Key Insights from “Unleashed”
As I continue diving deeper into a leadership role, I’m constantly searching for best practices for serving the team better and helping each individual bring their best self to work. One of my recent findings was the book “Unleashed” by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss. The authors did a great job defining leadership and coming up with important questions leaders should ask themselves, such as: Do my team members perform better when I’m around? Many critical aspects of leadership are covered in the book, from building trust with the team to developing a strong company strategy. In this article, I’m going to share a list of key insights I gained from the book.
Leadership is about empowering people
One of the key goals for any leader should be unleashing the potential of each team member and making sure that the impact continues in their absence. The first step to empowering people is being sincerely curious about what team members are thinking, feeling, and doing. Understanding what motivates people, what drives them, and what causes concerns helps to develop an individual approach to team members. This will grow their strengths and help them excel and enjoy what they do. Leaders need to analyze how team members’ performances changed after they showed up. Were they stable, growing, or declining? Obviously, the latter is not a good sign. Still, even with a growing performance, leaders must continuously ask themselves: What could I do, big or small, to improve the team’s performance?
Leaders need to teach not what to think but how to think
Empowering team members is not about leading them to desired results through micromanagement. Instead of pushing specific decisions on challenges, leaders need to focus on building an environment where team members come up with solutions themselves. Among other things, this might include recommending which factors need to be taken into account when choosing one strategy or the other to address the problem, how the problem and the potential solution marry with the bigger picture, and so forth. The earlier leaders start focusing on helping team members build the right mindset versus providing direct assistance in problem-solving, the faster the pace of their growth.
Leaders shift their focus
As individual contributors, we aspire to deepen our expertise in the subject matter to deliver better results over time. One of the key changes that leaders can expect is a shift of focus from elevating themselves to developing, protecting, and enabling the people around them. One might believe that they would be able to continue full-scale self-development while helping team members to grow. However, the authors stress that usually, it’s difficult to do both at the same time. Since the person has made a conscious decision to follow the leadership path, the team’s growth and development needs to be prioritized.
Believe in someone else’s unrealized potential
Believing in your team members is not about adding a fancy phrase to the company’s mission statement. It’s about giving them space to stumble. Leadership may communicate in all-hands meetings that it supports mistakes. However, when team members who actually make mistakes are met with little understanding, it sends a clear signal to employees: Mistakes won’t be tolerated. The pattern of behavior switches from innovative to risk-averse. To avoid this, leaders need to promote new approaches and tactics and accept that mistakes are going to happen along the way.
Here at Wrike, one of the core principles of our customer service organization (CSO) is “fail gloriously.” Failing while trying something new is praised by the leadership and even celebrated as a separate category during the all-hands meetings. Team members — both old and new — see over and over again that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them and keep moving forward. I truly appreciate that about our company.
Empowerment begins with trust
It’s critical for leaders to be authentic. People tend to trust you when they think they’re interacting with the real you. Those who are not authentic will quickly see an invisible wall growing between them and the people around them. Retaining your authenticity may be harder when you’re a leader since you have a spotlight on you. People will continuously watch how you behave in different situations and make decisions. If what you do and what you say are not aligned, you’re going to lose your team’s trust. The good thing about authenticity is that it is infectious. When employees see that you’re sincere, it’s much easier for them to share opinions openly, helping to grow an atmosphere of trust in the team and the whole organization.
Be willing to update your point of view based on new information
Many people are not comfortable publicly changing their opinion, fearing that others will not take them seriously. However, our opinions are usually based on the information we have at a specific moment. When new data emerges, it may become clear that the former status quo needs to be updated. Being open to changing your point of view is not a sign of inconsistency — it’s a sign that you acknowledge the current business situation is not written in stone and it’s necessary to show flexibility.
Lead with justice
Many of those just beginning their journey as a leader are confused about where to start. Some choose to concentrate on achieving results by pushing through their approach regardless of the cost. This could potentially lead to pushback from team members and burnout for some. The opposite is being overly empathetic. You end up focusing 100% of your effort on hearing team members’ concerns and working through them. While empathy is most definitely something that every successful leader needs to demonstrate, in extreme cases, work may not get done at all. That said, leading with justice is about achieving a balance of strength and empathy. There’s no single correct proportion here — leaders need to take the time to discover the appropriate amount for their team.
Set the bar high and have your team’s back
As long as leaders have their team’s back, it’s fair to set ambitious goals. When the leaders’ expectations are high and clear, team members tend to stretch to reach them. Here at Wrike, we work by OKRs (objectives and key results). It’s well known that the “classic” definition of the OKR implies that the objectives need to be high, so a 70% completion rate is considered a great result. But getting to 70% involves a lot of hard work and (usually) extra miles. To ensure success, it’s critical for team members to know that should any problems emerge, the leader will be on their side to provide guidance and support.
Catch someone in the act of behaving how you want them to behave
There’s a common opinion that leadership should spot the mistakes the team members make and provide recommendations on what could’ve been done differently and how. However, team members often take the right action themselves without any support or direction. Leaders must spot such behavior and use sincere and specific praise to describe what exactly has been done well so the team member can replicate that behavior.
It’s important to point out that as a rule of thumb, only things that team members have control over need to be highlighted. For example, it’s well known that sometimes, sales reps get lucky, and a large deal comes their way without much effort from their side. You can’t compare such a situation to one where the rep has been engaged in a long demand discovery process followed by tough negotiation that led to an amazing result. The latter should be the focus of the leadership’s praise (even though it’s good, of course, to celebrate any deal closed).
Be a Santa Claus of feedback
The authors point out that, unfortunately, many people today don’t know how to give feedback. Common mistakes include providing only negative or vague feedback. For the feedback to work well, it needs to be laid on top of a foundation of trust. As long as this condition is met, team members will be open to receiving both praise and critical feedback.
It is recommended that the ratio of positive to constructive feedback is at least five to one. It may sound obvious, but so many people don’t take the time to praise good work. Of course, there’s no bad intention behind it — they just consider a job well done the norm. Even if it is the norm, it doesn’t mean that team members should not receive praise for their continuous great work.
Strategy is a direct extension of who you are as a leader
At its most basic, strategy describes how an organization wins. It shows team members how to deploy resources they control — including time, focus, capital, etc. Leaders need to continuously re-evaluate the company strategy. A good starting point would be to understand how the strategy was created originally and how it has evolved.
It’s wise to establish a cadence of reviewing the strategy to check whether it’s still aligned with the current goals. The strategy shouldn’t be a document that would require several hours to read. The authors recommend keeping it to under three pages. Still, it needs to provide a clear answer to what the company is aiming to achieve and how. When the leader is absent, the strategy should give employees a general understanding of the course of action to take should they get stuck.
The authors share this important tip for building your strategy: Your company needs to be better than your competitors at the things that matter most to the customers. For that to happen, you may need to be worse than your competitors at other things. It’s sometimes hard to accept that it’s impossible to be the best at everything — so companies need to choose their battles wisely.
Culture establishes rules of engagement after leadership leaves the room
In a nutshell, company culture establishes “how things work around here.” Often, the conversation about culture only occurs when people realize something that needs to change. If you want to make a maximum impact as a leader, you need to be a culture warrior. You’re not always going to be there for your team members in the room. A well-established culture gives you the confidence to exit it. Culture needs to be aligned with the current challenges and opportunities the company is facing. Make sure that as a leader, you’re open to different ideas that can come from anywhere in the company, regardless of seniority and position.
This list isn’t essential and only covers the tip of the iceberg of all the great recommendations this book provides. I consider it a great asset to everyone who would like to accelerate their growth as a leader.