What I Wish I’d Known About Leading People


I met the other day with one of my coaching clients. She’s newly installed as a senior leader in a state department that regulates health plans. Because she’d been elevated relatively quickly, I asked her if I could share with her some of the things I wish I had known when I moved into a role managing a bigger organization.

“Sure,” she said. “That would be great!”

First, I said, remember to provide people lots of positive feedback. That’s how you build trust and demonstrate that you’re invested in people’s success. And it lays the groundwork for having the tougher conversations when you need to have them.

Second, I said, have the tough performance discussion early on with someone whose behavior is out of line or who isn’t meeting your expectations. Use that opportunity to ask powerful questions to help them understand the consequences of their actions and build individual responsibility. In line with that, remember your responsibility to be a leader coach. Take time to focus on what each person needs to develop their skills and grow professionally.

Third, have a written plan with goals and action steps, communicate it, and use it to manage the work of your department. People need to know that you’re managing to a plan. Make sure you hold frequent update meetings and refine the plan based on what you hear.

Fourth, be clear how decisions will be made. Explain whether a decision is going to be made consultatively, with people providing input to you or someone else, or by consensus. Be clear about delegations. If you want someone else to make the decision, communicate your expectations around that.

Finally, be friendly with your staff, but maintain a clear line between your professional relationships and your personal relationships. You can’t cross the line to the point where your friendliness with staff interferes with your ability to have the difficult performance conversation when you need to.

I stopped there.

“That’s very helpful,” she said. “Anything else?”

If you can do these five things consistently, I said, you’ll be an excellent leader.

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