Leadership as a Process

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Owner, Vitae Dynamics Inc.
Renée Gendron is an engaging speaker(S), creative mediator(M), published researcher (R) and dynamic trainer(T). She applies her SMRT skills in support of professionals, entrepreneurs and organisations. Renée is keenly interested in helping professionals and firms create and thrive.

Cora was new at her position and her company. She had been brought in to manage a project that was not performing well. The project was well behind its deadlines and so over budget it amazed Cora that the company still wanted to go ahead with it. Knowing that there would be a lot of pressure on Cora and her team to salvage the project, Cora set her mind to getting to know as much as possible about the project from day one.

It was obvious to Cora that the team had tried many solutions and strategies and all of them failed. The team knew the goal but not the way to achieve it. So for the first days she listened. She went to see each and every one of her team members to introduce herself, get to know them a little bit, and get their take on what was happening with the project.

To get situated to in her new role, she openly asked many questions. At first many of her colleagues were treating her like any other new project manager. The team had had several project managers and they all had been replaced because the project wasn’t performing well. Cora’s colleagues were friendly and they gave some answers but they didn’t fully engage. Cora asked Sunjit some questions about existing accounts and he gave her short but polite answers. Cora enquired with Hanna about supply logistics. Hanna gave her some vague responses and again was polite.

See, neither Sunjit nor Hanna nor any of her new colleagues knew Cora very well. They didn’t know if they could trust her. They didn’t know if they could take her seriously and more importantly they doubted her abilities. Why? They didn’t know what she was capable of, they hadn’t seen her perform, Cora’s colleagues didn’t know how she would act under pressure. More importantly, they didn’t know if they could trust Cora with their insights on how to improve operations. But Cora persisted in regularly engaging Sunjit and Hanna in conversations about the company, its history and more importantly about them. Cora knew that she could never get anyone to open up with them first trusting her. And trust is not something that can be bought or granted. Trust must be earned.

The team was drained of energy. Cora could see that from day one. From time to time she would circulate a comic through emails. On Fridays she would bring healthy treats for colleagues. A few cracked smiles appeared on sullen faces. Every now and then a mysterious someone would print the comic circulated on the email and put it on the bulletin board in the lunch room for other staff members to see.

Several weeks later Sherry shared a funny cartoon he found somewhere on the internet with the team. And shortly after that Leonid also began bringing in some home baked treats on Fridays.

It wasn’t long before her colleagues realised that Cora was very keen to contribute. Her enthusiasm to learn and to participate infused many projects with new energy and life. Although not all undertakings were successful, they had a higher chance of success because of Cora’s contribution.

Several months into her tenure as project manager, a personal tragedy struck Xavier a colleague. The company didn’t have an official bereavement policy. The company didn’t have a procedure in place to send out a standard bouquet of flowers to the employee. This bothered Cora. So she went to HR and chatted with the director, Manuela. It didn’t take long for Manuela to realise that some of their employees had felt left out when a family member died because other teams had organised flowers and cards for their members, but not for everyone. With this insight, Manuela drafted and implemented a company-wide policy: upon the death of a close relatives as defined by a parent, a sibling and a child, each employee would be sent a card with a pre-determined flower bouquet. Equipped with this policy, Cora personally oversaw the flowers being sent to the funeral home Xavier had mentioned.

The outcome of the project was itself satisfactory. There were many errors and problems that were not corrected in a timely manner that reduced its success. But that is not the entire point of Cora’s story. Cora understood that leadership is a process.

Engage => Establish Trust => Care => Engage

Leadership is entirely dependent on the followers. If the people around you don’t see you as a leader, then you’re not. The first step of leadership is to engage. There is a goal to be reached, a vision to be implemented, a mission to execute. To achieve this, you have to engage the environment and the people in it. You have to understand the meaning of the vision and the contributions of those involved.

The second step in the process is to establish trust. To be able to effectively motivate yourself and a team, you first have to know that person and trust them. It’s hard to trust someone when you barely know them. Trust is earned over time when there is consistent credible behaviour. In this case, Cora consistently engaged her team members in an open and honest manner. Trust isn’t built by one interaction. It isn’t established after ten interactions. It’s created and maintained over a long period of time through daily interactions and predictable behaviour. Had Cora lied to her team mates, misled them or provided inaccurate information, all trust would have vanished and Cora would have no longer been viewed as a credible leader. Once that happens, it’s very difficult to re-establish.

As trust is being built over time, the third phase of leadership is introduced: care. Cora genuinely cared about the well-being of her colleagues. She tried to elevate the mood of the team by sharing some stories. She took it upon herself to ensure that Xavier and all employees of the company were treated fairly and equally in the face of a loss of a loved one. You can’t teach someone to care. You either do or you don’t. Caring, just like trust, is demonstrated consistently over a long period of time. Caring one day and not caring the next undermines your credibility as a leader. Inconsistent behaviour doesn’t lead to trust. It never does.

The process comes full circle when you continue to engage. Teams alter their dynamics. Environmental conditions change. The strategy is adapted as new information comes to light. There is still a vision to be reached and there is work to be done. This requires that the leader maintain their attention and focus on interacting and engaging with the environment and those in it to work towards the goal.

Leadership is not linear. Leaders need to continuously work to engage their environments, seek out different opinions and resources, work to establish and maintain trust as well as show genuine care and concern for those who follow them. Without engaging, building trust and showing care, a leader will be hard pressed to realise the vision.

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