Sally Henderson: How connected are you as a senior leader?

Sally Henderson is NDA’s monthly columnist discussing the pressures of leadership in our industry. Sally is an Executive Change Mentor with over twenty years’ experience.

Connection. Such a simple word – and yet with complex connotations – especially for senior leaders. Because let’s face it, connection is the biggest asset you can have as a leader – without it you become an island.

So why do so many senior leaders often struggle with connection? In my work as an Executive Change Mentor I see two key factors that massively impact on a leader’s ability to connect.

The first is the connection that you have with yourself. The second is the connection with your team.

  1. The connection you have with yourself:

9 out of 10 of my clients, all successful senior leaders, are actually operating from a place of disconnection with their own needs, identity and leadership. Let’s break this down.

Needs

When was the last time someone in your organisation asked “how are you”? Typically, your needs, emotional well-being and own mental health get squished under the burden of carrying the weight of everyone else’s needs. This is a fundamental error in healthy leadership. If your own needs aren’t being met, then how is it realistic to expect you to look after others really well? It’s that classic ‘oxygen mask’ scenario.

Let’s also consider your own career and development needs. Too often, it’s all too easy to end up in a role that, if you’re really honest, no longer suits or motivates you adequately. Sure, it probably did fit once, but the job has become a little stale or predictable – and yet you’re too busy getting on with the day-to-day challenges of leadership to really acknowledge or address this. This ‘stale safety’ as I call it leads to energy depletion which in turn results in reduced connection, greater stress – and emotional drain.

Identity

If, as the key senior leader operating from a place of high demand and stress, you lack a trusted objective advisor focused on your wellbeing and growth, it is all too easy to muddle your private and professional worlds so that neither effectively supports the other, resembling a relentless plate-spinning act. Understanding your identity both inside and outside work means you can then create healthy space between the two. It’s about cherry-picking the right elements to support and fulfil your whole world – rather than take and deplete.

I do not believe you should take your ‘whole self’ to work. You need differentiation between how you are with colleagues and how you are with close friends and family. I don’t mean having a split personality – I am simply advocating a healthy breathing space between your two different worlds. Because they are different.

Leadership

Would it surprise you that, when we start working together, NONE of my clients are able to accurately describe their identity as a leader? Despite being highly acclaimed, successful and awarded, understanding your own true identity as a leader is a tough challenge. Why? Because how can you be expected to spot your own blind spots and understand your ‘I’ and ‘Self’ when you have ego, imposter syndrome, subjective thinking and all the ‘imprinting’ that has occurred throughout your life and career thus far? It’s simply too much.

If any of the above-mentioned negatives are happening to you (on any level) it’s not rocket science to see that this dramatically increases your risk of feeling isolated as a senior leader. Loneliness is one of the biggest challenges we face as humans – it not only negatively impacts our performance but our very sense of self and contentment. This was proven in the famous Harvard Grant Study research, whose Director, Robert Waldinger, concluded: “Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier…Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

Now let’s look at the connection with your team

When I was a headhunter, the most common reason great talent would approach me in order to ‘jump ship’ was that loss of connection with their peers, with their company – but most often their direct leader/boss. Here are the 3 core reasons why it happened:

  1. If you are not truly connected with your ‘self’, you are not truly connected with your team

You can only fake things for so long. We forget at our peril we are animalistic beings with thousands of years of instinct and programming at our core. People know when connection is missing, and this blocks growth. When you are not connected with yourself as a leader there will be inevitable gaps in the connection with your team.

  • You forget to really listen

When you are the senior leader with demands coming at you from every angle it can be easy to lose sight of really listening to your people. We are all subjective in our day-to-day existence, it’s normal, yet it is also dangerous as this creates imperfect ‘lenses’ through which we see our world. These lenses can skew conversation, events and evidence to back up our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. This in turn impacts on your ability to really listen and hear what is being said and why and not what you think is being said

  • You are not clear on the real jobs people are actually doing in your senior team

Quick straw poll? When is the last time you updated the current roles of your team? Too often people are doing jobs that no-one (yep that’s right, no-one!) in the business actually clearly understands – what they are, where they start and most importantly, where they stop. If you were to write down the core purpose or the ‘why’ of each of your team – would this tally with their understanding, the understanding of the senior leadership team and the organisation as a whole? And is it still relevant to the current needs of your clients or customers?

If this resonates with you, or you know of a senior leader who is showing signs of being ‘dis-connected’ or isolated in their role, don’t leave them out in the cold. Let’s be better equipped to thrive at work and not simply survive by helping people to feel and be more connected.

The simplest and most effective way to achieve this? Work with a great Coach or Mentor and take action to make a change. All it takes is the first step, no matter how big or small…

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