One year ago, I entered a program called Next Generation Leader at Aperto / IBM iX, where I work as a content designer. The program prepares employees for a future management role and teaches them leadership tools and skills. It contains 4 modules with several trainings and 1:1 coaching sessions over the course of one year.
When I applied for the program, I was just very interested in leadership and wanted to know more. But half a year later, I took the opportunity to actually take on a leadership role and practice my skills in real life. This article contains learnings from the Next Generation Leader program, from reading books on different aspects of leadership, from having inspiring conversations with colleagues and mentors and from leading a team — and making mistakes along the way. I hope you can take something away from it for your own journey.
At the end of the article, you will find a list of books I have read (some of them several times) and recommend.
1. Lead yourself before you lead others
The first learning unit of the Next Generation Leader program was an intense two-day training named “Know Yourself”. I like to think I’m someone who reflects on myself a lot, but that took it to another level. I dug deep and was more honest about my fears and struggles than ever before. Since this training, I have started to read about psychology and to write a 6-minute mindfulness diary. And, most importantly, I’ve had valuable conversations with friends and colleagues about things I would not have dared say out loud before.
Knowing yourself really well is absolutely necessary when you want to be a good leader. You can’t guide, coach and support people if you don’t know how your own mind works.
2. You need critical feedback to improve
In preparation for the “Know Yourself” training we had to collect feedback on our strengths and weaknesses from friends and colleagues. It was the first time I explicitly asked for critical feedback — and it was scary.
It’s even more difficult to get critical feedback from your direct reports. Nobody wants to tell their manager what they do wrong.
But I tell you, if you’re persistent and succeed at getting this constructive criticism, it’s so helpful and often surprising. Of course, what you need to do first is establish the kind of environment in which your team is comfortable to give feedback — positive and critical as well. I warmly recommend the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott. She has very practical advice on that topic. One of the things I always keep in mind is “Praise in public, criticize in private.”
3. Don’t preach it, live it
Children don’t do what their parents tell them to do, but what their parents do. At least it was like that for me — my parents like to tell me that “education” never worked on me. I was just mimicking their behaviours — the good ones along with the bad ones.
“Educating” your team will also fail if you don’t practice what you preach. In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown describes this as a conflict between aspirational values vs. practised values. Aspirational values are what you write on post-its in a Team Canvas workshop, which is great — but worth absolutely nothing if you as a leader don’t practise these values. This seems disheartening at first, but if you look at it from another angle, it’s quite empowering:
How you behave, the person you are and the values you portray can influence your team culture in a big and lasting way.
4. Vulnerability is key
In several units of the Next Generation Leader program we had to reveal fears and thoughts about ourselves in a group of people. In learning no. 2, I used the word “scary” for that. Why was it scary? Because it made us vulnerable. Opening up about something I think is wrong with me, a weakness, something I’m not good at, feels vulnerable. But what happens then is magic: Just talking about it makes it seem less wrong.
And then having another person reacting, asking questions, understanding, telling their own related story — suddenly this weakness seems more like a chance. I believe that as a leader, this effect helps me a lot. It takes a huge effort trying to hide your flaws and mistakes from you direct reports. And sometimes, they will see right through it and respect you even less.
It might be scary to open up about you weaknesses and talk openly about embarrassing mistakes with the people who are supposed to guide, but it’s always the better option.
5. Agility is not an impediment, but an advantage
For years I’ve been working with two focuses: content and agility. In my projects, I often had unusual cross-over roles somewhere between content designer and Scrum Master or Kanban Coach. And I’ve loved it.
When I had the opportunity to lead a team of content designers, I had to give up my role as Scrum Master. I wondered if leading a content team while I spend half of my time working with and teaching agile methods was a contradiction. Now I know: It’s not a contradiction, it’s an advantage.
First, designing great content can (and should) happen in an agile environment and interdisciplinary team. Having content designers, content strategists, copywriters and UX writers with agile mindsets and knowledge will make it easier for the whole team to create a great product. So I think my team will only benefit from my agile background.
And most importantly: If you’re already a Scrum Master or Agile Coach, it’s a small step to being an agile leader — or “servant leader”, someone who serves a team to help them do their best work possible.
6. Don’t be a robot
Or, as author Henna Inam puts it: “Bring your whole self to work.” It’s not news that people are happier and more productive at work, when they can be themselves. But becoming a leader I asked myself: How much should I share about my private life? What can I ask my direct reports, what would cross a line? Is private chit-chat in a 1:1 meeting a waste of time?
To me, the last question ist easiest to answer: No. It is not a waste of time to get to know my team members better, learn what they do in their time off, what motivates them, what they struggle with. It helps me to understand them better and, quite frankly, I just enjoy that a lot.
And of course, if they are open with me, I have to return the favor. Sometimes, after I talked about something private with one of my direct reports, I ask myself: Should I have said that? And always, the answer is: Why the heck not?
We are not robots and showing our whole selves makes us happier and our connections deeper.
7. Stay authentic
When I took on my leadership role, I had already had several leadership trainings and was reading lots of books. Enthusiastically, I told my new boss about those and also about other leaders and how I admired what they did. She was not quite as enthusiastic as me and told me:
“Don’t get lost in methods and don’t try to copy what someone else is doing. Find your own leadership style.”
I think this was great advice. Reading and asking and learning is great to get new impulses, ideas and perspectives. But in the end, I am not these authors, not my boss and not the others leaders in my company. Some things will just not work for me. I have to find my own way.
What’s your way?
This list is far from conclusive. Learning never stops. And there is much more to say about each one of the points. I’m very interested in what you think about the list. Is there anything you would add? Any point that particularly resonated with you? Would you like to read more on a particular topic? What are your favorite books on leadership? Let me know!