Leading teams: learning to be coach, not star player


Being a “control-oriented, mistake-averse know-it-all” might help lots of leaders make it to the top, but rapid change means listening, learning and leveraging networks are becoming increasingly important.

What helped get you into a leadership position isn’t necessarily what’s going to make you a good leader.

Often this means shifting from being the person with all the answers to the facilitator of others’ talents — a change that can be confronting for some.

Leaders need to get used to not being able to control everything if they want their organisation to adapt to changing times, cautions Steve Vamos, non-executive director at Telstra.

“Control-oriented, mistake-averse know-it-alls” rule the roost “across all sectors”, he told last week’s Creative Innovation conference in Melbourne.

“Organisations, societies, anything that involves us doesn’t change unless we change.”

“It’s not a bad mindset — for things that aren’t changing,” he argues.

Where rapid change is occurring, the top-down approach can lead to spectacular diversions from reality. Vamos has seen this happen in the fast-moving technology sector — he previously held senior positions at Apple and Microsoft — and as the pace of change increases and spreads, falling out of touch has become a risk in other sectors too.

Mindsets haven’t kept up with the rate of change.

“I think it’s fair to say most organisations are crap at change. They really are. I very rarely come across organisations that are handling change well,” says Vamos.

His biggest lesson is that change, although often driven by technology, is really about people.

“Change is hard … because it’s human. Organisations, societies, anything that involves us doesn’t change unless we change.”

Good leaders know that their organisation is “more than an org chart”, he says. In an age where organisations regularly have to face new challenges without known answers, managers must leverage the “social network” inside to learn from the diverse perspectives and experience held by their own colleagues.

“The value of your organisation is a combination of knowledge and the connections in your organisation,” he notes.

Although the pace of change presents new challenges, people are also better educated and have greater access to information than at any time in history. This means there’s huge potential for innovation and creativity in any workforce, as long as a manager can create a space where staff feel they can speak up and ask questions, and where working together is seen as worthwhile.

“Technology doesn’t innovate yet,” he says. “People innovate.”

He also advises leaders to make sure they are coming out of strategy meetings with clear, defined actions. If discussion remains at a high level, staff will usually just keep doing what they would have done anyway and “reverse engineer” their actions to fit with the rhetoric.

Explicitly discussing who will do what and what resources are needed also forces the organisation to be realistic about what it wants.

Control freaks vs facilitators

You probably wouldn’t mind if your heart surgeon is a “control-oriented, mistake-averse know-it-all”. Being focused on details and order when dealing with a complicated but known problem can be hugely helpful.

But tackling new problems requires an approach centred around listening, trying new things, learning from mistakes, and making the most of networks.

“We all became good at the things we do by making lots of mistakes,” he reminded the audience.

And even when it comes to a highly technical job like heart surgery, you’d still hope they’d be open to feedback and new techniques.

“You have to apply both ways of thinking. There’s not a world where it’s just one way. The old way, the instinctive way of doing things, if you are a control freak, is okay as long as you know you’re being a control freak and there’s good reason for it,” Vamos argues.

“It’s about appreciating the context of the situation that we’re in and applying the right thinking.”

One of the best ways to develop this networked leadership style — what the literature would call adaptive leadership — is to take up a role outside your own area of subject matter expertise. Vamos recounted how moving into the media industry from tech forced him to sit and listen.

“Domain expertise puts us in the position of star player, rather than coach,” he says. Be open, engage with others — and definitely don’t take disagreements as personal attacks.

And remember that being smart doesn’t necessarily make you a good manager.

“Don’t manage people if you’re not good at it, don’t like it and don’t intend to get better.”