Leadership: The gift of ring-fenced time

by Bradley Honnor

We were lucky recently to interview Lyn McDonald of the Cabinet Office, who was generous in sharing her insights and learning from MatchFit’s CLIMB programme she’s been participating in.

Lyn is a joy to work with, and I’ve personally been involved in the leadership development programme she’s engaged with, so it was really interesting to hear her personal views and how her expectations of both the programme and her role as a leader have changed.

She said something that really stood out to me:

MatchFit gave me time, and in asking me questions about my leadership, it’s allowed me to realise I am a leader. As an expert, a lot of what you invest in yourself is your technical expertise. But leadership is also a skill, and I’ve had a little bit of a realisation that I’ve grown in that regard. I’m starting to describe myself as the leader of three functions, not just as someone who heads up those functions. I have started trying to live in this as a leader. Yes, I am required to be an expert in order to lead other experts, but that’s no longer really my job. I now need to sit back and let others be the experts and to concentrate on getting better and better at the day job – which is leading! That for me has been a big gift.”

That first sentence is really key.

It’s incredibly valuable to give someone the opportunity to have time to consider their leadership, to reflect on what leadership actually is and what it means to them. The more programmes I’ve facilitated, the more I’ve realised that people are so consumed with running their business, that it’s not very often these opportunities to take time out arise. There’s little time to think about the approach, or the dynamics within a team, how the culture is developing, because everyone’s just doing their job.

Having worked with so many senior people, very often one of the key ‘penny drop’ moments is really appreciating the need to take that time to reflect. A key MatchFit post-intervention takeaway for leaders is to maintain that ring-fenced time; to consider their approach in how they are working, how the team is doing, and those other dynamic cultural leadership issues.

What I hear commonly from the leaders I work with is ‘I just didn’t really appreciate how important it was to block some time out in my diary to just think about my strategy rather than just the daily operational activities’.

The next point is about leadership being a skill.

That’s an interesting concept as well, because what that means is that we can become better leaders. We would be rather arrogant if we weren’t reviewing our leadership skills and enhancing them to be better leaders for other people.  The MatchFit perspective is that a leader is in part the servant of their team and develops the culture, with a responsibility to do this as effectively as possible.

‘Head down and running the business’ is not necessarily leading, so there’s real insight in Lyn’s quote. Leadership is a skill, which means that it can be refined and developed. We can become better at it, and we’ve got a responsibility to do that. Until we have the luxury of some time to really sit back and think about leadership as a skill, we don’t always get that insight.

Job titles designate the responsibilities of a role, but leading effectively is about the behaviours we exhibit in performing that role, and how that impacts the people we work with. How good do the people we’re leading feel about what they’re doing? How valued do they feel? How motivated and engaged are they? How productive and how committed are they?’

We should be asking ‘what do I need to change, or do differently to become a better leader?’.

Another element to consider is that often people are recruited into management roles because of their expertise in a particular function. You could be really great at selling and therefore promoted to sales director, but not actually have developed the skills to lead a team. There’s a real consequence to the business if that leadership element isn’t also in place. You could argue whether a leader really even needs to understand the specific day-to-day aspects of a business? It’s good practise, but if you have experts reporting to you, shouldn’t the expertise be their role?

Sitting back and allowing people to thrive; leading without a strangle-hold and giving people freedom to develop in their role just makes good sense, because we actually want leadership at all levels. A great leader can inspire that behaviour in everyone, which is very effective in creating high-performing teams. By trusting in the team and allowing people to flourish, it also creates a little bit more time and space for a leader to concentrate on the bigger strategic picture.

Ultimately, we all need development as individuals; in our approach, our practice and methodology.

Leadership as a skill is not a destination, it’s a journey.