I make a mean apple crisp. I’m locally famous for it. My daughter, the pickiest of picky eaters, would never even try it, asking for vanilla ice cream instead. Then finally, one Thanksgiving while she was home from college, she accepted her helping of apple crisp with delight. I asked what changed, and she replied with a straight face, “No one ever told me how good it was!” Oops, guess I missed that lesson in Parenting, 101.
It got me thinking about the value of lived experience to expand one's perspective. I have seen many “No one ever told me” examples during my career that point to the importance of the coaching and teaching role of leaders.
The leader’s job is to coach employees through their inexperience. Leadership becomes much about coaching as it is about getting things done. It includes explaining techniques, processes, and behaviors the employee might not yet understand. When I am at my best as a leader, I am also serving as a teacher and a coach.
People are only as smart as their experience allows them to be. In fact, until a person has the experience to understand a concept, it is as if the idea doesn't exist at all. Or, worse, you think you know more than you really do. (See our earlier post, The More You Know, for more on this topic.)
“No one ever told me how to dress.” In a recent consulting assignment a new manager needed significant coaching. She was earnest and willing to learn which made coaching her a joy. One thing I did not anticipate was her lack of understanding about accepted business practices, including business attire. At a Board meeting, I noticed she was wearing an oversized sweatshirt and baggy sweat pants. She looked sloppy and unprofessional and I was embarrassed for her. The next day, I took her gently aside to explain how important professional attire is to engender respect from others. I suggested that for board meetings and other community events she should "dress up" more. From that day on, she dressed professionally every day, not just on board meeting days. And not only did I see her confidence grow, but I witnessed others becoming more confident in her.
“No one was ever this kind to me.” At another assignment, one of the staff I was working with lacked self-confidence. I once asked her to draft a response to a letter for me. She did a fine job, but in the email attached to her draft, she commented that she wasn’t a good writer, so she didn’t think I would like it. In our next coaching opportunity, I asked her to ponder her response as if hers had been my own approach on my first day at the firm. She started crying and through those tears she admitted it would not have given her any confidence in my ability to lead. When I tried to console her and apologize for making her cry, she said, “No, no, these are tears of joy. No one has ever been so thoughtful to help me like you just did.” Wow! I will never miss an opportunity to coach someone again! I only hope I will be able to find the right words to reach them in a way that is non-threatening and clear (and tearless).
As leaders, we rarely know how we impact others. Perhaps the lack of confidence, the inappropriate behavior, or the missed cues are simply because no one ever told them/encouraged them/taught them. That is when a thoughtful leader steps in with words that are spoken with honorable intent and delivered with compassion.
And that, dear leaders, is the recipe for success.