she concluded that the quarterly leader development meeting would provide the training the newly appointed leaders needed. Unfortunately, the results were all too predictable. Twelve months later, the team leaders had little to show for their efforts. Sales were below target, engagement scores were low, and the division manager was considering another restructuring.

During the first decades of the 20th century, Scientific Management and Trait Theory—also referred to as the ‘Great Man Theory’—were at the center of leadership thinking. For much of the century, those models reinforced the notion that great leaders were born, identified, and appointed – not developed. Then, in the span of a couple of decades, the flattening of corporate hierarchies and technology-fueled globalization combined with the emergence of a new generation of employees. Those mega-trends caused many organizations to shift toward teams and teamwork as the driver of growth, innovation, and competitive advantage.

Today, large organizations need thousands of capable team leaders, and smaller companies (especially fast-growing startups) require a handful of highly competent ones—the Navy SEALs of the business world. The challenge is, a 20th-century approach to leader selection and training based on regurgitations of well-worn leadership clichés don’t work.

Today’s emerging leaders need and want coaches, not bosses who command the troops. They want to work with people who are passionate about helping them become effective leaders and coaches themselves.

Leading in 21st-century organizations means coaching people by giving them a framework of behaviors and opportunities for experiential learning, and then using technology—tools and metrics—to provide continuous, rigorous, and objective feedback.

The Alchemy of Leading

You won’t likely find the practices I’ve described above and summarized below (for people who like to skip to the end) in a leadership training course, textbook or article on ’15 Ways to Build a Great Team’. Despite that lack of press, these actions will help ensure you successfully transform aspiring leaders from ordinary to extraordinary.

  • Recognize people who make a habit of helping others do their best and be their best as they pursue a common goal. Power-driven narcissists may have their place, but do you want them leading your teams?
  • Promote people who are passionate about developing and sustaining healthy, trusting relationships. Leaders who learn to navigate people-dynamics effectively are more successful at increasing engagement, reducing risk, and inspiring peak performance.
  • Engage in continuous, experiential learning that combines tools, coaching, and metrics. Great leaders are forged over time, not born, and anointed.

As more and more organizations have come to rely on teams, the pressure to develop exceptional team leaders who inspire their teams to deliver growth, innovation, and competitive advantage is higher than ever. For those of you responsible for finding and forging the next generation of leaders, a little alchemy never hurts.