Engaging Leadership: What Makes Someone an Engaging Leader?
The ability to engage others is, to my mind, the single most important quality a leader could have. A leader who can inspire and mobilize people-talent is invaluable to your organization. As our name states, helping leaders learn how to engage others is at the heart of our coaching.
People often find themselves in leadership positions because they’re good at what they were doing: achieving business outcomes. But engaged leadership is more nuanced than moving up and assuming responsibility for leading a project. It’s about thinking a little deeper about the people who need to engage in order to create results.
That’s the great news: it takes a little deeper thinking. A little reflection, a little preparation, a little nuance. Not brain surgery.
Let’s start with a basic definition. An engaged leader has figured out that there's more to success than people implementing solutions to problems (which, more than likely, the leader proposed to begin with).
Engaging Leadership Defined: Clarity and Alignment over Speed
Most leaders walk into a room – or log onto a call – and they’re time pressured, underwater and stressed. They've done minimal preparation. They're overly focused on their own outcomes and their own needs. Everything is about speed and, in their mind, moving as “efficiently” as possible towards business outcomes, so that they can achieve their goals.
They present the solution they want the team to implement, and then they end their monologue with some unsophisticated question like, “Okay, now that I've laid everything out, does anybody have any questions?” hoping that the answer is no. (Subtext: I’m experienced, I’m the boss, I’ve been clear, everybody can move forward now that I have spoken, I can go to my next meeting, and they can begin to execute.)
That rarely works. And here’s why: there’s no quality control for alignment nor a deep, shared understanding of the key elements that determine success, because they’ve asked a silly question.
So how do engaging leaders walk into a meeting differently? First off, they’ve done their homework coming in. They know what success in every meeting looks like, and they don’t rely on the leader-led definition of success that prioritizes speed and their point of view.
Instead, they aim for superb alignment between themselves and the team. They know that everybody is walking into that room with a slightly different perspective. They also know their very first job is to get everybody oriented with a shared understanding and make sure they’re focused on the right outcomes.
To get that exceptional clarity and alignment, they need to create an engaged back and forth: people asking questions and people deeply listening. That means an engaged leader asks their team open-ended, qualitative questions, “Okay, now that I've laid out what we are trying to do and why it matters, how do you see that tying into the work that you have in front of you? What looks most interesting about solving this problem? What looks the hardest? What are you most worried about? I've laid out a few ideas, so how do you look at it? What would you do differently?”
These kinds of questions help people feel ownership, rather than like they’re just executing someone else’s will. Even the smartest people get dumbed down when they feel like they’re just following orders. They sleepwalk to a solution, and if it doesn't work well, it’s not their problem, because it was their boss's idea in the first place. Trust us, we’ve seen this dynamic play out again and again.
An engaged leader slows down. That means they don’t assume that they have been crystal clear; they assume that there's going to be a divergence in what each person perceives as the core goals, even when they’ve been discussing the work for the last hour.
Eliminate small misalignments upfront, and you avoid them magnifying as you move forward, until they cause significant friction that inevitably stalls the project – and erodes trust within the team.
How to Be An Engaging Leader: Eyes Up Versus Eyes Down
The difference between an engaged leader and a transactional leader can be described as: eyes up versus eyes down.
Transactional leaders are trying to move fast, because everything feels like a priority, everything requires their attention, everything is on the verge of spinning out of control. Their eyes are down, focused an inch in front of their toes, staring at the flames around their feet and on their calendar. They repeatedly trip on unanticipated problems because they rarely see them coming. They are a silver ball in a pinball machine bouncing around with little impact on their own reality. They can't anticipate nor plan because they are stuck in the reactive.
Engaged leaders look up. They know they have to see everything within the larger context: What's going to interfere with our goals? What problems are likely to come up? Do our current priorities still make sense or, given how the larger picture has shifted, do we need to reprioritize?
All of this thinking can be done relatively quickly, but the reality is only a small percentage of leaders take the time to think about the larger picture – not only about the work to be done but also the people who need to come together to execute. It means maybe an hour of thinking, planning, individuating priorities, and discussing with your team, “Okay, we’ve identified two major issues that have impacted our plan. Let’s get clear on what is happening and why it matters and then we need collectively to identify the best possible solutions and how to best proceed.”
When a leader poses these questions, they let the smart people be creative and bring their own ideas to the table. That approach creates buy-in, accountability, ownership and inspiration: “engagement” across the whole team.
When you’ve got your human talent involved and participating and you have done the work to build true alignment, that is true effectiveness – made possible because of engaged leadership.
How an Engaging Leader Instills Ownership and Accountability within Their Team
When I think of an engaged leader and the impact they can have, I think of Paula, a 34-year-old brand new CTO of a multibillion-dollar, privately held company, whom I had the privilege of coaching. She had previously worked for one of the big name consulting firms in technology, done really well, then jumped into a major leadership role with one of her clients and moved up quickly.
With several hundred people in her organization, she found that the tricks in her leadership bag weren’t working as well as they used to. She was already a pretty evolved leader with whom people loved working, as they solved big, complex problems. But as we worked together, we realized she needed to take that next step from what she had been doing as a consultant, where it’s all about using your brain to come up with a strategy to pitch to a client.
She described her former leadership role, “I would walk into the meetings, I would present a carefully thought-through plan, and people would go out and implement it. But when I started leading large groups of people where I wasn't doing much of the work anymore, I realized that I needed to add another focus to my leadership thinking in order to achieve broad success.”
Clarity regarding success measures and priorities were still important to Paula’s evolution, but even if she did a superb job of communicating that, the results were underwhelming nonetheless. She realized she needed more than clear plans and goals: She needed the people, their concerns, and their perspectives on priorities, new possibilities, the best way to attack difficult problems. Beyond that, she needed their ongoing support and best efforts over the weeks and months of executing on a big project. All of that required another core focus: an engagement focus.
Like all skilled leaders, she learned to use thoughtful questions that were genuine inquiries: she wanted their perspectives. She had her own, of course, but in order to achieve her ultimate people focus – which is all about engagement, accountability and buy-in – she needed to hold on to her ideas very loosely. Why? Because at the end of the day she wasn't doing the work, they were.
When I see leaders make the shift to that “eyes up” business AND people focus it is always grounded in the effort they make in becoming a clearer communicator, one who is focused on the details of the work to be done AND the needs of the people doing it. It can be jarring the first time a leader walks out of a room feeling supremely confident and then witnesses their team veer off in two dozen different directions. A lack of questions does not mean alignment. Nodding does not signal understanding and certainly not buy in. Engaging leaders understand this.
We have made it our business to help leaders grow to become engaging leaders who get the joy of watching their teams operate in a way that is the envy of their company. This is something managers can learn to excel at.
It's about getting your employees to the place where they say, “I own this, I’m accountable for this and it will not fail, because my perspective was authentically heard, considered and often incorporated in the go-forward plans.
Team members will climb mountains to solve hard problems because they are being asked to bring their best thinking to every key effort.
When accountability shifts from the leader to the people that are going to be doing the work, you have just won the game. That is engaged leadership.