Last week I attended a series of meetings with the leadership team of a startup operation. We discussed a variety of initiatives — some in the planning stage, others in mid-implementation or at the point of debriefing. I observed as the leaders shared their thoughts about the current and future state of the business — their conversation ranged from mutual ideation to negotiation, with a couple of real arguments thrown in for good measure.
Multiple times it became clear that there was some friction between the leaders, especially when more than one person claimed responsibility for a project. One example in particular made clear the challenges of shared responsibility, but it also provided a way to clarify roles and work from individual strengths.
Look Back to Lead the Team Better
The immediate challenge was to encourage team members to take on and initiate new projects that everyone had agreed needed to be done while supporting each other and sharing resources for the benefit of all projects. These concepts were reviewed from time to time in staff meetings. The leadership expectation was that team members would lend a hand when they could — but instead, most of the nonleadership team members stuck pretty closely only to their explicitly assigned tasks. The leaders felt disappointed and frustrated, and didn’t understand why they weren’t getting a better response.
So, in one of our meetings, I did a look-back with the two leaders most responsible for recruiting, screening, onboarding, and managing team members. We wanted to see how the half-hearted team members had been selected, oriented, and directed, find out what we could from those experiences, and identify any productive changes that could be made to current operating practices. These leaders had an open conversation about their actions, perceptions, and strengths, and we came to several conclusions.
Start from Strengths
One leader was an original founder, and was particularly skilled at making both the organization and the jobs seem exciting and interesting. He warmly welcomed new employees, helping them feel comfortable and important to the organization. The second leader, who had come into the organization a little later, was more astute about noticing when and whether new people showed understanding or not. She was much more consistent about checking in with people and specifically encouraging or nudging them to participate.
While these leaders were each extremely competent in their own areas of expertise and deeply committed both to the organization’s mission and to working well with each other, they were first-timers at this level of responsibility for other people’s performance. They felt equally let down by the fact that many team members didn’t seem to be self-starters, recognizing what needed to be handled and stepping up to do it the way these leaders themselves had done.
Establish Separate, Mutually Supportive Responsibilities
Given the activities that each of the leaders seemed to prefer and was more inclined to do consistently, along with their agreement about the accuracy of each other’s self-assessments, we came up with a simple plan to separate out their responsibilities.
The founding leader enjoyed presenting the vision of the future and orienting new people, and he was good at helping employees find the areas and tasks in which they most wanted to be involved. He preferred the big picture and general messaging but had less patience for ongoing operations or for anticipating where anyone was likely to fall off track or thinking about individualized ways to encourage and nudge them back on course. They agreed that he would be responsible for the majority of the orientation and for job assignments.
The second leader had much less discomfort about reminding people of their responsibilities and helping individuals who were lagging figure out what was going wrong and how to improve, so she took on more of an ongoing supervisory, performance, and coaching role.
Both leaders would continue to be deeply involved in interviewing and would combine their judgments. They respected each other’s ability to notice what they called “yellow flags” — areas of potential concern — but the second leader seemed to have a better sense for potential risks and ways to mitigate those risks, so they agreed to take her judgments about probationary periods and where a team member needed extra direction and guidance.
Candidness Leads to Greater Commitment
The two leaders agreed that whenever something went wrong, they would try not to treat reminders or corrections as indications of either employee or management failure, but as part of the normal course, and they planned a more consistent cadence of one-on-one as well as staff meetings to foster greater employee engagement.
These leaders still have collective responsibility for team members and their accomplishments. But because they were able to have a candid discussion about their own capabilities and were willing to shift their focus and activities, they came to a joint plan that has a much better chance of succeeding. Now they’re also more likely to get the kind of positive self-reinforcing results they’re looking for: improved performance and strengthened commitment.