Sometimes before a big meeting, I hear Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” in my head.
“The moment, you own it, you better never let it go/You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo”
Yes, it says yo, and I do say that in my head.
After a long career, I still think there are moments when you prove yourself. As I’m prepping for an important meeting with my team or executives, I know I need to make an impression. I need to look and sound like a leader. I’m not always sure what I’m reaching for, but I know great leadership when I see it. What is this “thing,” why is it so hard to find and even harder to replicate?
Much has been written about what leadership is, how it’s different from management, and the various ways it can fail. Wouldn’t it be great if we could become great leaders by simply ticking the boxes on some Great Leadership checklist? Unfortunately, your ability to lead well develops like any other skill; success comes through commitment and practice. It’s like reading a nighttime story to my child about sharing; I’m hoping something sticks but tomorrow he’s probably going to grab something out of a friend’s hand anyway. He must live that lesson himself.
So I’ve crafted a practical To Do list to help guide you through building leadership skills. Through practicing these tasks, I’ve become a leader and I hope you will too. Why? Because the world needs great leaders. People who will put themselves out there and lead others from a human place, with organized and good intent. People like you.
The Hidden Ingredient
First, let’s set the stage.
You used to manage 10 people. Your small organization was known for good morale and getting things done. Thanks to that reputation, your team and responsibilities have rapidly grown. Now you have a team of 50 people reporting up through various managers. You only know some of your team members well, and you’re starting to forget people’s names — something you always prided yourself on. And troubling signs are appearing. For the first time, you’re worried you might not meet your goals for the quarter. When you ask managers what they need, they report that the team isn’t bought into the strategy or they are mired in discussions about who owns what.
This has been my situation a few times, and I’m getting better at noticing the phases and needs of my teams earlier on. Somewhere along the way, a team can lose the joy of getting things done and become distracted by the organization itself. What’s missing? You guessed it.
“Unwilling to take a strong stance”
Feedback about leadership can be a chameleon, taking the shape of whatever challenge is ahead of you and what skills are needed. But it’s also pretty identifiable, “lead” shows up in the feedback I’ve received 56 times and counting. People will tell you that they want it.
“Alana is so much of a team player, she often forgets that she is sufficiently senior to really take the reins and guide the horse…The team looks to Alana for strong leadership, but Alana seems unwilling to take a strong stance.”
“I would like to see Alana take a larger role in driving program strategy. I think this is an area she has tended to participate in lightly. In turn, this has given our team a high level of autonomy unlike what I’ve seen at Google and one of the reasons I enjoy working on this team as much as I do! However, as our team grows, I believe the team and especially our newest team members could benefit from her increased guidance.”
“Alana has an opportunity to step up and make her voice heard. She has a role — to challenge assumptions, ask questions, and push people to think about the larger Google context. Alana has a lot to offer and her peers are definitely eager for her to do so.”
“Alana could also lead by example by not being online every night and emailing into the early hours. It’s difficult to preach something to your reports when you yourself do not practice.”
In my article about Strategic Thinking, I wrote about courage. Leadership is a combination of courage and skill. Many people we label as natural leaders are born less fearful — comfortable with the universe and magnetic with others. This gives them the courage to speak their ideas without the limits others may feel. However, there is also a critical skill set — how do you come up with a strategy, what’s the best way to communicate it, how do you sustain a connection with people and drive a team forward. We can learn these skills and, in turn, grow our courage. That’s what I had to do.
A Nitty Gritty Leadership Top 5 List
Over time, I formed a simple list of tasks that anyone can do to evoke leadership. Performing this list, I’ve consistently scored highly in internal surveys regarding my performance as a Director at Google. In turn, my confidence increased and funded further chance-taking and skill growth.
1) Hire great people and trust them
Spend time on hiring, especially when your team is growing rapidly or you need to fill key roles. Your people are your business, i.e. the quality of your people directly equates to the quality of your business. Find the people who you can trust to lead your organization at every level — people who are better than you, and who will push you to be better. Sometimes I see hiring fall in a leader’s priorities because of competing demands and limited time. This is a mistake. Stay focused here and go the extra mile (whether it’s phone calls, emails, escalations for competitive compensation) to nab the best talent. Your organization will thank you for it, and your job will be 10x easier because your organization is strong.
2) Do Strategy and Planning on a routine cadence
Then keep your great people focused with clear goals and organization. What is your long-term strategy? What are the tactical steps to achieve it?
At Google we have an annual opportunity to set strategy via our budget and headcount planning process. Sticking to a predictable cadence gives people faith in what they are working on and a chance to recommit. But I’ve also done this off cycle as I’m growing new teams or when goals need revisiting. Aligning people and tell them where to march is very important; otherwise you’ll find them all over the place later — goals missed, unhappy team members, and dissatisfied bosses.
Note that I feel strongly leaders need to step up during strategy and planning to show their vision. Otherwise what are leaders for? Collaboration with your team is great, but take the opportunity to step up here and show them your stuff. Tips here.
Corollary: Often teams do value setting discussions at the same time as strategy creation: setting common principles for how they treat each other, customers, partners, or the world. I find values incredibly useful, not just for holding each other accountable, but also for attracting talent from the get-go that aligns with your values. At Google Fiber, ‘respect’ ended up being a major value for our team, and that carried through to how we aimed to treat customers (would that policy treat the customer with respect?) and how we aimed to treat each other (what’s the best way to have this tough discussion?).
3) Collaborate with routine “think big” exercises
In addition to strategy and planning, I like to occasionally grab the team for some big picture thinking and ask, “what would we do if anything was possible?” With all the constraints of headcount, budget, technical feasibility remove, what will people dream up? Use that fodder to cultivate innovation on your team and show people possibility they wouldn’t otherwise imagine. More on that in an upcoming article!
4) Communicate with your team routinely
A leader I worked with would repeatedly say, “Repetition does not spoil the prayer.” That stuck in my head probably because it was said so much! This mirrored what I learned in my early career when I was training others; you have to repeat information 3 times before people really absorb it. Why does this matter? Unless you repeat key information, people will forget it. That brilliant strategy work you did in January? Forgotten by April! So make sure you have a steady drumbeat of communication throughout the year to keep people focused.
Very practically this means hosting a monthly or quarterly All Hands with your team, regardless of how big it gets. If you have an multi-national team, this may mean having more than one session to account for time zones. Back that session up with routine email communications, videos, or verbal communications managers can pass down through their team meetings. People absorb information via different methods, so information bears repeating multiple times via different forums.
I want to emphasize the importance of playing a major part in your org’s communications. This may feel like grunt work, but it’s the way to remain visible as a human. The upside? Communication builds trust with your team and keeps them on track. It also builds culture. Through one weekly email to the Google Fiber organization, I was able to remind everyone about the importance of the customer, recognize the team for hard work, and share fun customer tweets. Repetition does not spoil the prayer.
5) Lead & Manage by Example
Finally, you gotta walk the walk. The behaviors you demonstrate will be copied so make them good ones! My top picks:
- Have weekly 1-on-1 meetings with your direct reports. In turn, hold them to the same standard and expect them to have regular 1:1s with their people, and so on. Again this is the way we build trust, keep our employees focused, and build their careers.
- I’m also a big fan of routine skip level meetings – these are conversations with the people who report deeper in your organization (e.g. through a manager below you). These conversations enable people in your organization to get to know you and also share what they’re working on. You’ll understand challenges throughout your org better enabling improved decision making and building trust throughout your team.
- Ensure your organization has a routine performance feedback process. Remember that developmental feedback doesn’t have to wait, and it’s better to keep feedback along the way so no one is surprised.
- Also pay EXTREME attention to promotion and rewards processes to ensure they are strong; motivation is a key element of leadership.
- And have fun. As a junior manager, I thought fun events were a waste of time (can you tell I’m an introvert?). Now I know better, and I know to model taking breaks as a leader. Fun is critical to feeding the whole person who is your employee — for stress relief, for networking, for laughing at your manager riding a tiny bike. Make sure fun events are happening even if budgets are tight (volunteering can be a great way to get out of the office). Also try not sending emails at night or on weekends.
Lastly try not sending emails at night or on weekends. How can an employee rest or have fun if their leader is always pinging them? And you need rested, happy employees for their best work.
Is this stuff easy? No, but it’s totally doable. Pick one where you’re weakest and start practicing it. Then add another once you feel more comfortable. I’m willing to bet you’ll see the difference in your team and the feedback you receive.
Note that for my list, I stuck to things “anyone could do” in my estimation. Meaning they are all tasks, learnable the way one rides a bike. Suggested pre-watch/read: Brené Brown is awesome and will get you in a great mindset for leadership challenges.
This piece is selected from an ongoing series, chronicling my 17 years at Google and the performance feedback that has helped to shape my career. People often wonder what has motivated me to stay so long at one company. I usually tell them it’s the people and career opportunities that Google affords; it’s also the ability to level up my personal growth. I consistently ask myself: what have I learned along the way and how am I continuing to improve? As you may know, we love data at Google. In this vein, I dug back into past performance reviews and cataloged the feedback I’ve received. This has been a humbling journey, but also one where I can appreciate just how much I’ve grown over the years and help others with feedback they may be receiving today.
For more pieces in this series, please see Ambition, a Foreign Land, It’s Delegation Time, Accepting Emotions and Change, Dealing with Frustration on the Job, Strategic Thinking, We Meet Again, Managing a Team: Control and Inspiration, and Prioritization – the Visible Invisible Skill.