Challenge ‘em

Tom Koulopolos, writer, speaker and founder of the Delphi Group, wrote recently that

“People will rarely follow you because you’re great. They follow you because you enable them to feel great about themselves.”

I liked that. I thought about the bosses I’d had who made me feel great about myself.

I thought about my first boss, Bill, who encouraged me to adopt a more upbeat and problem-solving attitude to work challenges. Bill was never stuck; he always found a way, and he challenged me to be the same.

I thought about Jim, who let me attend, at the tender age of 22, a senior management meeting to make the case for enhanced maternity provision for female staff before any of this was enshrined in employment law as it is today. And Jack, who asked me to take on a role that I felt supremely unqualified for, academically, experientially – and personality-wise. His judgement was right; mine was wrong. I thrived in that role and the organisation benefitted.

I thought about Mike, who regularly ripped apart my attempts at writing a position paper for the CEO and showed me how to lift my sights to a more strategic, more persuasive, level. Some days his input felt a bit bruising. But I always tried harder the next time, and gradually I became more able to make the points in a way that was more likely to be accepted.

These managers all stand out for me because I loved working for them. I’ve had other managers, but they’re less memorable now. Some of them were kind, most were supportive. But it was the ones who challenged me that I’m most grateful to.

That’s why I find it sad and frustrating when I meet managers who are at pains to be supportive of their staff, even at points when, frankly, support and understanding are not what’s required. I can think of around 6 managers who have told me, over the past year, that they take on tasks themselves to ‘shield’ or ‘protect’ their direct reports.

To those managers: a plea.

Please stop! You’re killing yourself and – actually – you’re also holding them back.

But don’t take it from me.

Steve Jobs is known for sticking his head around meeting room doors, doing a quick size-up of the discussion and withdrawing with the words … “guys, you can do better…”

Peter Drucker, when asked “what’s the ultimate responsibility of a leader when it comes to those he or she is tasked with managing?” simply replied, “You don’t manage them. You challenge them.”

Give it a go? Your people will thank you for it!