Years ago, I recall sitting in a conference room with a senior engineer. He spent a great deal of time sharing with me and other junior staff that we could – and should – be leaders. He went on to tell us that we did not have to be managers to be leaders. The very next month, I was promoted to my first supervisory role.
To be completely honest, I was devastated at being promoted. I am not an emotional person (think Spock), but I went home and cried. What did the company think of me if they were making me a supervisor? Wasn’t I smart enough? Why had I spent all those years working hard to achieve high ratings at the company? Was my graduate research in chemical engineering meaningless?
Later, I came to realize that instead of thinking I was dumb, the company valued my ability to work with diverse groups of people. They appreciated my aptitude to quickly understand data and make a logical decision. I also learned that in a managerial role, I was naturally exposed to more technologies and opportunities to learn. I have an insatiable appetite for education and learning, so being a manager was ultimately a good fit!
While I was initially upset at my promotion, I have since (many times over) tried to evaluate what traits I demonstrated so that my boss trusted me with leading others. I have also looked at all my bosses over time and other managers and leaders in lots of organizations since then. There are several characteristics that help someone become a successful leader.
Be A Good Listener
I know my husband would say I talk too much, but being a good listener is an important trait for leaders. For those of us with technical backgrounds, we often jump to a conclusion early in the conversation and want to shout out the answer. We also crave recognition for our clever and smart approaches to problem-solving. Thus, we are excited to offer solutions.
Yet, great leaders don’t make judgments or put forth their own ideas first. Great leaders listen to their team members. We ask subject matter experts (SMEs) to present their technical arguments and opinions, including risk assessments before making a decision. The higher up the ranks you go as a manager, the further away from the facts and data you get. It’s important to trust (but verify) information from your staff.
For a lot of people, compassion comes easy. As a kid, I would have called them “bleeding hearts”. Just give me the data and let’s get moving! But as a young supervisor, I learned that compassion is one of the differences between being a manager and a leader.
While I still prefer clear, logical data and a simple plan of action, I now also recognize that other people do not live in a Vulcan world. Some people make decisions based solely on emotion (eek!). Some people will only process data when they understand how a decision will impact other people.
One tool that has helped me comprehend the differences among leadership and teamwork styles is the DiSC® Assessment. DiSC shows that people have different core working styles leading to various speed of decision-making and varying levels of “compassion”. Please contact me at [email protected] for additional information on DiSC and a free one-hour work style coaching session.
Weather the Storm
Finally, leaders must be prepared to weather the storm. The big puzzle is that we cannot predict when, where, or what storm will hit. This means leaders, especially innovation leaders, must be flexible, adaptable, and patient. Understanding the risks and benefits of our decisions allows us to move forward regardless of the circumstances.
Leaders will face setbacks and failures. In innovation and new product development (NPD), technologies will fail and potential customers won’t like the final design. The difference between a leader and manager is how we deal with the failure – e.g. how we weather the storm.
Innovation leaders recognize the opportunity to learn while a manager will entrench to a risk-averse position. An effective innovation leader will evaluate the data and decide whether to redesign the new product feature or to abandon the project. A manager will selfishly worry about his bonus and reputation if there is another product failure. A leader rallies the team after a setback, but a manager punishes his staff for the failure
What Does Leadership Mean?
What does leadership mean to you? Do you think there is a difference between management and leadership? How do you view characteristics of listening, compassion, and failure?
Each day, week, and year, I hope I add wisdom with passing time. Today, instead of crying and feeling disappointed at a promotion, I would ask what could I learn and what outcomes did my boss expect? Leadership is a learning experience.
Read more about innovation leadership in The Innovation ANSWER Book and in the recently released PDMA Body of Knowledge (2nd ed.) where I had the privilege to lead an innovative and diverse team.
- Check out where I’m speaking next (click here).
- Get your copy of The Innovation ANSWER Book available at Amazon (now available on Kindle).
- Reference the new PDMA Body of Knowledge, available at Amazon.
- Do you know your strategy? Is it time to narrow your focus or expand to serve more customers? Join me for the two-part Reset Your Strategy workshop on 18 and 20 August. Register here – special discounts for the unemployed.
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I am inspired by writing, teaching, and speaking at great professional events. I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. It brings me joy to help you build innovation leaders. Teresa Jurgens-Kowal is an experienced innovation professional with a passion for lifelong learning with a PhD in Chemical Engineering and an MBA in Computer and Information Decision Making. My credentials include PE (State of Louisiana), NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM, and I am a DiSC® certified facilitator. Contact me at [email protected] or area code 281 + phone 787-3979 for more information on coaching for entrepreneurs and innovators.