As a leader, you have two primary jobs: 1) leave the company better off than you found it, and 2) leave people better off than you found them. The former is achieved through the latter. Thus, you have to keep sight of each person’s potential. Because in helping them to actualize their capabilities, you help the company succeed.
Frequently, you’ll have a richer understanding of people’s potential than they have. The temptation is to push them to the edge of that potential too quickly, giving them challenges that eclipse their preparation. Modulating comfort is a better approach because it allows you to incrementally provide workers with difficult challenges that groom their skills in a measured way. As a former high diver, I’ve benefited from the practice and implementation of “lead-ups.”
What are lead-ups?
Lead-ups are the building blocks of complex assignments, and using them dramatically enhances people’s level of preparedness. If you bypass all of the little skills that lead to the complex tasks you want your workers to achieve, you lower their chances of success. No high diver in his right mind would jump off a hundred foot high dive platform without first doing hundreds of jumps at lower levels. Indeed, the path to becoming a high diver starts by doing endless jumps off the pool deck’s side, about two feet off the water.
To illustrate how lead-ups work, let’s say you are managing a team responsible for generating data reports for the company’s senior executives. Your boss has started to complain that the reports appear like little more than data dumps, requiring her to interpret too much data. Going forward, she tells you, she wants your team to interpret the data and make recommendations for actions that the senior executives should take. In essence, she is asking that your team members stop thinking of themselves as data analysts and start seeing themselves as business consultants.
In this case, the temptation is to expect your team members to shift instantaneously from analyst to consultant just because you said so. However, the reality is that making the transition requires gaining a deeper understanding of the business and its goals. It requires developing strategic thinking skills and the ability to shift between line item details and big-picture implications. More challenging, it requires changing each worker’s self-concept from a provider of data to a provider of advice.
If you bypass all of the little skills that lead to the complex tasks you want your workers to achieve, you lower their chances of success.
For an advice-giver, the risk is higher because if a worker’s advice is faulty after the senior executives have agreed to follow it, the business’s impact is much more consequential than when the worker just provided raw data. Because all of these reasons conspire to make such a transition extremely uncomfortable for employees, the situation is right for using a lead-up approach. Modulating comfort in an incremental way makes all the changes associated with the transition more absorbable.
How can I use a lead-up?
How might lead-ups be used to modulate comfort in this case? You could start by informing the team about the reasons behind the shift in their roles, tying it to the company’s goals, and to how the new skills will benefit them as professionals. Then you could ask them what excites them about the job shift and what concerns they have. Maybe you could then offer training on strategic thinking, or on major trends impacting the business. Next, you could take an old data report and brainstorm recommendations they would have made if they were business consultants and not data analysts. Then you could have them run a sample report and present recommendations to you for your feedback. Finally, you could have them do what the whole process was leading up to, creating the report and recommendations that your boss is expecting.
Using lead-ups to modulate comfort helps workers do uncomfortable things that in the absence of an incremental approach, they might not have done. With each lead-up, the employee is exercising more courage and experiencing exponential professional growth. As a leader, giving back to your employees and the organization is a lead-up all your own.