Leadership best practice: Read the room to transform your success

A different approach to the new year
January 8, 2020

Young businesswoman leading meeting with colleagues at her office

Many of the technical leaders I coach aspire to have more influence and impact. At the same time, they have invested heavily in their technical abilities, are used to being merited on their own awesomeness, and approach their work using a common formula: personally figure out a problem + work hard to solve it; repeat.

This approach has served them well in the past, is familiar and comfortable. The challenge arises when these uber capable contributors get promoted to leadership roles where they are responsible for the work of others and lead cross-functional projects. In these situations, technical leaders often stumble and receive negative feedback about their performance, experiencing stress as they try to cross the chasm of learning how to approach their job in a more effective way given their widening span of responsibilities.

How do you change your approach when the way you have always done your job doesn’t work anymore? How can you be successful when you’re no longer measured by your ability to produce results on your own, but must now remove obstacles for your team to, “help the machine go?”

This is a bumpy transition for many, but it is possible to learn to thrive in this new context. It requires a willingness to reframe your focus and strategies for how you “win” on the job.

Where before you could stay laser-focused on the technical aspects of work, now you need to become aware of an additional layer of interaction:  how people show up. It requires learning to listen in an entirely new way, beyond the words being spoken. Like in The Matrix, there is a whole other plane of activity going on, and you need to tune into it to be truly successful in this new realm. 

If you don’t prioritize this new level of awareness and interaction, you risk not being recognized as a truly impactful leader; at best, you will continue to be seen as an excellent “doer” who makes cool things. You may find that this perception limits your continued upward mobility, as managing an ever-increasing span of responsibility becomes untenable when negotiating daily tasks purely on your own effort. As a leader, you need to harness the efforts of other people to do your job truly well. The fastest way to do this is to grow your capacity for noticing what I call “energy and attention management.” 

Tuning in to the wavelength of others’ energy comes naturally to some. For some, the skills need to be nurtured. Engaging your spidey sense as a complement to your more technical, strategic mind helps you notice what is coming up in the way people you work with show up, not just at the beginning of an interaction but throughout. When you enter a 1:1, intact team or cross-functional group session, your most important objective – beyond facilitating your agenda – is to pay attention to the vibe of the people around you. Why? Because that is where the true action is happening. Here are some ways to cultivate those skills in any interaction.

Step back from the details and pay attention to what is happening with the people around you.

– Prepare in advance for interactions with others so you already know your objective, constraints and desired outcomes. That frees your attention to establish and maintain an ongoing connection with the other person(s). If it feels hard to squeeze this prep into your already busy schedule, consider introducing the Morning Scan into your day.

– Resist the temptation to focus only on the details of your agenda; rather, invite those participating to co-create the discussion outcomes together. What do they want to get out of the meeting? What is important to them? What are they worried about? When they respond, repeat back what you heard to make sure you have understood accurately. See how you can incorporate those priorities into the discussion. Circle back throughout the discussion to these points to make sure they are being addressed.

– If the items important to others are not part of the immediate agenda, quickly determine an appropriate forum to follow up. Alternatively, start a ‘parking lot’ where you can record the items in a visible way so the person(s) feels heard and can relax, knowing that the item is on your radar and that you will circle back with them to address it.

– When interacting, regularly look up from your device or notes and notice peoples’ body language. Who is open? Who is closed? What are their facial expressions? Who seems closed off and not engaged? Depending on what you see, adjust the way you interact to speak to their withdrawal, engagement, curiosity or worry. Draw them out with open-ended questions, asking them what is on their mind, and making space for them to answer.

I find that many technical leaders are used to thinking in terms of systems. We know intuitively that some systems work well while others work sub-optimally or are inoperational. Using that construct as a way to notice energy and presence – or lack thereof – in the way others show up, and modifying your approach to address those nuances – can make all the difference in driving the ultimate outcomes you need from any interaction.