A walk in the snow
It was a grey, messy winter day with heavy, wet snow. The kind that looks dirty, is slushy, and makes commuting difficult. It had been a long, frustrating day – and my mood matched the weather. After months of influencing, we had been given approval to test ideas. We needed to prove this could work to be able to roll this out company-wide. This was a win for me and my team – and it meant that we had an incredible amount of work ahead. We had to define the testing methodology, build technology to execute the test, collect data and keep our executive stakeholders informed. All in four months. This work was not for the weary and would require all hands to support the success.
I walked back to the hotel with another team member, Lucas, dodging the slush and the puddles. Lucas was a millennial with a few years of work experience. He had hunger, grit, and wanted more responsibility - specifically to lead a team. As we walked, he told me that he was interested in leading the testing execution and data gathering pieces. This wasn’t news to me, he had told me before. I admittedly was hesitant. This was a big role. One that would have the greatest impact on whether we could proceed or not. It was a role I would have traditionally given to someone with more experience and seasoning due to the risk and visibility involved. Lucas stood in front of me, making his case again. I decided to take a chance on him. I knew that he would give it his all and I hoped wouldn’t let me down. I also knew it was going to be incredibly complex and require a lot of resilience. He wasn’t jaded or cynical, he was eager. All the right ingredients for growth.
“Lucas – you know that leading this work stream is the largest piece of work in this phase?” I asked.
“Yes,” He said.
“You know it is also the riskiest phase of work…if this doesn’t go right, the project is shut down.”
“Are you ready for that responsibility?”
“Well, you’d better not mess it up.”
OK, not my finest pep talk, but I was aiming for humor in that moment. It worked. We both laughed and I shifted the conversation to the work at hand. We talked through how he would need to structure the work, build his team, and show up as a leader. By the time we got to the hotel, Lucas had a mixture of excitement and the weight of the responsibility. I told him I knew he could deliver, and I would be there to encourage him.
The following week, we had a touch point and Lucas brought me a list of issues. Significant issues. The type that if not resolved, I would have to make a difficult phone call to Senior Leadership and let them know it wasn’t going to be possible to move forward. I listened to his issues.
“What do you want to do?” I asked him.
“Well, I wanted to keep you updated so you can decide the best next step,” he replied.
“Thank you for keeping me updated. I appreciate that. And this is your decision. I want to know what you want to do and how you reached that decision.”
Lucas got quiet for a moment, thought, and then shared his decision and thought process. I told him that he was the one closest to the work, he was empowered and was the one to make the decisions. I was here to advise him, to remove barriers and make sure he had what he needed to be successful. I gave him the list of things I cared about and where I would want to be consulted. We talked through the scenarios to keep me informed and when things should be escalated. I told him why I needed him. And we closed by talking about his leadership style, what he had learned in the first few weeks, and how he wanted to show up as a leader.
Those first three weeks were rough. Many things went wrong through no fault of Lucas.’ He was tested daily. And we spoke daily. He would advise me of his plans. I would listen, ask questions, and make sure he felt confident in his decisions. At the end of the second week, I wrote Lucas an email. I shared specific examples I had observed of him as a leader over the first few weeks. I included suggestions of things for him to continue doing. And I included considerations – how to think bigger about his leadership. I intentionally put this in writing. I knew that written word had a lot of meaning and recognition for Lucas. I also knew that one of his objectives for this project was to broaden his leadership skills. I wanted him to have something to refer to…to recall how he acted when tested.
One of the challenges I see with many of the leaders I coach is understanding how to empower someone. Empowering people isn’t about assigning responsibility and leaving them alone. Nor is it simply delegating tasks. The best leaders I see understand the need to check-in, listen, and coach. They encourage, challenge, remove obstacles and reinforce that employees are empowered. The great leaders are frequently present in early project stages and provide rich insights on performance to help ensure a right start. They share specific behaviors that have the greatest positive impact and give examples of what to continue and consider doing differently.
We finished that project with great success and got approval for a company-wide roll out that received industry attention. Lucas moved onto wonderful new opportunities. I had forgotten about that walk in the snow many years ago. Until last week. When I came home to a box from Lucas. With a thank you note and tea. He has been accepted to his first- choice business school program. He wrote to thank me for the impact on his career. How much he has learned from me – and how he still has messages from me framed and displayed on his desk. I was humbled by the note and the gift. But even more so – I was delighted to see the leader he has grown into. I can’t wait to work for him some day.