The Moment I Realized Leadership Isn’t About Me

Effective leadership.

Every leader wants it. Every company tries to hire and train for it. According to research, 83% of organizations say that it’s important to develop leaders at all levels, but only 5% of companies have fully implemented leadership development at every level.

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When I first started at HubSpot I told everyone my brain felt like it was on fire (in a good way). This is because HubSpot is a great place to learn, not only in your day-to-day work, but also in HubSpot-provided programming. There’s a library of self-paced courses in our Learn@HubSpot online platform, manager ThinkSpaces, an annual mini-MBA Fellows program, and much more.

One part of HubSpot’s investment in employees at the Director level and above is The Leadership Consortium (TLC). Led by Harvard University’s Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, the virtual experience mimics a Harvard Business School classroom and is a unique opportunity to learn, grow, and develop leadership intuition, decision making, and pattern recognition. With case-based classes and individual coaching, sessions take place over the course of four months, and you’re placed into “learning teams” with leaders from other top companies like CapitalG, Google, Lyft, IBM, Cloudflare, and UiPath.

Going through the program, what surprised me wasn’t that I learned something new about my leadership style, it was what I learned about it that has been the most transformative for my career.

Frances Frei started off the program by instilling in us that "leadership is about empowering other people as a result of your presence, and making sure that impact continues in your absence." This may sound like just another variant on the definition of leadership, but it was that second part “making sure that impact continues in your absence” that made me pause.

Why did this line shake me up so much?

Simply put, it made me realize leadership isn’t about me. Now, I would say that I’m not new to this idea as I’m all about servant leadership and the multiplier effect. I also don’t believe leaders need to be the most charismatic, loudest or smartest person in the room (or Zoom!) But still, at the core, my presence has always been very much tied to the way I lead.

Working with my coach to review my 360 feedback, and deeply reflecting on what was/is holding me back, I realized that what was holding back being able to scale my leadership was in fact, me. In order to grow myself, I needed to put mechanisms in place that would help make my team succeed and grow. These are the three core areas I’m focused on to achieve that.

Upon realizing that leadership is about what my team does when I’m not present, I realized that I need to over communicate my process, even when it’s not always clear myself. For example, as a leader, we’re taught to know how to navigate through challenges and lead the team by having all the answers. But, some of the best leaders I know admit that they don’t have all the answers, and admit to failures. By spending the time communicating to my team about how I'm thinking through certain decisions, it opens the door for transparency, and shared learning. And, it's a major component to operating at scale. 

One example of this is when I realized it would help if I could visualize how I thought about when we needed to do research. Working in tech we have a tendency to move fast and ship the MVP (minimal viable product). Leading a team of User Experience designers and researchers is tough in this environment as we often want to make sure we have the best possible product before we release it. I created a simple decision tree which showed the way I think about it. It asks a few basic questions:

  • Can we answer our research questions with product usage data?
  • Has another team (within or outside of HubSpot) answered this question before?
  • How risky is it to launch without answering this question?

This was a simple rubric I went through in my head, but sharing it allowed a whole product team to move faster.

I’ve always been wary of team operating systems because at best it sounded like more process than was necessary, and at worst it sounded like micromanagement. Now I look at it as something that just helps everyone understand expectations so they can focus on the real work — creating value for our customers.

Your team’s operating system should refer to the way you work, behave and make decisions. As we build ours, we’re challenging the way we’ve done things in the past, and asking ourselves if we can improve the ways in which we work to be more productive, inclusive, and consistent. For example, what meetings do we have and what’s expected at each one? There are times we meet as a team just to connect, versus ones where we focus on how we’re improving the lives of our customers. Both are important, but being clear about which is which helps us set the agenda and know how to contribute.

Finally, I am embracing this idea of tough love that Frances Frei and Anne Morriss talked about in class and in their book, Unleashed. The idea that empathy, empowerment, and belief in people is not enough. You need to be able to hold the bar high and challenge them as well. Not raising the bar is taking the easy way out and, again making it about yourself over them. Challenging your team, giving them something clear to reach for is a gift, and shows love. It’s tough love. I’m committing to this by creating clearer and more specific goals for my team (specific goals are helpful and clarifying, not limiting and micromanaging), holding my colleagues and peers accountable for actions as well, and leaning into positive feedback as a way to keep standards high in a way that not only feels authentic to me, but is proven to be more effective.

A little over a year ago I remember sitting in a room with my manager and other leaders. I actually said the words “my leadership style doesn’t scale.” It was a sad and limiting phrase for me, my team, and my company. I’ve come to realize that it was my own leadership philosophy that was holding me back. When previously asked about my philosophy, I always said it’s about: people over process, candor over etiquette, and learning over perfection. While this may be helpful to share with coworkers, managers, potential employees, it’s insight into how I like to work, not how I lead others.

71% of companies do not feel their leaders are able to lead their organization into the future. But I think if we shift our mindset to recognize that the most effective form of leadership is others-centered, not self-centered, we’ll be better equipped to impact both people and profit.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

 

Lauren McKenzie

Written by Lauren McKenzie

Lauren is a Director of Product Design at HubSpot.

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