What does it take to be a great leader? It’s a question I get asked often, along with, “What’s it really like to work with all those men?” Younger women especially are curious about my role and how I got to where I am today.
And I’ll admit, the answer escapes me. Hundreds of books have been written on the topic, and I’ve read lots of them. While there are some good tips amidst a host of clichés, no one has unlocked the secret of what it takes to be a great leader. I felt the same way when I owned my own business in the past and did a lot of writing. People would ask, “How do you become a good writer?” And the only answer I have is, “You just do.”
An article by Pamela Druckerman in the New York Times got me thinking: maybe this is the answer. The article was about things you learn in your 40s. I’m well past that age, but I’m always curious about what people think – especially younger people. Here’s what she said that really got me thinking: “There are no grown-ups. Everyone is winging it, some just do it more confidently.”
Everyone is winging it, making it up as they go. Some just wing it better than others.
That’s not much comfort to people aspiring to become leaders, let alone great leaders. In fact, it could put hundreds of business schools and leadership consultants out of business.
The real question then is how can some leaders wing it better than others?
Here are some things that I’ve learned as I’ve been winging it throughout my career.
Have a purpose. Daniel Pink is right. People are motivated by being part of something important. Putting in hours to collect your monthly pay cheque is a pretty hollow way to live your life. But if your team has a purpose to believe in, it inspires outstanding work. At ATB Financial, we’ve just begun to tell a new story – not a vision, mission or values – but a compelling story that describes who we are, why we are, and what we aspire to as a company. And it’s amazing how it resonates with our team members and inspires them to do an even better job of serving our customers.
Hire great people – people who are smarter than you are. Not only does it take the pressure off you to be the smartest person in the room, it elevates everything. The conversations are brilliant. The results are amazing. And your job, as the leader, is to set the direction and let people loose. I’m blessed to work with an amazing team of talented and creative people, and they constantly surprise me with the ideas I’d never have thought of.
Lead with passion. You have to care about what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it with. Leadership is never easy. It consumes a big part of your life. And if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s a pure grind. Often when people ask me about my role as a leader, they’re coming from two places: those who are truly curious and aspire to a leadership role, and those who say: I’d never want to do what you do. That response always surprises me. Because I genuinely love what I do.
Yes, it takes lots of hours and it can be stressful. Yes, there are tough times and difficult decisions to make. But those times pale in comparison to the joy of working with amazing people and being part of something I truly believe in.
Park your ego. Leadership really isn’t about you, it’s about the people around you and the results you achieve. This one really hit home over the past week. I’ll confess to being a curling fan (how can people think it’s boring?). During this year’s Brier – that quintessential Canadian event – John Morris started the week in the skip role, the leader of Team Canada, the guy who makes all the decisions. And they got off to a very rocky start. Midway through the week, he decided to relinquish his skip role for the good of the team, and they went on to win the Brier. I’m not suggesting leaders should give up when times are tough, but if you relentlessly stick with something just because it’s your idea and you need to prove you’re right, chances are you’ll fail to see the obvious solutions in front of you.
Have fun every day. People ask me why I’m still working at a time in my life when I could be comfortably sitting back reading a good book. The answer: I laugh every day. Having fun at work is one of the principles we live by at ATB. We do crazy things, have Friday afternoon dance parties, play tricks on each other, and share funny videos... and we also do serious work and achieve outstanding results.
Age helps. Being a woman in a senior leadership role, especially in a bank, is enough of a challenge, but combine that with most often being the oldest person in the room, and it’s a double whammy. But I’ve come to see it as a gift. I’ve seen and experienced lots, so I’m rarely surprised. I no longer feel the pinch of ambition or the pressure of having something to prove. Decisions come easier. I don’t care as deeply about what people think – my skin may have more wrinkles but it’s not nearly as thin.
One last thought on winging it as a leader... be open to possibilities. Sounds like another cliché, but I’ve met too many people who rigidly follow a path that’s leading them nowhere. I’ve never had a career path, never aspired to leadership for leadership’s sake, never known exactly what I want out of this crazy life we lead. I’ve been winging it all my life, and lately, with more confidence than ever.