Most firm leaders are so focused on projects, tasks and supervising others that they forget to keep their eyes on self-management – the skills and strategies that anchor personal and professional growth.
That’s an understandable yet costly mistake.
To help reset your leadership compass so that it points to “True North” – your management of yourself – I’m suggesting four powerful yet under-appreciated strategies.
If you keep his brief list handy, review it regularly and heed its wisdom, you’ll be making high-impact strides in how you lead others, both in your firm and in your family.
Strategy #1: Stop avoiding discomfort
Consider these situations:
A wise decision certain to bring pain in the short term gets delayed and delayed.
There’s an important conversation waiting to happen, but it’s uncomfortable.
You were inappropriate and you owe an apology, but it doesn’t happen.
Good decisions, important conversations and relationship-building apologies are examples of situations when we don’t do what we know makes sense because it’s emotionally uncomfortable.
It’s a case of comfort over progress.
Most of the discomfort-avoidance that happens in firms stems from the “approval virus.”
If firm leaders could learn to regulate their allergy to discomfort, they would care less about approval and perfection and make better decisions.
This is more challenging than it sounds. I wish I had a dollar for every decision I see leaders make that is driven by their need to be liked.
The odd thing is that leaders who make acceptance a priority are rarely respected in the long run. Another way to say it: Caving in to the fear of rejection often leads to rejection.
Strategy #2: Engage “the enemy”
I coach my accounting firm clients and children to learn how to deal with people they don’t like.
One of my parenting quips is: “By the time we get rid of all the people you don’t like, there won’t be anybody left.”
I often hear firm leaders perpetrating an “eliminate the enemy” mindset when referring to business competitors, “problem” employees or “difficult” siblings.
I have two main beefs with seeing those folks as enemies. The first is that such an attitude guarantees a highly anxious relationship. Anxious relationships are much more prone to impulsive decisions and destructive consequences.
The second problem with an enemy mindset is that it feeds my own irresponsibility. As long as the other is the problem, I don’t have to look at myself.
One way to shield myself from responsibility is to make the other the bad guy.
Instead of hyper-focusing on enemies, take a good hard look at your response to the enemies.
Notice what happens when the only attitude that changes is your own
Strategy #3: Value (and appoint) a devil’s advocate
Staff members widely believe that they cannot communicate difficult messages to partners—“because I could get fired.” In 99 percent of the cases, that’s a cop out.
When I talk to firm partners they commonly say: “The most valuable people who work for me are those who will tell me the truth as they see it. That includes their feedback to me, about me.”
Not all leaders are that open. But all leaders should make such transparency their goal.
One idea is to encourage others in the firm to speak directly and candidly when they have a problem with one of the firm leaders.
Timid employees play a big part in ivory-tower leadership. Staff complain that partners are clueless, but they often won’t take the risk to communicate their observations. Protecting leaders from grass roots feedback harms the firm.
Any top leader who’s not getting honest feedback from below should consider appointing a “devil’s advocate” for one year. The job of the devil’s advocate is to report uncomfortable messages, contrary opinions and unflattering feedback to partners. This can happen one-on-one or in a group, depending on the feedback.
A good devil’s advocate sifts important information from hearsay, gossip and whining. And they frame their feedback as personal perception only (“I’ve noticed ...”)
To avoid favoritism, the “devil’s advocate” could be a rotating role with a one-year term limit.
Strategy #4: Shoot for deeper connections
The most common problem I see in accounting firm leaders is their inability to connect at a deeper level with their spouses, children, partners and staff. Much of the distance and conflict that occurs in families and businesses could be greatly eased if leaders learned how to forge deeper conversations.
Leaders I interact with want to do this, but deeper conversations are out of their comfort zones, and they haven’t developed what I call connection capacities.
Connection capacities include emotional awareness, humility (“seeing oneself as one really is”), the willingness to reveal self to others, genuine curiosity about the other, an appreciation for what the other is up against, and the ability to listen.
These capacities are learned neither easily nor perfectly. Progress in these areas requires focus. Many leaders spend too much time doing what they like and are good at - solving problems, giving advice and cutting deals.
A steady commitment to prioritize connection can shift the tenor of even the most troubled relationships. It’s tough to connect with someone if you are not on the road to knowing yourself.
The good news about the four strategies above is this: because the focus is on self-management, firm leaders can exert a high level of control over the outcomes.
So let’s get to work.
John Engels founded Leadership Coaching, Inc. in 1996, based on the integration of three cutting-edge research disciplines: neuroscience, Bowen Family Systems Theory, and the evolution of leadership in non-human species. Under John’s guidance, his consulting team continues to draw on decades of learning with family researchers and with accomplished scientists who study the leadership behavior of wolves, elephants, chimpanzees, and other animals. Currently, John spends much of his professional life as a mentor to executive coaches and family business consultants. He recently developed the “Leadership Skills That Change Firms” program for accounting professionals.