Not long before I realised I had little choice but to listen to my body and medically retire, I was asked to speak at a Women of Influence networking breakfast. I had a few months prior been awarded “Leader of the Year” by the Bank where I was working and my speaking invitation was on the back of that award. My career was at an all time high and I have often reflected that in some regards it was terrible timing to have to say goodbye to it all but also there was no better time to have to walk away. I had been given an amazing gift for many years in leading so many people and influencing their lives. I have learned so many lessons in regards to Leadership and I have some awesome memories. I thought I’d share some of that presentation along with my “musings on Leadership” as it gives a further insight into who I am, my Leadership style and a bit more of what I was doing in my working life prior to medically retiring and starting a blog…
Excerpts from my 2011 Presentation to the Women of Influence Networking breakfast (Gold Coast QLD) along with some Leadership Musings as I look back on my career
Leadership! Where on earth do you start? The Business section of our major bookstores are lined with books from those who are experts on the subject and who have very cleverly come up with 5 or 7 or 10 points of Leadership. I am definitely not an expert, despite being in leadership positions for 23 years, I am learning every day what works and what doesn’t.
I have read many of those books that line the store shelves and I have explored many of the models of Leadership but I’m not going to be referring to any of those today. What I want to talk to you about is what Leadership means to me and how I go about Leading my team and my business but first I want to take a trip back in time to discover how I became a Leader in the first place.
Born or Bred
There has always been a lot of discussion about whether you are born a Leader or whether you can learn to become a Leader. I think it’s a bit of both. As a child growing up in Western Australia, after migrating from the UK at the age of 3, I was so shy I couldn’t go to school unless my best friend went with me. Even as a teenager if I had been asked to speak in public I would have been physically ill. I sometimes wonder looking back if perhaps the 6 weeks voyage in a ship from England to Australia and being uprooted in that way, may have contributed to the shyness I struggled with for many years. However, I remember in both primary and high school I was always singled out to take some kind of leading role in the classroom or in small groups. My teachers saw something in me that I had no idea existed. They could see that from an early age if I was given a task I somehow managed to bring my classmates happily together and lead them in a way that ensured the task was done.
My teachers also discovered early on that I could sing and as a result I was in choirs for most of my childhood. As a young child I was very comfortable being in a choir as my family was very musical and my Dad was a church organist and gave organ and piano lessons. Being surrounded by music I didn’t consider it anything special to sing, I thought it was just what everyone did! It wasn’t until my late teens and early 20’s when I began to be asked to sing solos at church at Christmas that the nerves and anxiety set in. Oh my goodness! That would mean standing up on my own in front of people and not being part of the comfortable choir team. What if I coughed or worse needed to sneeze in the middle of a song? How on earth was I going to survive with everyone looking at me? The very thought of it sent me into a spin and I just wanted to hide.
Despite my lack of confidence there was a sense of responsibility that lay deep within me from a very early age. I didn’t want to let people down and I also wanted to desperately overcome my fears. I didn’t like feeling scared and I was annoyed at myself that I felt that way.
Well, when it came to those first solo singing performances I got through it but talk about performance anxiety. My legs would shake and my knees would knock so intensely that I had to make sure that I could stand behind a piano or hang onto something while performing so I didn’t fall over and land flat on my face! I also gave myself constant pep talks…”You can do this, it will be over soon, what is the worst thing that can happen and if it happens so what, you’ll find a way to recover.” Without realising it I was already beginning to learn how to risk mitigate and problem solve on the run. How could that shy, young woman with little confidence in her abilities, ever get to the place where she would and could successfully Lead a Contact Centre with 350 staff?
The Turning Point
On every journey there is a turning point and mine came at 22 when I was given a Regional Role in the bank I was working in at the time. I was responsible for 12 branches to bring about a change in culture. It was the late 80’s when banks realised they could no longer just service customers in a non caring way but that they actually needed to focus completely on the customer and create both a sales and service culture, where the customer was the centre of the business. I had 12 “old style” branch managers allocated to me who I had to convince that this was the way forward and help them find ways to inspire and lead their teams to change. Their solution was that I could do the inspiring and leading and make it happen for them. Not the best decision they ever made as most ended up redundant after a 2 year transformation period but it was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. I found my passion and my calling and it was leading people and helping to inspire them to become the best they could possibly be. The joy I felt from helping someone to find a way to accept change, by taking the time to understand their concerns and objections and seeing their anxieties replaced with confidence as a result of being coached, listened to and nurtured, was just amazing..my Leadership journey had begun.
It’s not about You…It’s about your people (My Leadership Musings begin)
If as a Leader you spend most of your time focusing on your achievements, worrying about how others perceive you, how much money you can earn, how “on trend” your clothing is, you might fluke being successful but how long will that last? I believe a Leader who focuses on themselves will find it difficult to really connect with their people and inspire them to follow and support their vision for their business or organisation, large or small. The people we lead are not stupid. They know if you genuinely care for their wellbeing, their development, their career aspirations and they will not flourish under someone whose first concern is for themselves.
So how well do you know your people?
I used to lead a team of 7 direct reports who were all Senior Leaders in the Banking Contact Centre I managed. They each had up to 5 Leaders reporting to them and in total we had a Leadership team of 19. Reporting to that Leadership team were 20 Support Specialists and 310 consultants. Now I couldn’t know 350 people intimately but I could know my 7 direct reports intimately, the other 12 Leaders extremely well, the 20 Supervisors very well and the 310 consultants?…well, I needed to find ways to connect with them and make the business I led relevant for them and their needs as individuals. I also expected my 7 direct reports to do exactly the same and we would spend a good amount of time in our monthly one on one’s discussing the team individuals by name so that I could learn how my Leaders were connecting with their staff and making them their priority at all times. By getting to know and understand our customer facing staff they felt valued and would in turn be much more inclined to make our customers feel valued, resulting in a higher customer engagement.
So how did I & my team do that?
Formal regular meetings play a part and are important to discuss business issues and plan together ways to grow the business and care for your people. I did that with my direct team 3 times a week and I had formal one on one’s monthly when we really drilled down into the performance of their part of the business. That’s all pretty normal & it’s important.
What is equally, if not more important, are informal meetings, daily catchups, coffee catchups, team lunches, phone calls to check how the kids doctors appointment went and how the family pet got on at the vet appointment and how the visit to the solicitor for the divorce papers went and were they happy with the plumbers quote to replace the leaking bathroom. They are the moments that counted to my people. The times I took to know what was important to them and the times I showed that I cared for them by “knowing” what was important to them. My Leadership team also knew that I was available 24/7 to take a call from them if they needed support or to debrief about work or a personal situation arose.
Of course we were running a 24/7, 365 day a year Contact Centre business so my Leadership team and I often ended up talking at very odd hours if issues arose. That alone helped in getting to know my people and their families!! My husband will vouch for that. We often joked that he was as much a part of the Contact Centre as I was. He certainly was an integral part of the team and I would have been struggling without his support, particularly the cups of tea he would bring me at midnight when my phone often rang. He would be on auto pilot…phone rings, I grab it and run to the home office and he followed into the kitchen to put the kettle on…Go to love that !!
The other key to my Leadership style is that I didn’t lead alone. I led with my Leaders. We were a unit, a team, committed to the same vision and all desiring to create a community with our workplace that allowed people to grow and develop and know their worth as individuals.
I also believe that if your focus as a Leader is firmly on your people at all times, then the business or organisations needs will be met and it will be successful. In fact it has been my experience that the more focus my Leadership team and I had on people engagement through coaching, developing and caring, the business metrics to a large degree took care of themselves.
Coaching and Reward and Recognition is so important. I don’t want a team of followers. As a Leader I want a team who are empowered and developed to a level where they outshine me and in many regards make me indispensable. I medically retired in 2014 and as I look back on my career, my greatest achievement as a Leader, is that my team continued to thrive without me and although we were all devastated that our time working together had come to such an abrupt end due to my health, I am so proud of each and every one of them that they have continued to thrive and prosper as has the business I was managing. Why? …As a Leader, It was not about me , it was about the people!