Five Tips for Living with a Big Leadership Footprint
Have you ever felt like you were being watched? I’m not trying to induce panicked paranoia here, but if you’re a leader you should be feeling that way. The more senior a leader you are, the more you’re being watched. You need to pick up what I call a big footprint view of your role because, as a leader, your actions have a much bigger impact than you may realize.
That’s a lesson that Linda Hudson learned when she became a business unit president at General Dynamics back in the 1990’s. Hudson, who is now the president of the land and armaments group at BAE Systems, described her first few days as a BU president at General Dynamics in a “Corner Office” Q&A in Sunday’s New York Times. Wanting to make a good impression in her new role, Hudson picked up some new suits at Nordstrom’s and, as part of her ensemble, learned some interesting ways to tie a scarf to complement her suits. She showed up as president on day one looking really sharp. The surprise came on day two when, as she described to the Times, she ran “into no fewer than a dozen women in the organization who have on scarves tied exactly like mine.”
When you’re the leader, people take their cues from you. When you’re aware of it, this can work for everyone’s benefit. If you aren’t aware of your footprint or ignore its impact, you can quickly set yourself and the organization up for failure.
So, with your leadership success in mind, here are five tips for how to successfully live with a big leadership footprint:
Have a Plan: Before you start each day, review your schedule and ask yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish in each of these meetings? What impression do I want to leave with this person or group? What do I want them to think and how do I want them to feel?” A little bit of pre-game planning can go a long way in leveraging your footprint for positive effect.
Check Your Sense of Humor: Senior leaders are often quick witted people with sharp and ironic senses of humor. They can be used to making wise cracks in order to put people at ease and establish connection with others. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing. As a leader, however, you have to be much more aware of the level of appropriateness of your jokes. President Obama learned this when he made cracks early in his administration about Nancy Reagan holding séances and comparing his bowling skills to a Special Olympian. He caught some deserved heat for those remarks and probably learned some lessons about how poor humor choices can distract attention from what you’re actually trying to do.
Think Before You Speak: This tip goes along with checking your sense of humor but there’s more to it than that. As a senior leader, your days of “just thinking out loud,” as you mull through a problem are over. There are stories upon stories of leaders who casually tossed off a comment or an idea only to be surprised later that people acted on things they were just mulling over. If you’re going to brainstorm out loud as a leader, make sure everyone knows that it’s a brainstorming session and not a decision making session.
Leave Air in the Conversation: Just as a fire needs oxygen to continue burning, conversations need to have plenty of air in them for people to feel comfortable contributing. Senior leaders often get where they are because they’ve shown a track record of decisiveness and scoring a lot of “class participation points” in conversation. The problem comes when those approaches continue unabated when they reach senior levels. They end up sucking the air out of the room. Most people are going to defer to a senior leader who is dominating a conversation. If you don’t want them to clam up and do want to get their best ideas, dial it back a bit on offering your own ideas.
Invite Feedback: It’s amazing how much you can learn when you ask questions like, “What do you think we should be doing?” or “What could we be doing better?” and take time to listen to the answers and act on them when appropriate. You don’t just get better ideas and performance. Since you’re the leader, you send a message about the kind of participation and problem solving that is valued in your organization’s culture.
So, inspired by Linda Hudson’s scarf story, those are five tips for living with a bigger leadership footprint. I’m sure a lot of you have stories of your own about when you realized that things were different once you took on a bigger leadership role. We could all learn a lot from each other, so I’d love it if you’d share some stories of your “big footprint” moments and your best tips for living with a bigger leadership footprint.