By Israel Lang
I can still remember the first time John (not his real name) called to talk about how HTG Peer Groups might help him and his organization get through a challenging point in their business. I had known John for about five years and had admired his organization. He had built a great company that was highly profitable and with tremendous opportunity for growth.
However, John looked tired when we met. He shared that while his business was successful, he felt like he was missing out on watching his young children grow up. He wanted to know if HTG, and my team of coaches and consultants, could help bring some needed structure to his company that would alleviate some of the pressure he felt.
This conversation with a tired businessperson who feels disconnected at home is one I have had many times over the past five years.
After meeting with about 10 of his key employees over the next day, it became apparent that one of the reasons John was experiencing the painful side effects of being a business owner was that he was neglecting to build leaders. Like many founders, he had become the victim of his own success and the bottleneck for his organization’s continued success.
I told John it wouldn’t be easy, but if we were disciplined for 12 months, we would see progress in six months, and in a year, he would have a different organization. We laid out six things we would focus on in that first year.
The first thing we did was define the leadership John needed to build within the organization. With a working definition, we created a formal leadership team that began meeting bimonthly. I worked with John to teach that team what leadership meant within the organization. We began building leadership muscle.
SHARED LEADERSHIP: BUILDING A TEAM OF LEADERS
Four months into our work building leaders, that team met for three days to think about the future of the organization. We talked through how each member of the team fit in the company’s vision. Over those three days, it became clear what was holding the organization back and what would take it to the next stage in its progress. From that, we identified projects to address the challenges and opportunities. For the first time in the company’s history, John wasn’t assigned to lead any of those projects.
BUILD TRUST THROUGH HEALTHY CONFLICT
Their leadership team meetings began to shift after those three days. While portions of their meetings continued to focus on the urgent things that come up in any organization, most of the meeting was spent talking through progress on their projects. Those discussions, along with slow but steady progress, allowed John to begin trusting his team to deliver. As their facilitator, I would instigate discussions that forced them to talk about the challenges that come with any business. By engaging in healthy conflict, they began to recognize how it can propel the organization when done in a safe environment.
The biggest challenge of this phase was getting the leadership team to trust each other. About 10 months in, I began seeing progress. They started introducing healthy conflict into their meetings on their own.
COACHING & MENTORING
As part of our initial engagement, John agreed to work with one of HTG’s executive coaches. Through those hour-long calls, he grew his own skills as a leader. He started to interact with his team differently, and they could tell the difference. Rather than solving all the problems they were bringing him, he began to ask questions that empowered and guided them to the answer. Over time, the types of issues his new leadership team was bringing him began to change. The way they were thinking and interacting with each other matured.
Realizing the power of what he was learning, John decided he wanted to accelerate his team’s learning. He signed up three of his key leaders with an HTG coach. That allowed our coach to identify other root problems and opportunities for improvement with John’s team and his leadership. It also provided context around the issues John was bringing up during their coaching sessions. The company began to move further, faster.
Finally, John had me stay engaged to provide some mentoring to him and his team on some key issues. These included mentoring around conducting effective meetings, how to do process improvement, and how to regularly review financials and use them to improve performance.
AUTONOMY & MASTERY
This journey wasn’t without bumps. About nine months in, John was frustrated and contacted both me and his coach. The conversation started with, “I did what you told me, and now this happened.” As we unpacked what had happened, it became clear that John had made one of the classic mistakes that many leaders make at this stage.
John assigned tasks or projects to new leaders that they hadn’t developed the skills for yet. They were novices, not masters. We call this a laissez-faire approach. He stepped back and left them alone to perform the task, and they failed. Some leaders take the opposite approach, which is equally harmful. They micromanage an individual who does have the capacity to perform the tasks rather than providing them with autonomy and trusting them.
In John’s case, he had turned over a big business development opportunity to his team, which was the right decision. However, while they had most of the skills needed, they needed help along the way. John failed to routinely check in with the team to make sure they were progressing. He had to sweep in at the last moment and recreate the proposals and other materials that enabled the team to ultimately win the deal.
As we unpacked this with John, we helped him understand how he needed to evaluate each project/task/ duty through the lens of these two questions:
Based on the answers to those two questions, a leader can gauge what to assign and how often to check in. Discussing this with the team or person ahead of time helps to set expectations.
Our discussion helped John understand what had happened, why it happened, and to formulate what he would do differently the next time.
Throughout the process of working with John and his company, we found ways to celebrate success. In some cases, it was simple things like when someone on his newly formed team did a task that typically only John did. In other cases, it was when new clients were won without John being involved in the process.
However, the biggest celebration was when John left for vacation with his wife and kids for two weeks. When he returned, I checked in, and he was as excited as I had ever heard him. He had only checked in twice while he was gone, and the team had things well under control.
In their next leadership team meeting, John thanked them for the progress they had made. He planned a dinner and night to celebrate their growth and success.
John was proud of his team, and we were proud of his growth. It took vulnerability and a willingness to learn, but over the span of a year, John built a strong team of people who continue to build his business.