How to lead when your employees don't have to follow

How to Lead When Your Employees Don’t Have to Follow

Leading people who don’t have to follow starts with your mindset.

How do you lead when people don’t have to follow? In a recent long-term leadership development program Karin and I conducted for leaders from around the globe, this was one of the most common questions participants asked.

As work becomes more complex and people develop more specialized knowledge and skills, cross-functional teams, ad-hoc teams, and temporary project teams are increasingly common. You will likely lead people who do not directly report to you. And at times you have to rely on other teams to give you what you need to succeed.

The Truth About People Who Don’t Have to Follow

How long can you hold your breath?

Stick with me here—this will make sense in a moment. In fact, unless it’s dangerous to your health, try it right now: hold your breath as long as you can.

How long did you make it? 30 seconds, one minute?

Before long, you couldn’t help yourself—you just had to breathe. Even if I were to offer you a substantial amount of money if you were to hold your breath longer, at some point you have no choice. Your body will force the issue.

There are very few things in the world that you must do. You must breathe. You must die. Along the way, you must eliminate bodily waste. That’s about it – every other behavior is a choice.

And one of those choices is how you choose to show up to work each day: Will you give it your best or just occupy space and slide by? It’s a choice you make.

The fundamental leadership mindset that will transform your influence is this:  if everything is a choice for you, it’s also a choice for your team whether or not they report to you.

Everyone is a Volunteer

Realistically, it’s not just people on other teams who don’t have to follow you. Even your direct reports don’t have to follow your leadership.

Everyone is a volunteer because you cannot force anyone to do anything.

“Wait a minute, David,” you might say, “if they don’t do their job we can fire them.”

You’re right of course, but that’s their choice. The path to engage teams that choose to give their best begins when you realize that everyone’s a volunteer. They choose:

  • If they will be a part of your team.
  • How they will show up.
  • Whether to participate fully or phone it in.
  • The level of effort they will give.
  • How well they will perform their role.

How to Lead when They Don’t Have to Follow

When you embrace this fundamental truth – that everyone is a volunteer – it will change your leadership forever. Every action from every person on your team becomes a gift.

Every ounce of energy they spend on a project is a gift. Your work as a leader shifts from force to invitation, from control to influence, from fear to gratitude. You won’t lead to wring out the worst, but to bring out the best.

The fundamental leadership truth you cannot ignore is that if it’s a choice for you, it’s also a choice for your team. Everyone is a volunteer.

Here are a few specific tools you can use to lead from the mindset that everyone is a volunteer:

  • Connect the “what” to the “why.” Work without meaning is punishment suitable to prison camps. Make sure your team knows the purpose behind their tasks, the value in the organization’s work, and how their work makes a difference. If the work has no meaning — eliminate it.
  • Ask “How can I help?” Your team needs support and training that only you can provide. Make sure they have the training, equipment, and political support they need to succeed. Don’t do their work for them, but help them grow and expand their ability to problem solve by asking critical thinking questions.
  • Apologize when you screw up. Apologizing doesn’t make you weak. It shows courage, builds your credibility, and models taking responsibility when you drop the ball. That’s what you want from your staff, right?
  • Maintain standards and expectations. Volunteers, more than anyone, need to know that you value their time. When you permit people to underperform without consequence, then you tell everyone who does their best that they are wasting their time.
  • Say “Thank you.” Do you like what your team did? Do they know it? Do you want more of it? Don’t wait to say “Thank you.”

Your Turn

If you think about your own performance, I’ll bet your best efforts were not the result of money or a fear of being fired. We’d love to hear from you: leave us a comment and share How have your leaders brought out the best in you? 

Five Strategic Ways Leaders Provide Clarity (Mark Miller)

Winning Well Connection

We’ve always been big fans of Mark Miller and his prolific writing. What makes Mark unique from many leadership authors is that he’s actively working as a corporate executive while staying committed to inspiring leaders through his writing. 

Click on the image to purchase Mark’s book.

Engagement in leadership is vital. However, as you go through your career it changes.

That realization came to light when someone recently asked me a question I had never really considered: Does engagement look different as a leader moves through his or her career?

Although the core drivers of engagement are largely universal, I think the question itself could point to an insight.

Over the course of a career, a leader’s primary focus often shifts.

Preparation – Early in your career, you may spend more time and energy focused on learning. You may not know enough in the beginning to add real value. This phase could include learning about your chosen field, your role, the skills needed to excel, the industry, etc.

Production – During the next phase, as you learn and grow, you should be able to produce more. If you are in sales, you should close more sales; if you are an engineer, the scope and complexity of the problems you tackle should increase. As a leader, you should become more proficient at helping your team accomplish their goal.

Reproduction – Finally, as you mature, leaders often experience one more shift; you could easily find yourself investing more time and energy in future leaders. This could be teaching, coaching, mentoring younger leaders, or even representing the organization in various settings. Emerging leaders gain huge advantage when you provide historical context and perspective.

I now feel the need to state the obvious: I believe our careers rarely fit so neatly into these phases. We can, and do, move in and out of these different stages throughout our careers.

However, if you are finding it difficult to engage in your current role, consider your stage of career. Perhaps the answer is right in front of you … Prepare, Produce or Reproduce. Adjust your focus as needed and stay engaged!

Judging Your Engagement

As we discussed just above, one’s engagement phase ebbs and flows throughout a career. Regardless of the stage you’re in, you’re on the right track.

Men and women who are fully engaged outperform those who are merely going through the motions. This may be the most staggering revelation of common sense to anyone who leads people.

However, this obvious reality also occupies many waking hours for leaders around the world. Though there is no single, miraculous tactic to permanently lift the engagement of people, an engaged follower base always begins with an engaged leader.

Here’s a good starting point to judge your level of engagement, no matter the phase you’re in:

An engaged leader provides clarity.

The engaged leader sees and senses ambiguity. He or she is close enough to the work and the people to know when an infusion of clarity is needed – which is daily!

Clarity may be the greatest gift a leader can give an organization.

You may be thinking: “Clarity around what?” As much as possible!

All high-performance organizations have staggering levels of alignment. Alignment is impossible without clarity.

Here are five candidates for clarity:

  1. Purpose – Does EVERYONE in your organization know WHY you exist?
  2. Mission – Does EVERYONE in your organization know WHAT you are trying to accomplish?
  3. Values – Does EVERYONE in your organization know the beliefs that should guide their behavior?
  4. Goals – Does EVERYONE in your organization know what a win looks like?
  5. Strategies – Does EVERYONE in your organization know how you plan to win?

Obviously, once an organization reaches any scale, a single leader cannot carry the mantle of clarity single-handedly. Engaged leaders create the expectation and the infrastructure to cascade clarity.

Clarity which resides only in the heart and mind of the leader is merely a figment of the imagination.

Clarity must reach the front lines – that’s where the real power resides.

Is your organization clear on what matters most?

Winning Well Reflection

In our experience with thousands of leaders and managers around the world, the number one cause of workplace relationship problems is expectation violations. In other words: people simply aren’t on the same page. Mark’s suggestion that clarity the greatest gift you can give your people cannot be overstated. A strong focus on results where everyone knows exactly what winning looks like is vital to your success.

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6 Steps To Loving The Job You Hate

Many readers write to me and disclose, “I hate my job.”

You’ve gone from skipping to work, to dragging your butt. Little annoyances mushroom in the dung of frustration. Reasons vary: a witchy boss, unrealistic expectations, downsizing pressures, stagnating gifts, unrecognized contributions.

You’ve considered quitting, but that’s a bold move and another post.

I’ve made a career out of re-engineering my own jobs. There’s joy-packed potential all around you. Energizing possibilities abound. Grab the happiness that lurks in your day job.

Reinvent before quitting.

6 Steps to Loving the Job You Hate

  1. Name your frustration – Write down what’s really ticking you off. The big and the small stuff. Use as much paper as needed, and get it all out. Then step away.
  2. Pick the biggies – Find a big red pen and cross off the annoyances. Every job has crap like that.  Shake those off.  Determine the one or two game-changers. Focus your energy on addressing those concerns. You know what must be done. Listen to your heart. If you weren’t scared, where would you start? Talk to a mentor or coach, and make a plan. You are powerful. Use your power to change your scenery.
  3. Collect joy – Remember what you love. Negative feelings overshadow joy. Notice what makes you truly happy at work. Certain tasks? Interactions? Challenges? Write those down too.
  4. Forget humility – Write down your best talents. Not just the “work appropriate” ones. One of my leaders has an amazing rock band. I love to sing. You’d be surprised how many opportunities you can find to sing “at work.” Sure, in the long-run, confident humility is vital. But you’ve got to acknowledge you gifts to have the courage to use them.
  5. Create the job you want – Bring your passion to your job. My deep desire is growing leaders. My job description says I’ve been in sales, marketing, customer service, outsourcing… Not one of these job descriptions says “design and deliver unique leadership development programs for your team.” Or, “mentor anyone that asks for help.” Or, “spend your weekends writing an International blog to let your team in your head.” By investing deeply in those aspects of the job, I get through yawner finance meetings just fine.
  6. Look for special projects – Before our leadership summit, a frontline leader asked if he could take a few pics and video throughout the 2 day meeting. Yesterday, my entire organization received a fully professional video that lit us all up. It was an amazing investment of personal time and energy. He took it upon himself to leverage his gifts to bring more joy beyond his role. Skipping to work, turns heads.

How have you found more joy in your work? How could you?

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