10 Leadership Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

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This post was originally published on the FCR blog on July 13, 2016. Click here to read the original.

At FCR we periodically have newer leaders go through a leadership training course. This group typically consists of a mixture of team leads, supervisors, and managers— some with almost no leadership experience and others with many years under their belts.

I was recently asked to be a part of a roundtable discussion to share some of the leadership lessons I’ve learned along the way. Much of the advice I shared was learned from mentors, books, and the school of hard knocks, but for whatever reason it came out sounding like a hundred different TED talks. Regardless, here are ten leadership lessons I’ve learned over the years.

1. Relationships are essential

I shared a story about when I was first promoted from a front-line customer service position to be the manager of the team. I was promoted because I was good at my job and I knew it. Early on, however I looked at people who had once been my peers and felt a bit intimidated to now be managing them.

There were also a handful of people I viewed as “slackers” and made it my job to get them to improve. I met with each team member quarterly to deliver their performance review. As you might imagine, the meetings with the people I thought were slackers didn’t go well. In fact, many meetings accomplished nothing more than unhealthy arguments.

I’ve since learned the importance of regular one on one meetings with team members and the technique called management by walking around (MBWA) where I aim to know my team members and learn what’s important to them. Building this rapport makes it a whole lot easier to deliver feedback and set goals for improvement.

2. Begin with the end in mind

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey changed my life. This powerful principle of beginning with the end in mind is something I come back to time and time again. There are a couple ways in particular where this works in leadership. The first is at the big picture level. Jeff Toister talks often about the importance of having a customer service vision.

The second way to look at this is in terms of time management. In customer service where fires can flare up at any moment, you won’t get anything done that propels you closer to achieving your vision unless youplan to get things done. Sometimes this means writing down what you want to accomplish on a daily basis. Even ten to fifteen minutes of planning at the start of each day can revolutionize your productivity.

3. KPIs are important

Key performance indicators are essential to knowing if you’re actually moving any closer to what you envision. They may vary from organization to organization but let me tell you a couple I wish I had established early on. I wish I had a customer satisfaction metric (like CSAT or NPS) that I could tie to metrics like quality and average handle time. That way if we improved one of these, we would see if it improved customer satisfaction as well.

I’ve also come to learn about the importance of listening to feedback from customers and agents as a means of improving the customer experience. As leaders this has potential for huge impact on both customer satisfaction and employee engagement. Here are some tips on how to jumpstart a customer experience program.

4. Communicate clear expectations

In order to give your team a fair chance to be their very best, it’s important to set clear expectations for them. This means writing things down often. Your employees should have clear, written job descriptions along with goals for their growth and development. Those one on one meetings become a great forum for reviewing the progress on their goals.

I know documenting conversations can sound like a stuffy HR policy but it’s really just leadership wisdom. As a leader with a growing team, there’s no way you can store all of this information in your head. Writing everything down is an essential discipline that makes sure everyone in your organization is on the same page about what’s expected from each of your employees.

5. Employees earn results. They aren’t given.

Stop giving your team performance reviews, quality reviews, and promotions. Sure maybe give them free food once in awhile just because they’re awesome. Employees earn good reviews, promotions and other accolades because of their performance. On the flipside, they earn the consequences of poor performance as well.

It changes your perspective as a leader when you approach a coaching conversation to discuss what an employee earned versus what you’re giving them. I wrote about this several months ago. When your employees succeed in their roles, you as their leader should take great pride in the work you did to develop and motivate them.

6. Understand the unique strengths of team members

I am fanatical about StrengthsFinder. This is a tremendous tool to be able to first learn about yourself and your unique strengths. After having your team take the assessment, you will then gain insights on how to work with people who possess certain strengths. Furthermore, it’s an opportunity to help your team members gain valuable self awareness that will serve them well throughout the rest of their career. Other assessments like DISC and The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are incredible tools that can often be done online for free.

7. Emotional intelligence

I wish I had known about emotional intelligence much sooner. It very well might have saved me the trouble of throwing my phone as a customer service representative (true story) or firing any number of frustrated emails at employees and bosses. The ability to step back and analyze your emotions before acting is a critical leadership skill. Sometimes it’s a matter of rewriting that email or not sending it at all. That’s a difficult decision to make when your emotions have taken over.

8. Seek first to understand

This is another Stephen Covey insight and it goes hand in hand with emotional intelligence. The onus on us as leaders is to listen first and get a clear understanding of what’s going on before making any judgement. At FCR we often call this “assuming positive intent.” Approaching all situations this way makes all the difference.

9. Be humble and transparent

There are two things to consider when we talk about humility and transparency. First of all, don’t ask someone to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself. It becomes really easy to develop a mentality where we are superior to the people we manage and the work they do. Teams respond to leaders who are quick to serve and demonstrate what great work looks like. This doesn’t mean spending all of your time taking support calls and responding to support tickets but it shouldn’t be out of the question for you to roll up your sleeves once in awhile and understand their work.

Also, be quick to admit failure and shortcomings in the spirit of being humble and then show your team how you aim to improve for the next time. Sometimes, leaders have to say sorry! The ability to channel the praise and glory to your team when things go right and to accept the blame when things don’t is an admirable quality in a leader.

10. There’s a reason you’re in leadership

Moving into a leadership role can be intimidating, especially if you’re leading your peers. It’s important to remember that you were most likely promoted to a leadership role because you already proved yourself as a leader on your team. Perhaps you were informally a go to person on your team when people have questions. Your company recognizes this about you and believes so much in you that they are investing time and resources to develop you into the best leader you can be. That should both give you confidence in your ability and potential and also remind you of the incredible trust your company places on you.

Leadership isn’t easy and isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s not necessarily the place you want to be if your goal is to make friends and be liked by everyone. It is however an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of both the people you lead and the customers they are serving. I hope these ten lessons propel you to becoming a better leader. And by all means, please feel free to add to my list— I still have much to learn as well.

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Jeremy Watkin is the Head of Quality at FCR, the most respected outsource provider. He has more than 15 years of experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on the Customer Service Life. Jeremy has been recognized many times for his thought leadership. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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