The call with Bill started to go very badly. He expressed frustration with the way his program staff were collecting and reporting data about his program. I was frustrated, too, but not for the same reasons – I recognized it as a new leadership issue.
Before I could stop myself, I blurted out something I probably shouldn’t have said. “Am I to understand this is the only program your organization operates that collects and reports data?” It was harsh, but it got through to Bill. He started talking, then paused and stumbled over his words as he realized his mistake. My colleague, Monica, was as visibly relieved as I was that he saw the problem.
Bill had risen to a leadership role somewhat by accident. He graduated from law school but knew he wanted to work in public health. The program director role seemed a perfect fit for his long-term goal, and it was also a painful lesson: he failed to recognize his organization’s history.
New leaders, especially accidental leaders like Bill, sometimes take action without learning about the organization’s past. They may not realize doing so can drive a wedge between the new leader and the staff. Bill wanted so badly to prove himself that he left behind the people who needed to be involved in solving the problem.
A big temptation for new leaders is creating immediate change. Sometimes it’s necessary, but other times it’s an impetuous response that adds to or creates problems. So, what happens if a new leader asks questions? What happens when the new leader listens patiently as people talk about their contributions to the organization’s good work? What if the new leader looks at historical program information? The patchwork of pieces comes together into a clear picture of what has worked, what hasn’t, and who the key contributors were and are.
It’s as much art as it is science, just like leadership, itself. There are no magic formulae or incantations, but there are cues and clues to be joined, perspectives to understand, and data to validate. Whether you’re a leader by accident or by choice, this is how intentional leadership happens.
I talked further with Bill, and he began to see how he could address the problem. He invited his colleague who managed several other programs to join the call. He told her what issues they encountered and asked whether she had managed similar challenges in the past. She was thrilled to be involved and offered him several ways around the problem.
A few days after that conversation, Bill called and thanked me for helping him realize he had a gold mine of program management experience in the person who worked next door. He got his reporting back on track and built a strong working relationship with his colleague.
He also said he learned something of great value: knowing, understanding, and building on the successes of his organization’s past is a critical component to becoming an intentional leader.