Leadership and relationships: two sides of the same coin

Leadership & relationships

I have been fortunate enough to have traveled and worked with leaders in many parts of the world. Irrespective of the industry or the location – I’m still struck by the similarities that I continue to see. The universal truth is that, regardless of the leader’s organization, country, culture or expertize – the need to relate to others remains a critical success factor. Relationships and leadership, leadership and relationships; they are inextricably linked.

But what actually makes for good relationships – especially in the context of leadership? In both our professional and personal lives – healthy, constructive and mutually beneficial relationships are based upon four basic building blocks, namely:

  • Trust
  • Mutual Respect
  • Deep Understanding
  • Reciprocity

Considering each one in turn:


What is trust? The Merriam- Webster Dictionary defines trust as “the assured reliance and confidence in the character, strength and integrity of someone or something”. But what does this mean in practice? Trust exists when you can be vulnerable enough to freely express you ideas and feelings without the fear of reprisal. Trust also occurs when your audio and video (actions and words) are congruent; when agreements are kept and differences are met head-on. You know it when you have it and keenly feel it when it’s not there. Trust is earned over time but can be broken in an instant.

pyramidMutual Respect

People want leaders they can look up to, hold in high regard and be proud of. Similarly, people want their leaders to believe in them and to care about them. People want to feel that they make a difference – whatever their role – and to be recognized for doing so. Several research studies have demonstrated that employees value a caring leader more highly than financial packages and fringe benefits. But mutual respect can be tricky – mutual respect means that both parties respect one another. It is possible to make another person respect you, but it’s not something that you can easily control. It is, however, something you can encourage.

What constitutes mutual respect? It starts by listening. Carving out the time to understand others – their needs, wants, fears and opinions – and, critically, doing so without being focused on your own agenda. ‘Beneficial intent’ – i.e. not making assumptions or attributions about the intent of another’s action – is a key mindset here. Give people the benefit of the doubt; talk to them and explore the issues that they bring up. Mutual respect grows over time and deepens with the willingness to be honest, to listen and to invest time and effort in others.

Deep Understanding

How well do you know your team-mates or colleagues? Does your knowledge go further than simply being aware of their work experience and expertise? Deep understanding goes beyond the surface data points of ‘name, rank and serial number’. It exists when you have insight into a person’s make-up, key drivers and goals. It comes with an appreciation of who that person is and an understanding of their unique journey. Finally, deep understanding is cemented through an acceptance of others and their feelings.


John Gottman, Ph.D., an expert on relationships, discovered that the way in which people pay attention to one another is critical when it comes to developing good relationships. He calls these connections “bids” and “responses to bids”. “Bids” are conveyed in a myriad of ways; some are easy to discern, others less so. They can be questions, statements, comments or non-verbal gestures.

Gottman’s research identified three responses to bids. The first one occurs when you turn toward the other person and they reciprocate; this in turn encourages further connection and a deepening of the relationship over time. The other two bids occur when one turns away from, or against, the other person – and in so doing, breaking the emotional connection of the relationship. Over time and repeated often, these latter bids are likely to destroy the relationship.

Good leaders learn how to build good relationships. They know the value that a sense of belonging brings to their team and organization – even though it requires a sustained investment of time. Effective leaders are prepared to invest the time and effort that it takes to develop relationships because they recognize the very strong business imperative for doing so.

How good are your relationships? A valuable starting point is to take time out to reflect on the relationships that you have with your key stakeholders and to consider them through the lens of trust, mutual respect, deep understanding and reciprocity.

Inheriting an intact team: strategies for effective team leadership in the first 100 days

In previous articles we’ve looked at ‘leading intentionally’ – a leadership mindset that enables leaders to navigate ambiguity and to stay focused; we’ve also considered the challenges and opportunities presented when building a new team from scratch. In this article we’re focusing on inheriting a team – the most common scenario for leaders who move into a new role.

The first 100 days

leadership2The challenges of the first 100 days are well documented. Navigating a potentially new organization or new role, understanding its culture and finding your feet can make for a substantial challenge. One critical success factor is likely to be how adept you are at leading the team you inherit. Keys to success here will be understanding the wider context and understanding how your role and remit fits into that – then getting buy-in and follower-ship from what you hope will be a high performing team.

Knowing the set-up of your new role, including the team, will most likely have been covered in some detail before you made the move. Perhaps you met decision makers and a range of stakeholders as part of this process. As with any role change – it’s valuable to have answers at the outset to questions such as: how did the vacancy come about, and what was your predecessor’s track record? Making sure you’re ‘in the know’ with respect to who and what went before you is essential due diligence.

When moving roles within your existing organization, consider the following

1.  Fit for purpose? Audit the team you’re inheriting

Moving in to your new team – your first priority will be to audit what you have. What are the capabilities of your new team members? Most importantly and with reference to the wider context – do they have the ability to help you deliver the goals that you yourself are tasked with delivering?

In most scenarios you will arrive having already been given some existing data on team members. You’ll know the structure and who the key players are. However, in those early meetings, the onus will be on you to find the answers to questions such as:

  • Do team members have the right technical expertise?
  • How do they make decisions?
  • What do they think about the role they’re in (positive, negative, over-qualified, under challenged, etc)?
  • Are they motivated?

As well as studying individuals and discerning what makes them tick – the broader questions will likely be:

  • How do the team members fit together?
  • Are they invested in one another?
  • Where are the fault lines?

With respect to all of the above – the wider organizational context must inform how these questions are answered. It needs to be more than a subjective stab in the dark, or first opinion. Informed hypotheses need to be reached through the gathering and analysis of a range of datasets. Much of the data will consist of ‘hard’ tangible metrics – but much will also be intangible, especially when it comes to the issue of team dynamics and relationships. External expertise is often a valuable asset here, especially to understand what’s going on ‘beneath the surface’. Knowing what really makes an individual tick, how they make decisions and the nuances of a team’s internal structures are not always easy to discern.

The above may sound onerous – and it can be – but by the end of your first 100 days in role, you should have reached a stage where hypotheses can be arrived at and the wheels set in motion for change.

2.  Who to keep and who must go

Making decisions about who stays and who goes is oftentimes the hardest part of a leader’s role. But it is also the most critical. Too often we see examples of the archetypal ‘un-invested’ team member; this person has the capability to undermine the rest of the team, to drag others down and to act as a real blocker when it comes to realizing visions and making change happen. Potentially high performing teams can be seriously derailed by just one of these ‘types’. Accepting that and acting upon it is the role of leadership. It’s also important in this situation to remember and reiterate that such individuals may once have been high performing and delivering – they are not ‘bad people’; but organizations and their challenges change over time and their workforce must reflect this.

In a previous article we focused on the concept of ‘positive disruption’: interrupting the status quo and making root-and-branch changes where necessary, rather than simply baby-steps. We considered the challenges of doing this while focusing on why there is a business imperative to making change happen. The key consideration must always be the wider organizational context; decisions should never get made in a vacuum.

If, following an analysis of the gathered data and insights – it is clear that certain individuals need to go – this process should be done in conjunction with HR. As ever with a restructuring – clear messaging, transparency of process and constant alignment with the broader organizational ‘big picture’ are crucial.

3.  Retaining and engaging talent

When leaders change – it’s not uncommon for other team members to feel that the time may be right for a fresh start. A plan should be formed to hold on to the key talent that you do not want to lose. Now is a good time to begin working on incentivization initiatives that will encourage those you are keeping to stay bought-in and motivated.

As well as the incentivization piece, getting genuine buy-in from the team is critical. Leading from the front in a way that is inclusive is important here. Determine your non-negotiables prior to starting the new leader integration process.

4.  Developing a high performing team

We covered this in depth in a prior article – “The building blocks to successfully creating a new team”. Uncovering insights and getting team members to understand their own and others’ strengths and weaknesses is vital. Never make the assumption that team members ‘obviously’ know one another just because they have worked in the same team. Often-times – irrespective of how long they may have worked together – they will not have a meaningful understanding of, or relationship with, others in their team. An effective leader will recognize this and be able to channel deeper connections between constituent members.

5.  Gauging success

There are a number of ways to gauge your success with your team. Key questions to answer here are:

  • How open are team members with you?
  • How willing are team members to challenge and to disagree – both with you as the leader, and also with one another?
  • How much open conversation and honest dialogue is there, versus more measured and restrained interaction, between team members?

External expertise in the form of a neutral and objective third party – skilled in team development interventions – can be brought in to help facilitate a deeper level of trust as well as to benchmark and measure progress, if desired.

6.  At 100 days and beyond

At the 100 day mark you will have had the opportunity to immerse yourself into the culture and context of the role and its challenges, to audit the incumbent team, to restructure where necessary, to begin retention initiatives if appropriate – and hopefully, to have started getting buy-in from your team.

Constantly scanning both the hard data as well as the intangibles will help you to stay connected to how your team is performing – and importantly – how team members are working with one another. A genuinely high performing team will have outputs that are significantly larger than the sum of its constituent parts.

Andra Brooks is a US based leadership consultant who has significant experience in the fields of team development and senior executive coaching. Clients she has consulted to in this respect include: Mattel, Baird, Metrohealth, CHEP, Lilly, Wells Fargo and JP MorganChase, among others.

The building blocks to successfully creating a new team

One of the biggest challenges facing any leader is ensuring that the team around them is fit for purpose and able to co-deliver the vision, thus helping the organization to achieve its strategic objectives and deliver to its shareholders. In this article the focus is on those scenarios in which a leader is able to build a new team around them, rather than inheriting one.

Diversity, not clones


When it comes to leading and getting the best out of a team,
a leader’s role can be compared with that of an orchestra’s conductor.

All too often, leaders have a tendency to hire in their own image. This can feel ‘safe’ because hiring people similar to you will increase the likelihood that they will agree with you when it comes to decision making. In practice, however – hiring in one’s own image is rarely a good idea. Instead, the highest performing teams are almost always comprised of individuals who between them represent a wide array of strengths, backgrounds and perspectives – each being able to bring insight and a new view – rather than simply acting as a ‘shadow’ or ‘yes man’ to the team leader.

Know thyself

Team composition begins with self-insight on the leader’s part. What are your spike strengths? And blind spots? What ‘gaps’ need to be filled by those who will directly support you? This element is critical and effective leaders will ensure that they have reached this level of self-insight at the outset. As a leadership consultant – this is an area I am often asked to support with and it is particularly fulfilling when working with leaders who understand that ‘knowing thyself’ is a fundamental tenet of successful leadership.

The wider context

Alongside the leader’s self-insight sits the broader question of context. What role will the team have, especially with respect to decision making? Will individuals predominantly act in silos – or will the team act congruently and jointly take responsibility for key organizational decisions? In short – will the team be a solid, supportive ‘body’, a bit like a sports team – or will it instead be a group of individuals, each struggling for power and influence in which politics is the name of the game?

Distributed leadership

As organizations move further towards a model of distributed leadership – articulation of roles and responsibilities becomes increasingly critical. This can be contrasted with organizations in which one key leader sits at the center, ruling ‘Emperor-like’ across the entire organization. Today, leadership is more intricate than it has ever been. There are multiple stakeholder groups, significant regulation and increasing competition that takes place in an ever more ‘border-less’ and 24/7, ‘always on’ world. All of these combine to make the modern world and its leadership challenges much more complex than they were fifty or even twenty years ago.

Structure and process: the ‘keys’ to high performing team dynamics

So clarity is everything. As the team starts to come together – the leader’s early priority should be to collectively build a sense of shared purpose. This starts with identifying and agreeing clear roles and responsibilities. This also follows through into agreeing such things as: how meetings should be run (frequency, format, expectations, etc); how to communicate; and how decisions should be made. Agreeing these up-front in a way that is clear and structured will provide significant productivity gains when it comes to time spent in meetings going forward. At the very outset it may feel a bit contrived and perhaps unnecessary – but setting these parameters and structures is key to smooth team-working; it’s about agreeing, setting and then managing expectations and promoting transparency and process.

Conflict management

Team members are not expected to agree with one another at all times. In fact, occasional healthy disagreements and conflict will naturally occur in a diverse team.  With this in mind, a mechanism for dispute and conflict resolution should be established. If it isn’t established – what often happens is that disagreements can turn into heated, often hostile, fracas in which emotions run riot and tempers fray; this isn’t conducive to productive team working. The leader’s responsibility is to manage and promote all viewpoints that result in productive discussion, followed by a decision. How consensual the decision-making is should, as mentioned, be agreed at the outset. Rarely is senior leadership decision making ‘black and white’ and as a result, it’s especially important that the whole team gets behind decisions that are made.

Investing for the future

When putting a team together and working on the building blocks that will govern format, decision making and process, it can sometimes feel like ‘going slow’ at the outset. However, spending time at this key stage is really important as it pays long term dividends.

Ultimately, leading a team is rather like conducting an orchestra. Skilled, complex, disparate individuals come together under the lead of one individual who plays an enabling ‘big picture’ role. Conducting an orchestra is the same as team leadership in a commercial context – to do so effectively and efficiently requires appropriate structure, shared goals and a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities; combined, these building blocks ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Power of Positive Disruption

At the beginning of the year we looked at ‘leading intentionally’ – adopting a leadership mindset in which one’s ‘purpose’ and ‘role’ are fundamentally connected and understood. Leading intentionally enables us to lead authentically and with a sense of mandate and purpose, equipping us to tackle challenges head-on because we remain grounded by the ‘intention’ of what we’re doing.

When leading intentionally, the power of positive disruption is an important concept to understand and to adopt. At its simplest – the concept is about making hard changes in the environment around us. As a leader and depending on the amount of clout you may have – this can mean anything from changing your leadership team through to changing the prevailing culture within the organization. It is vital to understand that real change only comes about when the current status quo is disrupted and a ‘new course’ is set.

Change is good

positive-disruptionPeople are frightened of change. Well, most people. In an organizational context, we are all familiar with the stereotype of the co-worker who just abhors change, stating instead that “this is how we’ve always done things around here”. The trouble is, and especially in the context of the business world, if you are not an agent for change, you risk falling behind your competitors who are more innovative, adaptable and forward thinking than you are. Being a change agent (aka a positive disrupter) doesn’t mean ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ or simply instigating ‘change for change’s sake’ – but it does mean pro-actively, assertively and with 100% commitment – creating an environment in which things that don’t work very well, can and will be done differently. This will ruffle feathers and scare some – but it must be done. The more confident you are in your own actions – the easier it is to take people with you. People gravitate towards leaders who have a strong sense of purpose and direction and a deep belief in their own convictions.

Remember that change for change’s sake is not the goal. However, the reality is that in all organizations, some parts operate much more successfully than others. Oftentimes, some parts are simply not fit for purpose. This may be your customer feedback mechanism; the way your accounts department runs; your hiring process; your reward criteria, etc. There is most definitely something within your organization that can and should be overhauled to better meet the needs of your customers and stakeholders.

Baby steps or root and branch change?

This is a key question. Do you make small changes that create positive disruption – or huge, sweeping changes that are experienced as drastic by those around you? The answer, ultimately, depends on what needs changing. If we stick with our leadership mindset which is to lead intentionally – we know that by linking our purpose with our remit, we have given ourselves permission to do what is needed. Our stakeholders are relying on us to do the ‘right thing’ for the organization and if doing so means radical change, then this is what must be done.

At the core of positive disruption is the understanding that you have to actually make change happen. We frequently use phrases like ‘talking the talk, walking the walk’ and in the context of positive disruption, this phrase is never more relevant. We all have good ideas, can talk about what we might do differently and perhaps even get buy-in from above. But until and unless these ideas take physical form – their chance of success is low.

Physical form means positively disrupting the status quo – invariably telling people to stop doing what they’ve always been doing, and to adopt a new approach. To be really effective and to increase the chance of success – this does not mean simply applying a Band-Aid – it means going into the operating theatre.

Positive disruption in practice

Identify an area that really needs overhauling. If you are new in post, consider starting with something small before taking on the bigger challenges. Look and listen to catch the waves of change that others are sponsoring.

Do a gap analysis on a piece of paper. On the left hand side, jot down the attributes of where you are now. What does the issue look and feel like? On the far right hand side, write down what great looks and feels like.

The center-section of the paper is the ‘gap’. It is the ‘no man’s land’ made up of quicksand in which ideas often sink or get shot down all too easily. Think radically of how this gap can be ‘bridged’, not by gingerly walking from left to right, but either through ‘heavy engineering’ or better still, an innovative ‘aerial assault’ that will traverse the gap – something that cannot be easily sabotaged at ground level.

Challenge yourself, and those you trust, to come up with radical ideas that will facilitate the change… then put these into practice.

Once you’ve plotted the new course – get your hands on the tiller and turn the wheel – hard. There will be choppy water ahead, but once you’ve navigated through this – you’re into new territory.

Today, not tomorrow

It all comes down to the status quo. Do not put off today what you believe can wait. Just do it. Be clear about what needs changing and stick to your guns. Don’t feel the weight of ‘what’s been done before and hasn’t worked’. If you’re a leader and you understand your business and what needs changing – forging ahead with brave new initiatives is what you’re paid to do. Don’t be afraid to make radical decisions. If they’re grounded in business rationale (i.e. you’re overhauling a department, product line or business issue that is failing) then things must change and positive disruption is the start point.


Leading Intentionally

A classic definition of leadership is ‘to know thyself’. To understand oneself with the same rigor and laser-like attention usually reserved for key stakeholders – such as shareholders or one’s workforce – is a powerful ability and a key ingredient to successful, long-term leadership. ‘Leading intentionally’, however, requires pushing the boundaries beyond just self-awareness. To lead intentionally a leader must dig deeper and really define what they stand for and what their purpose is. Purpose provides the ‘why’ for a leader’s actions in addition to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of their leadership style. Leading intentionally results in greater efficiency, authenticity and ultimately to results, both at the individual level (in terms of job satisfaction) and also for the organization (in terms of results achieved through a greater alignment of the leader with their role and remit).

As one calendar year ends and another begins, the time is right for leaders to reflect on their own leadership style. Specifically, it is the perfect time for leaders to reconnect with their purpose and to assess – looking back at the previous 12 months – how closely their actions and successes were aligned to their sense of purpose. For some, this is the time to clearly articulate and define their purpose for the first time.

journey3Defining one’s purpose is a journey of discovery. This endeavor is ultimately more art than science and more personal and intuitive than regimented. When doing so, it also helps to remove the concept of ‘perfection’ from the get go. Leading intentionally is a journey that is intensely personal and rarely linear; it has no finite end-point. Instead, it is a mindset that ‘connects’ your purpose with your role and your organization, resulting in greater clarity and focus.

When defining your own sense of purpose and to start leading intentionally, begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Why are you in your current role? How did you come to be in it? These questions become like an archaeological dig as you take yourself further back in time.
  • What have you done that didn’t work out? Where did you succeed? Compare and contrast the ‘wins’ with the ‘losses’ to really understand the ingredients that comprised success.
  • Keep asking yourself why you are doing what you are currently doing. Use the “Five Why’s” exercise to help get to the root cause of an action or outcome.
  • What are you pretending not to know? What are your thoughts – both positive and negative? Be mindful of your thinking while you are working.
  • What energizes you? What does your intuition and heart tell you? Pay as much attention to this as to the ‘hard’ data you’re collecting. It will enrich your direction immensely.

Reflect on the common themes that emerge from the questions above. Use this to articulate your purpose statement. In drafting your purpose statement, hold on to the idea of “being in service of/to” which is a powerful yet simple concept. Aim high yet not unrealistically so in your statement.

In today’s fast paced, highly stimulating and somewhat attention deficit world – leading intentionally ensures that your contributions enrich yourself, your organization, and those around you. It is a leadership mindset that ‘connects’ the key aspects of your leadership – your purpose and your role – helping you to lead with confidence and ultimately to be better able to deliver success at both the personal and organizational level.

Are you ready to lead intentionally in the year ahead?