I recently completed an excellent writing course run by David Hieatt and lesson one was both amazingly simple and blunt. The lesson one was titled “How to turn Pro” and the essence was that most people that try to write don’t give it the importance it deserves in the way they approach their writing. By not respecting the writing process (or event having a process) they are looking to get the same outcomes as the pro’s – compelling copy, thought provoking blogs, informative white papers – without approaching the work with the same level of commitment and standards that professional apply to their work. Basically they are ‘winging it’ and hoping to get lucky. But in reality they are just going to get frustrated at the lack of traction or positive outcomes and going to give up writing. David’s point was that if you are going to write then do it with passion, learn the trade and apply what you have learnt on a daily basis. This fairly blunt message resonated with me, both in relation to my own writing practice but in a wider sense in relation to leadership.
How many of the leaders that I have work with are pros and how many are amateurs winging it and hoping to stay lucky?
The question that needs addressing before that can be answered is what differentiates a pro leader from an amateur leader?
I feel there are three critical behaviours that the best leaders I have worked with have, which some of the other don’t. These behaviours aren’t just fleeting or put on for the benefit of others, these form part of the best leaders core belief system.
(1) Consistent investment in getting better
Now by investment I mean both time and money. Professionals in any walk of life know that they need to continually improve their skills, keep their knowledge updated and learn from the best in their industry:
Pro leaders attend conferences, webinars and workshops to learn new skills
Pro leaders invest in coaching, mentoring to increase their accountability
Pro leaders read / listen to books continually to improve their knowledge base
I am still surprised how few leaders have a set learning time or routine ring-fenced in the diary each week. The learning is not seen as anywhere near as important as dealing with customers, working with their team or putting out operational fires, all of which are allocated time and/or prioritised each day. Learning to be a better leader is relegated to something to do when travelling by listening to audios or at the weekend on Sunday if there is time. Now both these options are OK and are better than nothing. But is that really the most productive time to be taking on-board new information that may challenge the way you currently operate? Is the best time to be learning something new when you are fatigued by the rigours of the week or stuck in a stressful journey home unwinding from a busy day?
How much more information would you be able to consume or how many new skills could you acquire if you did your learning at the start of the day when you were mentally and physically refreshed?
(2) Obsess about the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.
This quote from Donald Rumsfeld (former US Secretary of State) made during the first Iraq war is one I often referred to when working with leaders as I think it is equally applicable to running a company
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.
Whilst amateur leaders seem to be happy focussing on the known knowns and occasionally concern themselves trying to find out something about their business that they don’t currently know but should (a known unknown), a pro leader adopts a completely different mind-set. They focus most of their time on turning known unknowns into known knowns, as they realise that knowing more will improve their ability to leader effectively. They also have a thirst to find out new things, new ways of operating and take on-board different points of view that may challenge in a constructive way the way they run their company. Unknown unknowns obsess them. For them, every day is a school day, and a worthwhile meeting is one where they are definitely not the cleverest or most knowledgeable person in the room.
Pro leaders love to learn amateur leaders only learn when they have to.
The last attribute pro leaders have that differentiates from amateurs is the ability and desire to reflect. This one overlaps with (1) & (2) in that they spend time each day or week thinking about leadership and considering how well they are currently dong as the leader of their company. The process they normally use for this is journaling. Journaling in it’s simplest form is just spending time writing reflections on the day or the week you have just experienced so that you can both celebrate successes and learn lessons. It can be far more complicated than that and there are many different ways of doing it but the essence stays the same…reflective time. If we stay in action mode all of the time & we don’t give ourselves the head space to process either what has happened or what may happen then the chances are we may not choose the optimal response to either. The simple act of spending 15-20mins per day reflecting gives you additional insight that you may have otherwise missed. Pro’s know that the de-brief post event, and the (self) pep-talk pre event are crucial parts to giving an optimal performance, but too few leaders actually prioritise this time.
In the same way a pro runner will spend 30 mins mobilising before a training session and 30 mins stretching and cool down afterwards, leaders need to warm up and cool down after their days performance. Pro runners build this time in to their day i.e. if they are planning a 90 mins run they know they need to allocate 150 mins of time to complete all 3 elements to the right level. This rigour and routine allows them to train optimally day after day and in so doing their overal performances improve.
How much better could you perform as a leader if you gave yourself a 30-minute warm-up (planning and prioritisation time) and a 30-minute cool-down (reflections and journaling time) each and every day?
Which are you currently?
So how can you tell if you are a pro leader or an amateur winging it? Maybe reflect on the following questions;
Do you spend more money on your hobbies than you do on learning to become a better leader?
If you look at your diary for the next 2 weeks have you at least 10% of your allocated to or blocked out for your own learning?
When was the last time your introduced a new idea, concept or way of working into your company based on something you had learnt at a workshop, seminar or course you attended?
All of us know what the difference feels like between winging something and giving something our best shot. One feels satisfying irrespective of the outcome and the other feels uncomfortable, as we know we could and should have prepared better.
If you are going to lead why would you not want to be the best leader you could be and give yourself the time and tools to get better every week?
Don’t you owe it to yourself, your employees and your ambitions to upgrade to being a pro leader if you are currently operating as a leader?
And given the current challenge conditions you and your company are operating in, if not now then when?