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Leading by example

Leaders help to develop their people out of necessity: they know their people are growing all the time, and everyone is best served when they grow into their best selves.

Vijay (not the person’s real name), a vice president in an enterprise IT organization, was stuggling with high turnover. He identified many contributing factors, including his organization’s relatively low pay, a seemingly neverending stream of incidents brought on by low quality, and a highly competitive job market. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because this is the situation I invariably encounter in enterprise IT these days.

You’re a role model, like it or not

People learn how the organization really works by watching, not by listening. In other words, when people are trying to understand how they’re exptected to behave, they look to what their leaders are doing, rather than focusing on what they’re saying.

Vijay was communicating that he often worked nights and weekends (by sending emails and participating in incident calls), and was unaware he was sending a powerful message about what he expected from his team. While he spoke at his onsites about “work/life balance,” the message he was trying to send was completely drowned out by his behavior. “Do as I say, not as I do” is never an effective leadership strategy; a leader who cannot rein in their own behavior should not be surprised to see that behavior mirrored by the people they lead.

As Vijay and I worked on his goals (which included more time with his family), he shared his concerns about turnover increasing his own workload. By focusing our coaching on his own behavior, he learned how changing his own behavior (taking time away from work) would have an impact on the example he set for his team. As Vijay cared for himself, his team cared for themselves, and turnover decreased. In surveys, employees no longer indicated they felt pressured to work late on nights and weekends, even though they still had incidents during those times.

It was uncomfortable for Vijay to make these changes: his family history included working long hours and going far above and beyond in order to exceed expectations, and he experienced powerful emotions when he first tried backing off. With coaching, he navigated the changes successfully, and was promoted into his former boss’ position when she retired.