Book Summary – The Gift of Struggle (Life-Changing Lessons About Leading)

After more than a decade of growth at PG, Herrera’s business slowed. He reviewed the company’s performance metrics but couldn’t find the reasons. He hired an outside consultant, whose findings were eye-opening. The consultant found palpable stress in internal meetings and concluded that the firm’s teams weren’t working well together. Teammates weren’t returning calls or fulfilling requests for information.

“I’ve come to believe that leadership is about heart; it’s about who we are and how we choose to lead.”

If you come late to meetings, don’t return your clients’ calls or miss deadlines, your employees will notice the gap between what you say and what you do. Earning trust is crucial to your company’s well-being.

To underline your commitment to your staff members, set telephone appointments with them at unusual times, such as 8:29 a.m. or 11:02 a.m. When you call at that precise moment, you convey the message that you keep your word. Speak candidly, listen carefully and create an atmosphere of openness. You may feel that your team’s culture or your corporate culture is up to you, but it must include everyone. Ensure that every person in your company understands this vision, why it exists and what it means to be part of it.

“For most leaders, their ambition stems from something profoundly personal, something much deeper than the prospect of financial gain.”

Define your vision in everyday language. Be clear about the behavior you expect to fulfill this vision, and hold everyone accountable. Herrera and his team at PG defined core ideas to guide people’s behavior, including “give more than you take, speak from the heart” and “go off the beaten path.” Make your guidelines positive and therefore “expansive” rather than negative or “restrictive.” Reiterate these principles daily.

Support and build confidence in your employees.

Perhaps at some point in your career, your boss promoted you to a higher position but didn’t clearly outline your responsibilities or support your success. Did you ask for help? Did he or she teach you to be a better leader? To become more aware of giving people what they need to succeed, list the last 10 people you promoted. Consider if you positioned them to succeed, how you worked to help them in their new roles and how you communicated to the other staff members involved. Leaders who don’t support promoted employees often remain unaware of how important that is.

“The guidelines you select have to be understood and embraced by everyone within the organization, creating a virtuous cycle.”

Changing your approach from traditional command-and-control management techniques to a “caring and compassionate management strategy” brings rewards in business growth. The change must include learning how people communicate so you can do so more effectively. Let your employees know you believe in them, and acknowledge their efforts. Repeated recognition instills courage and confidence. How can you give more to your staff than you ask of them? Do your team leaders understand your goals? Can you incorporate these goals companywide?

Learning is an active, continual process.

Cultivate a mentor who will be direct and challenge you. Whether your mentor is an executive at another company, a consultant or a retired CEO, he or she can give you insight into improving your leadership style and skills. Receiving productive input that might be uncomfortable is one benefit of having a good mentor.

“When there’s a gap between what you say and what you do, it undermines your integrity, making it harder for people to trust you.”

Mentors can guide you to great ideas, but you must put the ideas to work. If you don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone, your learning will remain static. Applying new behaviors can be awkward. To embrace this sense of discomfort, try brushing your teeth for a month with your nondominant hand.

“I saw firsthand how badly people wanted to work together and how that intention was thwarted by the barriers erected by differing priorities among teams.”

You need to be self-aware. Understanding yourself enables you to select other leaders whose talents support areas in which you are weak. Apply what you’re learning and see how it supports your strengths. Identify the most influential author or businessperson you could turn to for the guidance you need to learn.

Ask the right questions.

Children provide a mirror of the issues you face as a leader. For example, if you work with children with developmental issues, telling them what they can’t do only increases their frustration. Changing the negative to a positive eases those emotions. If your goal is to empower managers and staff members, find out how they view your conversations.

“Until you apply what you have learned, you haven’t started the journey toward improvement.”

You may find that even though you’re trying to impart confidence, you may be leaving them disheartened. Pay attention to how you direct people about what you’d like them to do or not do. Rephrase your comments into open, positive statements that express what they could do – instead of limiting their actions by telling them what they can’t do. Telling your team that you’re trying to change your tone can be powerful.

“The trust people have in you is the most important asset you will ever own.”

Questions have two parts. Listeners hear the first part directly; that’s the “what” of the question. The basis for asking the question – the “why” – might remain hidden. Staff members might not want to tell you why they’ve asked a question because it could reveal a lack of knowledge, the presence of an underlying issue or their disagreement with you. When you need clarity, repeat the question back and consider its basis. Use statements such as, “Help me understand [a little better] what you see” to engender cooperation and a more positive conversation. Since 90% of communication is nonverbal, be sure your words, stance and expression all say the same thing. Your goal is to help your employees feel empowered, supported and capable.

“Speak from the heart.”

If you are trying to create a culture that encourages staff members to challenge you, be aware of how you react when they do. If you show visible anger, such as sighing in exasperation, people will feel intimidated and will want to avoid confrontation. Such behavior affects the number and type of ideas staff members bring you and, by extension, limits opportunities. You are likely to find that if your staff isn’t fully honest with you, you aren’t being fully honest with them in the same way.

“You can hide from yourself, but you’ll never fool your team.”

Thanking people for their opinions or new ideas can have a big impact. Curbing your defensive reactions and calming yourself before speaking will help people be more open. Reflect on when your staff last said you were wrong, how you responded and how you showed your gratitude. Having managers who tell you that you’re wrong is a gift.

Create new paths instead of taking worn ones.

Despite an open invitation, few leaders at Populus Group accepted Herrera’s offer to innovate in their daily work. Herrera’s challenge was to find a way to make his employees feel safe when they ventured off the usual path. Organizational therapist Ichak Adizes coined the term “insultant” for getting everyone in the organization “to consult from the inside.” To support this initiative, ask people what bothers them and how they’d like to see things change. This will generate identifiable problems and potential ideas. Carry out a similar process in regard to serving your customers.

“One of the best compliments a leader will ever receive is to be told by their team that they are wrong.”

After an operation, the military holds after-action reviews that dispense with traditional military hierarchy by inviting everyone to chime in on what went well, what didn’t and how things should change. Adopting a similar process at your company will lead to suggestions for changes in your processes. You and your team should question every current process. Find areas to change that your company overlooked. Moving this way to a paradigm of innovation allows your staff to examine and explore areas they didn’t question previously. Offering rewards for the best ideas establishes creative solutions as a primary goal.

Throwing resources at a problem covers up inefficiencies and thwarts creative solutions.

In the start-up phase of Populus Group, inventiveness took the place of resources. PG’s growth brought a lessening of that enterprising spirit and more requests for people or money.

“Struggle is the most honest and revealing measure of progress toward becoming the leader you desire to be.”

When, like Herrera, you grow up in a large family with little money, you have to find creative solutions. The US Army instills a similar belief; soldiers modify their operations to work with the people and equipment available. Throwing resources at problems dulls the ability to find efficient, innovative solutions. When you ask managers to do more, they usually ask for more resources.

“Leadership amounts to wanting more for our people than we want from them.”

Ask your manager how well they are doing with current resources. From 1 to 10, how efficiently is their team working? If the answer is “five,” challenge the manager whether more people would increase that number. Ask the manager to raise the current team’s efficiency instead. Explain that when the number is higher, you will talk again about more staff. Understand the manager’s responsibilities, and help uncover ideas that will increase productivity. This process – and improved team productivity – helps identify situations that truly require more resources.

“Your desire to improve must overrule your need for comfort.”

Review your tasks and place them into time-based completion categories so you can gain a feel for how to spend your time. Focus on large issues over the long-term. Allocate issues into a timeframe of day-to-day, six- to eighteen-months, or two-to-three-years. Delegate day-to-day work so you can concentrate on more complex, longer-term issues. Ask a few critical questions about how you could be more resourceful. Which issues and deadlines are you and your managers responsible for, and which responsibilities could you delegate?

Appreciate the time you have with your staff members, and keep in touch after they move on.

A climbing guide at Mt. Rainier couldn’t remember a single time when everyone who started from the 10,000-foot base camp made it to the summit. In business, you might want all the people with whom you started the company to remain forever. That’s not likely to happen. Staff members are at your company for different reasons and have other commitments. Be grateful for the time you have together, and recognize that each person has his or her own path in life.

If internal problems cause an exodus, identify and solve them. If not, be present with your staff and new hires. Losing star employees isn’t good, but relinquishing the idea that you can control them allows you to move forward. Your firm’s “alumni” can be a great source of future business opportunities.

Consolidate and align company priorities.

Like many traditional companies, PG initially defined three to five annual priorities and asked managers to set additional goals for their groups, which, in turn, defined team goals. The result was frustration, bad communication and internal competition. The company held a two-day meeting to assess the status quo, and it was “brutal.” However, it ended with a group agreement on a single main priority for the upcoming nine months. In time, the groups began again to work together in support of the new, clearly defined priority.

Consider your company priorities. Does everyone know the one largest issue they need to resolve? How do you ask your managers to work together? How do they encourage staff members to work in harmony? Each problem, each challenge and each struggle carries a gift. Don’t hesitate to learn from and help others – and to demonstrate more compassion and kindness so that everyone can become a better person.