I broke up with a client recently. It has happened before, but it's not something that happens often, and the decision usually weighs on me for a while before I actually go through with it. Over the years, however, I've learned that whether you are a consultant or an employee, when the level of stress and anxiety about a job can no longer be left at work, it's time to move on. Not only for the health of your career, but also for the preservation of your mental health.
Most people think that burnout is something that has to be managed individually, but as Suzi McAlpine rightly points out, burnout is actually a cultural problem within organizations that needs to be addressed holistically. This has proven to be especially true during the past year, when Covid-19 blurred all of the boundaries that typically exist between work life and home life.
The stress that I experienced with my former client was due, in part, to the poor work culture they employ there, which stems from (poor) decisions that were being made at the top of the organizational chart. Based on the dysfunction I witnessed first hand - and never one to miss out on a learning experience - I have identified 6 qualities of a great leader that have a direct impact on culture, burnout, and growth.
#1: Not Everyone Is A Great Manager
Just because you’re good at your job, doesn’t mean you’ll make a good manager if/when you get promoted. Being a great leader doesn't mean you know everything; a great leader has the humility to know what they don't know and then bring in the right resources and people to support their weakest areas.
If you've been promoted and are feeling overwhelmed, ask your organization for help, read books, attend trainings, take webinars about conflict mediation and management styles. A great leader will approach leadership the same way they would any other new project they take on. Assess the situation and then fill in the blanks accordingly.
#2: Get To Know Your Team
I was shocked to see that top leadership with my client didn't take the time to get to know new members of the team, including consultants like myself. When you're working so closely with others, there's no excuse for not taking the time to get to know them, regardless of if they're full-time employees or consultants.
Schedule a one-on-one meeting to kick things off, and then keep them on your calendar regularly to check in. Learn about what they love working on and what they’re struggling with, and even what they find boring or tedious. Also, talk about not work with them. Getting a full spectrum of a persons life will give you greater context for their actions, tone, behaviors, etc. People are complicated and a strong leader will figure out how to manage everyone on their team differently.
#3: Empower People
Empowerment can come in many different forms, but the biggest piece of advice that I can give in this area is: don’t micromanage people. When you micromanage, you are sending the message that you don't think they are capable of doing it or learning it themselves. Delegating out tasks shows them you have confidence in their abilities, which in turn will give THEM confidence in their abilities.
This is a lesson that extends far beyond the boardroom. As my kids have gotten older, I've learned that this area of leadership applies to parenthood as well. It's so easy to just take over and do things because it seems easier or because you want it to be done a certain way, but in doing so you deny the person you are trying to guide the ability to learn a new skill. Empowering people, whether employees or children, starts with giving them the space to succeed.
#4: Be Flexible and Gracious
A great leader doesn't lead with an iron fist. They leave room for people to make mistakes and then serve as their guide for how to learn from the experience. When managers and leaders create a culture in which failure is seen as something that can never happen, it creates a sense of anxiety and panic for the rest of the team.
Instead, figure out how to be available to help the team troubleshoot without ever making them feel like they’ve failed for coming to you. Again, this one is a tip that I borrow from my approach to parenting: the goal is not to ever make mistakes, but to never make the same mistakes twice. When you create an environment in which everything is a learning experience, it gives people more room to experiment and push the boundaries of what's possible.
#5: Be A Damn Good Listener
This should go without saying, but it still shocks me how bad people are at simply listening. It's one of the greatest characteristics anyone can adopt (and it's also one of the BEST tips I give out as a marketer) because listening more and talking less ultimately helps you forge stronger connections.
So how do you listen more? Well, it's something that can require practice, but you can start with this: don’t multitask during meetings. No one is really that good at it, and it usually means you’re not giving someone your full attention while they are talking.
#6: Encourage Collaboration
Part of why I decided to part ways with my toxic client was because my main point of contact had a "my way or the highway" approach to working with her marketing department. Personally, I don't see the point in having a team if you don't want to include their input in your decision-making process. I've seen that some people misinterpret open lines of communication as weakness, however, I think leaders appear to be much stronger when they admit that they don't know what they don't know and seek out the right kind of expert advice from their team.
When you're leading a team, focusing on teamwork can make a big difference. All ideas are welcome, and every voice should be heard. If you have members of your team who don’t speak up at meetings, follow up with them afterwards and let them know that their voice is important to you, and to the team. It will go a long way in creating the kind of inclusive culture that most organizations aspire to be.