Leading by influence, not authority

One of the leaders of Upshift – our COO, Chris Cano, is also an accomplished author. Read one of the chapters of his book “If You Build It They Will Stay: Your Guide to Connecting Generations in the Workplace” about traits of leaders in the workplace.

The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.  

Kenneth Blanchard 

Who Wants to Be a Leader? 

In the evolving workplace, the mantle of a leader can be worn by anyone. John Maxwell says, “leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” A common mistake made by many in today’s workplace is the leader is the one with the title. That concept could not be further from the truth. The leader of the group is who the people look to for answers and support. In a perfect world, the boss would be the leader in the department. They would have built the trust and respect needed to direct the team to success at about any level. In practice, many bosses believe their title affords them the credibility to tell people what to do. This boss is the one who has to explain their requests and is often left wondering why people do not do what he says. On the other hand, the leader has the trust and equity built to make a request, regardless of title, and see the team take care of it.  

I did my management training program at the J.W. Marriott in Washington D.C. Once I completed the program, I was part of the front office leadership team. Each leader in the department was responsible for one aspect of the operation. One person was the leader who oversaw the front desk, another the bellmen, another the valet, and so forth. When I completed my training program, I was assigned to the telephone department. I had seen the team at the end of the hall and stuck my head in a few times to say hi, but honestly, I had never really interacted with them before. I decided on my first day I would introduce myself again and sit in for some training so I could understand what they did for a living.  

I sat down on my first day, and in front of me was a computer, several phone lists, a few manuals, and a giant telephone console with about a hundred buttons. In the middle of all of that was a small box with my name on it. It was my headset the team leader had set out for me, so I was ready to go on day one. I read the manuals and watched for an hour or so with all the confidence of a 21-year-old. I decided to plug in my phone console to get started. My first call was someone who asked to be transferred to sales. They asked for a name I did not know, and while I was fumbling through the phone list, they hung up. The room erupted with laughter.  

My ego was put in place in less than a few hours by four team members who looked at me like I was their grandson playing in the living room with my toys. Francis gave a snap and pointed to a space right next to her. Most people would have been offended by that, but given my ego-less state, I slid right over. She grabbed my headset and plugged it into a box right next to hers and put it on mute. She took a brief respite from operating the nerve center of the building to explain to me how this department worked.  

Francis had been there for 35 years. She was a short but imposing lady whose feet did not even touch the ground in her chair. But when she spoke, the entire room listened. Francis kind of came with the place. She was a telephone operator for the previous business who used to inhabit the space the hotel now did. She stayed on when the hotel was built, probably because no one could tell her otherwise. The first thing she said to me was, “Son, you just cost us money.” The shocked and confused look on my face prompted her to explain that each call into the property was someone looking to engage with us. They could rent a room, eat at the restaurant, attend a meeting, or have the wrong number, but they could love our service so much they come to stay here in the future.  

This was right on the heels of 9/11, so the hospitality industry was in a new space where every interaction was the next potential dollar that kept someone employed. Francis and her team took great pride in ensuring their service was second to none. They ensured everyone who called the hotel was connected to their appropriate destination or was called back if that person was not there. They were the daily connection to the outside world, and they took pride in that every day. As I asked around the room, I found out the new employee on Francis’ team had been there for seven years, and the majority of the team had been there since the opening of the hotel. Imagine a group of employees who come to work every day professionally dressed in perfectly pressed uniforms, impeccably groomed, their work area immaculately maintained, and every one beamed with pride to answer phones and share a space no larger than 300 square feet. Francis was not a manager and did not have a title. She was, however, the leader of the department. She had seen twenty or thirty people like me come and go over the years. Each of them tried to lead this team, and they made the mistake of minimizing Francis’ role on the team.  

Leadership is about more than getting the job done. Francis and the team taught me a lot about leading people and having the courage to lead others. My role in the department kind of defaulted to one of support. We made changes together, and any time I needed support, I went to Francis first then the team. We did not always see eye to eye on everything, but she respected me enough to support the ideas that bettered the team. A few even helped me create credibility with other departments. Learning to lead through others was one of my favorite lessons and is at the heart of the leadership disparity that we see in today’s workplace.  

The Four Traits of a Millennial Leader

A study by Gallup concluded that only one in ten leaders naturally possess the skill necessary to lead. What this tells us is leadership education may be the most vital thing missing from our workforce today. If we as leaders know that only 35% of our employees feel school prepared them for the workplace, then the logical next step in our development as leaders has to be to become better teachers to help fill the void our future leaders feel exists as they take on new roles. The millennial leader will understand that education will come in many forms. But it will be the primary catalyst for creating an environment where teams can grow in multiple directions, and achieve results that are both personally and professionally beneficial. 

The Student/Teacher

The formal education system is not preparing the leaders of tomorrow for the current workplace. Company norms and processes are not as evolved as educators would have you believe, and the systems in place to address are not robust enough to make the impact that our future leaders need. The millennial leader will have to be versed in creating training classes, opportunities, and materials to grow their workforce towards a new definition of success. The tools needed to do this will come from a self-motivated education system that will create students capable of being teachers. The leader of tomorrow will be a student that can teach others to grow. 

The Mentor/Coach

Nearly all of the leading research on the evolving workplace states that the boss’s time is rapidly ending. There will always be a need for someone who will be the end of every conversation, but those people are few and far between. The majority of the people who lead others need a new way to approach leadership. Millennials entering the workforce are looking to their leaders to be mentors and coaches. In this role, you are not telling people what to do; you are acting more as an executive coach. You are helping them realize the answers to their challenges within their skill set and encouraging them to branch out to grow. Leaders falter in this role when they lose patience and try and do the work for their teams. I have done that more times than I can count, and every time I regret it. If we know that personal and professional growth is the reason millennials choose and stay at a job, then the mantel of the mentor/coach must become a part of your approach as a leader.  

The Advocate

The future promotional structure will more closely resemble a lattice versus the traditional ladder. The millennial leader will need to be an advocate for each team member using the same political capital they would use for themselves to benefit the growth of their direct reports. Advocating for growth through the personalized development plan of each team member will provide the uniqueness this generation desires without locking them into one vision of vertical promotion.

The Activist

The millennial generation is most effective when they are connected to a cause. The millennial leader will connect their team effectively to your cause. They will be able to enhance the company culture in a manner that connects the team with not only the organization’s why but also their role in the greater societal good. The activist will also be the steward of the programs that drive innovation and will ensure traditional barriers to growth are removed.  

If you are an employer reading this, make sure you are taking account of where not only your leadership teams sit with regard to these traits, but also where you sit. Like the workplace evaluation in the first part of this book, a skills and traits evaluation must be honest. The opportunity for growth in your organization will lie in the growth and execution of your team in these areas.  

If you are a millennial leader reading this, then understand everything you have been taught in school is changing. Your leader has an 11% confidence that the education you received has prepared you for your time with their organization. As you look to advance your personal and professional growth, do not forget you are also a leader. Maybe you have a title; maybe you do not. If you have a job or are seeking a job, you have an opportunity to learn these traits and apply them to your everyday life. You have an opportunity to lead, regardless of your level. Remember, you have as much, if not more, a responsibility to learn and grow as you would like toward your future as your leader does of preparing you for the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Upshift is an Equal Opportunity Employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, protected veteran or disabled status, or genetic information. This role is not eligible for visa sponsorship.