“You’re always on stage.”
In my previous role, in the early days of running a team, I made a mistake. No one called me out on it at the time because, well, everyone who observed this mistake was the team who reported to me. Therefore, either they felt that they couldn’t call me out on it, or they didn’t know it was a mistake.
Either way, I damaged the culture of my team and it was many months later that I realised what I’d done.
My previous role was at a digital agency and the bulk of our work was for clients who wanted to grow their business online. One particular client was being very difficult with a member of my team and making it hard for us to do our jobs. Weeks had gone by where we had been blocked from delivering some important work and my team member explained this to me and the rest of the team.
I won’t share the full story because it’s not relevant, but somewhere in the conversation, I said something along the lines of:
“Why is [client name] being so dumb, this is clearly valuable work for them but they’re not smart enough to see it, that’s not our fault.”
I’m a little fuzzy on the exact wording but I’m pretty sure that there was also a swear word in there at some point too. But you get the idea.
By saying this in front of the team, especially without knowing any more context at this point as to why the client was being difficult, set a standard for my team.
The standard was that we can call clients dumb and say they’re not smart. This alone isn’t a good standard, not to mention the fact that I said this with little other context to make such a comment even remotely okay.
My first manager in this role told me that “you’re always on stage” when you’re a manager and I’d forgotten this and wasn’t smart or experienced enough to reflect on this at the time. It was only later that I heard a team member use very similar wording about the same client that it hit me.
I’d made it okay to talk about clients in this way and immediately defined a cultural norm for my team.
In summary: don’t be me!
Okay, let’s make this a bit more concrete and look at a number of ways that you can affect the culture and standards of your team.
Your behaviours are contagious
As well as the more tangible standards that you set for the delivery of work, there are far less tangible standards that you, as a leader, set too. These are your day-to-day behaviours and more often than not, are things that you probably don’t think too much about.
In fact, these are behaviours that you do need to be conscious of because they can have positive and negative effects on the culture and behaviours of your team. Remember, you as the leader will set the standards for everything.
You’re always on stage.
Let’s look at some specific parts of that stage that you’re always on as a leader.
Everyone is late to a meeting occasionally, it happens. If you’re late more often than you’re on time, that’s not okay and you are also telling your team that it’s okay to be late to a meeting.
This isn’t a good standard to set, especially if you’re at an agency and you have client meetings mixed in with your internal ones.
An even worse standard to set when it comes to time keeping is being late and not giving someone a heads up that you’ll be late. Again, it happens to everyone at some point, so the least we can do is let the meeting attendees know how long we’ll be.
It may seem like a small thing, but it matters.
Being prepared for meetings
Leading on from the theme of meetings, one area that is particularly contagious is your commitment to preparing for a meeting.
If you arrive on a call or to a meeting and haven’t given any thought to the topics, haven’t read (or prepared) an agenda, or decide to lead a meeting that clearly isn’t yours to lead, you’re not having a positive effect on your team. Not to mention the meeting itself!
Again, these kinds of behaviours spread to your team and make it okay for them to turn up to meetings in the same way.
Instead, you need to consciously show that you’ve prepared for the meeting and conduct yourself in an appropriate way. Have an agenda, be on time, have notes prepared – this is all pretty basic stuff, but too often forgotten about by leaders who think that these basics don’t apply to them.
As a busy manager, you probably have a lot of hats to wear each day and lots of demands on your time. You probably have lots on your mind at any one time.
When you’re working with your team and they need your support, you can’t show that you have lots on your mind. This is especially true when you’re having important conversations with them such as their 121 and personal development meetings.
You need to be “in the room” and present with them during these conversations, even if you have other important things on your mind. If you sit through a 30 minute conversation where one of your team members is talking about something important to them, yet your mind is clearly elsewhere, they will notice. Not only will they notice, but it will damage your relationship with them.
It’s not always easy, but you need to do your best to compartmentalise problems and issues so that when someone needs your time and attention, you’re able to give it to them and be present during that conversation.
Doing what you said you’d do
There is no better way to establish trust and demonstrate accountability than by doing what you said you’d do – every, single, time. As a leader, this is paramount to your team looking up to you and if you don’t do this, you instantly set a bar that will be followed and it will damage many aspects of your team’s performance.
I’m often asked how to drive accountability into teams and individuals. I honestly think this is one of the most overlooked, yet powerful ways to do that.
Of course, we all make mistakes and sometimes, we may miss a deadline. So aside from keeping yourself organised enough to make it likely that you’ll always deliver on what you said you’d do, you should also set expectations and communicate to your team if you’re likely to drop something.
If you take on a task and can’t get it done on time, the next best thing that you can do is to tell the person this and manage the situation. Again, this is the kind of behaviour that you want your team to embrace and you doing this will encourage them to do so.
How you respond to difficult situations
Finally, it’s important to think very carefully about how you typically respond when things get hard. When things are going well, it’s easy to be that manager that is relaxed, fun to be around and always supportive.
When the pressure is on and things are getting hard, most people will show you their true selves and sometimes, it may not be quite as strong or effective as when times are good.
So make sure that when you are in difficult situations, you take a breath, take a step back and respond in a calm and collected way. You should also think back to difficult and challenging situations that you’ve dealt with and reflect on how you behaved and acted. Be honest with yourself and ask what you could have done better.
No doubt there will be times when your team finds themselves in difficult situations and you want them to respond in a professional manner. You can lead by example here, but it’s probably going to need a conscious effort and thinking from you to do so every time, particularly earlier in your career when you may not have faced that many difficult situations.