Leadership and Embracing Challenge

| career, leadership, life

I’ve just finished listening to Mark Dymond’s presentation on embracing challenge at a Top Talent webinar on leadership.

Know your flight envelope and grow it

Mark compared embracing challenges with flying at the edges of a flight envelope, the capabilities of an airplane in terms of speed and altitude. When you’re close to the edge of what’s possible, you need to fly differently. Unlike airplanes, though, you can expand your flight envelope over time, learning new skills or becoming comfortable with more situations.

I love expanding my flight envelope. I prefer to work on new challenges than do things I’m already comfortable with doing. If I know how to do something like the back of my hand, then it’s time to teach it and leave it. (Related book: Refuse to Choose) In fact, I often teach people in the process of learning a topic, helping people expand their own flight envelopes along the way.

Leadership and vision

Among the leadership quotes that Mark shared was this quote:

The role of a leader is to define reality and offer hope.

Napoleon Bonaparte

The power that writers, speakers and leaders share is the power to name reality and show the way.
The words you use to describe something makes it easier for other people to recognize it, shapes the way people think of it, and brings complex ideas into the reach of understanding.

In challenging economic times and in tight and tense situations, the people who help other people see what the challenge is, understand what the important aspects are, and figure out how to move forward–those people are leaders, whether or not they have the title.

You can lead no matter where you are in an organization. You don’t need to wait for an opportunity or a job title. All you need is to develop the ability to help people understand what’s going on and how to move forward.

I’m an entry-level employee at IBM, and my world is filled with opportunities to lead. I can help people understand emerging trends and how to make the most of them. I can take what I’m learning from mentors, courses, and experiences, and share that with others. Through my words, actions, and reactions, I can influence people’s energy, their vision, their ability to adapt, and their skills. And I’m relatively new around here–imagine what more experienced people can do!

IBM has this to say about the leadership competency of embracing challenges:

Outstanding IBM leaders see opportunity in complex and challenging situations. They get energized by complex and challenging problems and take personal responsibility to ensure that they are resolved. These leaders are able to do this by identifying the central issue in the complexity and getting themselves and others focused on addressing those “vital few” priorities. They take accountability enthusiastically while accurately conveying the risk or difficulty  involved. These leaders’ enthusiasm and their belief in a positive outcome in difficult situations inspire others to believe they can succeed and embrace the challenge themselves.

The role of a leader is to define reality and offer hope. Learn how to see the opportunities. Learn how to communicate so that other people can see them. Learn how to lead people forward.

Client focus, team focus

Mark told us a story about a troubled project that he took on when no one else wanted it. IBM was at risk of getting sued, and tensions were high. He and a number of other people were on a conference call about the client. During the discussion, he muted the phone and explained the three alternatives he saw. One of the executives unmuted the phone and repeated what he had said, improving the ideas further. During the follow-up discussion, he again muted the phone and told the people in the room about the alternative he thought was the best, and why. Once again, the executive unmuted the phone and said what he had said.

This story reminded me of the stories I’ve heard about people’s anger and frustration when other people take credit for their work, which had formed a large part of a leadership discussion in another group. On one hand, Mark could’ve been upset that his ideas were used without attribution (or if there was, he didn’t include that as part of his story). But he focused on the problem and on helping the team address it. It didn’t matter that the client didn’t know that it was his analysis or his idea. What mattered to the client was that the problem was addressed. The executive wasn’t trying to take credit for his work, and indeed added a few improvements. It was all about solving the problem, and I’m sure that person remembered that Mark helped the team look good.

This is not to say that there aren’t people who unintentionally or intentionally don’t recognize other people’s contributions, and I understand how people can feel unappreciated and frustrated. In a tight situation, focusing on the client and the team means not letting ego get in the way. If this happens systematically, though, then it can poison the working environment and stifle working relationships.

I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve felt that people were stealing ideas from me or not giving me enough credit. I do what I do, and I often write about what I’ve learned along the way. I celebrate my own progress and my own accomplishments; external recognition is just icing on the cake. If my slides are reused within the company without attribution, I don’t mind. It’s the company’s intellectual property, I saved someone time, and people often come to me for additional information through referrals or search anyway. Whether my manager or his manager or his manager’s manager knows about all the things I do doesn’t bother me either, as opportunities come in from all over. If I ever find myself in that kind of a situation, I think I’d simply respond by sharing even more value and reaching out even further, so I can find or build opportunities to improve my situation.

(I do occasionally keep an eye on blogs that aggregate me, though – I’d definitely like to rank higher in search results than they do, or at least have a link back to my site, so that people can learn more! =) )

So: when stakes are high, focus on the client, support your team, and don’t let ego get in the way. If you feel underappreciated, figure out how you can improve your situation.

Thoughts on challenging times

It seems every leadership presentation I attend mentions that we live in challenging times. With all the news, I know that’s true, and I know a lot of people and a lot of businesses are struggling. Personally, I think I’m incredibly lucky to have such an awesome life. My life isn’t going from bad to worse, it’s going from good to better. I’m alive. I love and am loved. I’m learning so much. I have all these opportunities to make a difference. I can connect with all sorts of amazing people throughout the world. I can support my favourite causes. And you’re telling me it gets even better than this during boom times? Wow!

So I want to figure out if there’s something about the way I do things or see things that I can share with other people, so that they can feel this way about their days too.  =)

Next steps

Next quarter, I’ll be working on a mostly-full-time Drupal project (building in even more complex functionality) and a part-time social media strategy project. A fascinating engagement opportunity has just come up that will involve even more responsibility, and I hope my manager will agree that it’ll be good for the company, our team, and me. My schedule might get shuffled around a bit, but I’m sure it will be amazing.

I’m challenging myself to learn more about using my voice to reach out and connect with people even more effectively. I know mentors, books, classes, and coaching can help me get the most of my practice time.

You can comment with Disqus or you can e-mail me at sacha@sachachua.com.