My experience stepping into leadership took place in 1989. Funny, because I had actually been the “lead person” in the analytical chemistry lab for three years prior. I never really embraced it as a leadership position, ironically, which likely limited my effectiveness in any area other than getting testing completed and results reported.
But in March of 1989, the organization I was working for had posted a position for a Mixing Supervisor. I had spoken to several colleagues who expressed an interest in the position, only to be told they would not be considered because they did not have a college degree. Well, I had a college degree, so I thought, “let me put my name in and see what excuse they give me.” Long story short, I was given the position and started my new life in the ranks of the exempt on April 3, 1989.
The mixing group consisted of seven people, one of whom was a lead person. I had dealt with this lead person in my prior role and knew he was an excellent performer in his role. I did not need to take over his role and demonstrate I was the boss. Whether out of sheer luck, my reticent personality, my falling back on my skill set (writing), or a combination of the three, I stumbled into what would become my fundamental belief about a leader’s real role.
In this new position, I had several administrative-type tasks (time card review, keeping the supply cage stocked, among other things), but really did not have a road map or specific guidance about how to be a supervisor. So I looked around and discovered that one critical need the group had was improved documentation. The mixing instructions and operating procedures for the equipment was somewhere between lacking and non-existent. So I plunged into rewriting all of the mixing instructions, developed a new form for them to follow in documenting their mixes (so the same information would be recorded each time), and developed more complete procedures to describe how to use equipment.
The result was that the scrap rate of mixes fell sharply, and others in the organization released the perception that “the Mix Room people don’t know what they’re doing.” I did not change the lead person’s function one iota. I did not have a bunch of meetings with the crew, other than to explain on occasion the new way mixes were to be documented.
What I discovered in that role, very much by accident, was that my value to the organization as “the leader” increased in proportion to how much easier I made it for the workers to accomplish their work successfully.
Now, what does that have to do with motivation? In an inverted sense, my discovery came out of the manner in which I did not lead. I did not go in and lay down the law, demand compliance, make sure everyone knew I was in charge, etc. This was not a path I carefully planned out, nor was I really coached in my approach. But it seemed a good plan to assume that the group was doing a good job, and they did not need me beating them into performing well. They needed someone who could facilitate them becoming better.
As a leader, is your desire to serve, or to rule? This cuts to the core of who we are as leaders and how we approach leadership. We’ll look at that tomorrow.