Recently, I had the opportunity to work with several highly motivated board members as part of a review process for an experienced senior leader. My engagement involved the collection of key stakeholder feedback regarding the executive’s leadership presence and effectiveness.
Leading the board task force was the new board chair, an individual with a stellar track record of professional success over many years in several high-profile roles. This was, however, her first in-depth encounter with this industry, despite having held senior leadership and board roles in other business sectors.
My assumption, when the project got underway, was that the experienced board chair might have some fairly established perspectives in terms of how best to navigate the process. Prepared as I was for some resistance to my ideas, and with my ‘crash helmet’ in place, my first meeting with this individual was quite a surprise.
Instead of the resistance I anticipated, I encountered someone who had the wisdom to realize that a different context may require a different approach than her previous work and experience would have dictated. Her curiosity and openness were both refreshing and admirable.
As the project unfolded, the significant benefits of this ‘open’ approach by the chair became quite obvious. By suspending preconceived ideas and judgement and drawing on her expertise, she asked insightful questions, flagged potential pitfalls and suggested very helpful improvements to the initiative.
If you’re a leader with significant experience, the most common temptation is to directly overlay your expertise into a new context. While bringing your ‘A game’ to the table is critical, it’s also important to suspend preconceived notions of how best to carry out a different role, implement a new initiative or address a key challenge.
To be truly effective, here are some key questions you should ask yourself when operating in a different or new context:
1.) Have I encountered this type of situation before?
Determine the similarities of the new context with your previous experience. With a major new initiative, for example, you may know some or many of the people you’ll be working with. The key steps in the project plan may match similar processes that you’ve been involved with in the past. The desired outcomes may parallel previous work that you’ve completed. Take time to jot down these similarities before things get underway.
2.) What’s different about the context this time around?
Whether it’s a new initiative, role, organization or industry, identify the key differences that are apparent from work you’ve done in the past. The people you’re working with, for example, may be new to you. The culture of the team or organization may be quite different from any you’ve previously encountered. Or the business model that ensures steady sales and revenue generation may be novel to you. As with the similarities, make notes of these differences for quick reference.
3.) What hazards or ‘red flags’ do I need to be aware of?
Without doubt, you may encounter aspects of your new initiative, role, organization or industry that seem quite at odds with your previous experience. In fact, they may be different enough to raise alarm bells in terms of your involvement and ability to realize success. Examples include unfocused strategy, poor project definition, dysfunctional team dynamics or overlapping role boundaries. Your task at this point is to gauge how much a threat these challenges are to success, build your understanding and, if necessary, determine the best ways to leverage your expertise to address them head on as needed.
4.) Where can I add relevant and meaningful value?
Rather than apply your knowledge and expertise when it appears easy and appropriate to do so, hold back and let others step forward. It’s a great opportunity to let team members shine and develop their own confidence and expertise. When the group appears to be struggling, ask insightful open-ended questions to help them move forward. Step forward, later in the discussions, when solutions are lacking, key information has been overlooked or your perspective is essential to a successful outcome.
5.) How will I best ‘show up’ when leveraging my expertise?
Be selective in those moments when your expertise will make a significant impact to the discussion, meeting or presentation. While it’s tempting, don’t jump immediately into the conversation or inject your perspective without first ‘setting the stage.’ Qualify your commentary by clearly stating how your experience provides you with insight into the current topic under discussion. At the same time, clearly acknowledge the difference in context this time around, so that you’ve qualified your remarks and enabled others to continue their active engagement in the dialogue.
If you want to maintain and enhance your track record as a respected and truly effective leader, be sure to adjust your approach to new situations and contexts. Avoid the temptation to immediately and routinely overlay your beliefs, perceptions and well-honed skills gained over the years. Strive to create a development experience for all involved and bring your knowledge and expertise into play at pivotal moments. You’ll enjoy even greater levels of success, both personally and professionally.
If you want to get actionable feedback regarding how well you’re leveraging your expertise in a new role or a different organization, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 250-882-8830.