To pursue a career in digital, taking the time to seek out quality leaders is incredibly important. Leadership is defined not by how much power you can assert over others, but how you support and develop the people you manage so that they can thrive.
That said, I always make a point to take notes from leaders who lead exceptionally well, especially as an emerging professional. Through several internships, group projects, and now my first career, I have identified 3 leadership lessons that are universal for great working relationships. As both the managers and the managed, here are a few leadership fundamentals to consider.
The importance of critique
Now, when I say critique, I’m not talking about the standard, passive-aggressive feedback we typically receive. I cannot stress how many times I have presented a meticulously laid out project or design, only to get responses like:
- “I didn’t like this part.”
- What part? What didn’t you like about it? What can I improve?
- “Yeah, I liked it.”
- Ok, cool. That tells me next to nothing. What did you like about it? Did you like it because the idea has merit? Do you have a personal connection to the content I just put forth? Details, details!
- “Well, you had some great points, but here’s how I would have done it.”
- Not horrible, but not great either.
- “[insert the sounds of crickets].”
- No questions, no feedback whatsoever. If you don’t ask me questions, I’m going to assume you weren’t engaged or don’t care enough to critically examine whatever I’m putting forth.
There is a fine art to a great critique. It seems like such an obvious thing, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t quite get it. Oftentimes, we get caught up in the notion that critique means to find all the flaws in an idea or piece of work and bring them to light. But this is counterproductive. A well-crafted critique outlines areas of improvement while still highlighting areas of success. It should never feel like an attack. Good leaders understand the need for critique that is constructive – when there’s an equal balance of suggestions and pats on the back, your work will thrive.
Additionally, learning to separate the critique of your work from yourself as a person is a key lesson to learn early on. I struggled with this immensely – I tend to pour myself into my creative projects, and the instant someone doesn’t see my intentions or disagrees with my choices, I get defensive. It’s hard not to when you’ve nurtured something from a fledgling idea into reality, and it makes you incredibly vulnerable to feedback. Remember that critique is at the epicenter of keeping your work fresh and striving towards constant improvement of your craft.
Leading from behind
When we think of leaders, we sometimes tend to think of them as the loudest voice in the room, the ones who take charge of a situation when the group isn’t quite sure how to proceed. And while this works for some, it can also have the adverse effect of making that person look like an island of solitude. It becomes about the success of the individual, rather than the group as a whole.
In college, I learned of a management concept called ‘leading from behind’. In my opinion, this means as a leader, your focus is not to lean on authority and dictation as your crutch.
Leading from behind is purposeful and deliberate, but in a subtle way that allows for the members to assert their own personalities and goals towards self improvement. People that lead from behind have the tendency to see the talents and strengths in others, and want to maximize that feeling of success for encouragement. You as the leader are not the center of attention – efforts and emphasis are to be placed on those you manage so that they make strides to follow the subtle example you are setting. You boost people up when they need a vote of confidence, and you step in when asked.
It’s a bit difficult to wrap your head around at first – our first instinct as leaders is to delegate and take action. Leading from behind contradicts this notion, yet somehow still supports it. Our Digital Marketing Manager, Chris Todd, gives a real life example for a little clarity. The art of ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ is key.
“As a manager, when you teach through showing someone a task, it lets them know it’s not just busy work; their work has value. You care about it too. It generates buy-in from those you manage.”
Making your team ‘flourish’
In tandem with leading from behind, flourishing relies on unveiling the full potential of a person to foster an environment of ideation, self-confidence, and exceptional teamwork.
From a theoretical standpoint, flourishing is a state that can only be achieved once you have met Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you’re not familiar, Maslow’s Hierarchy is a tiered system describing the stages of growth in humans after fulfilling basic needs. There are numerous conversations we could get into about psychology, but I bring up Maslow’s hierarchy to demonstrate a point: within our work, there are stages that we need to fulfil to feel secure in our work and progress as professionals.
One can only flourish in their assumed roles once they have addressed the basic needs of physiology, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Working towards fulfilling these needs is a matter of being in an environment that allows for the exploration of these needs. Great leaders know how to navigate these environments and assist their teams in fulfilling their needs.
Our Director of Client Services, Tara Rosenberg, is a wonderful example of what it means to create an environment in which her team can flourish. She shares a few tips on how to foster a community amongst her team:
- “I try very hard to show by example how I as a project manager would tackle complex issues and everyday process to each member of the team. I have my own projects so I can “walk the talk”, and walk next to them so that I can lead by example.”
- “Inject a little fun into the everyday workday. If we spend this much of our lives together we might as well get a ton of work done and have some fun while doing it.”
- “Have the tough conversations. Let the team know that they don’t have to have tough conversations alone. This applies to client and internal conversations. People need support – know that I’ve got your back so that we can keep moving forward.”
- “Active listening is key. By listening to the concerns of the team and doing the “what can I do today” solution to make a quick impact, I can then also implement new process to ensure there is a longer term solution. I have had many mentors and bosses in my life, and I’ve always kept note of the actions that I responded to positively, and the ones I responded to negatively. I strive to ingrain what I’ve learned as a team member into what I wanted to see in a leader.”
Several of these tips fulfill multiple needs that an member of the team has. Good leaders know that exceptional teamwork is a product of positivity, a sense of purpose, and ensuring that people feel motivated to enact change and excellence.
What are your leadership lessons?
Part of great leadership is learning to spot the practices your team members most respond to, and refine them as move forward in spite of any shortcomings. At some point in your career, you will be a follower, and at others, a leader. Reflect and build upon your skills so that when the time comes, you’ll know how to create a cohesive, collaborative environment that strives towards success.