Good leaders give their team members more information and knowledge than they need just to do their job. They know what's happening in the rest of the team, the rest of the organisation, and even the outside world. But it's not enough to just sit on the sidelines and watch. Great leaders know real judgement comes from experience, not just from observation alone - so they look for opportunities to give their team members more experience that matters.
As Theodore Roosevelt said:
"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds."
The suggestion is not to throw your team members into an arena with lions and a baying crowd. But if you really want them to learn, give them the chance to do things, even with the risk they will make mistakes. You've minimised the risk by giving them the chance to observe and learn, so now give them the chance to shine.
- Ask them for advice
You’ve given your team members the chance to see how other parts of the organisation work, so now ask for their comments, suggestions, and advice. They are looking at things with new eyes and a fresh outlook, so they might be able to suggest improvements and enhancements.
It's not always easy for them to offer advice. They might be reluctant to criticise, inexperienced in making succinct suggestions, or worried about overstepping their authority. Rather than just asking for suggestions, ask specific questions instead - like these:
1. What could we stop doing?
2. What could we start doing?
3. What should we keep doing?
Don't just ask for their advice; be willing to act on it. In fact, adopt the attitude that you will act on their advice unless there are really strong reasons against it. Even if it means extra time, effort, or money, do it anyway. After all, you’re not always the best judge of the outcome, and you might be surprised at the results.
More importantly, though, acting on the advice shows them you value and appreciate it, which will encourage them to speak up more often in the future.
- Send them to networking events
Send your team members to relevant networking events. Start by finding (or asking them to find) events of their peers, and then gradually move them up to events with more senior people.
This is one area where you should beware of pushing them too far too soon. People at a networking event expect to be among peers, and many of them won’t make a more junior person feel welcomed (and some will actively make them feel unwelcomed). Attend the first such event with them, so you can make the introductions and position them with the other people there.
- Put them on the front line
Give them a chance to not just observe customers, but interact with them - in the retail shop, at the incoming call centre, on social media, at the reception desk, or wherever else your organisation interacts with customers.
You can’t do this with every customer-facing role, but just giving people exposure to customers in some way is better than none at all. For example, if you work for an airline, you can’t ask your team members to pilot the plane! But they might be able to work in social media, in a call centre, or at the airport.
Organisations like Zappos and JetBlue are famous for giving their staff flexibility in dealing with customers. Even if your organisation doesn’t have this culture, don’t hold onto the reins too tightly. Give them a bit of freedom and you might be surprised at the results.
- Give them a voice
Invite them to contribute to your organisation’s internal newsletter, the external quarterly magazine, the internal blog on the intranet, or the external blog on your website.
Some of these publications might be tightly controlled, so you might have to work hard to persuade their managers to accept other contributions, let alone contributions from 'junior' people. But it’s worth the effort, not only for your team members, but also for the organisation as a whole.
Don't limit your thinking to the written word. They could present (or co-present) at meetings, deliver training courses, publish videos, and present webinars.
- Build their authority
Some team members will be so keen about speaking up that they want to become an authority in their own right. Give them a platform of their own, beyond just being a contributor to a shared platform. The focus shifts from "This month's newsletter has an article by Shamini about our supply chain process" to "Shamini is an authority on supply chain management, and we're proud to host her blog on our website".
This might take even more effort to get approved, but again it’s worth it. Having a reputation as an organisation that fosters thought leadership is good for everybody.
- Support their existing platforms
Some team members will already have a strong online presence. If that is aligned with your team or organisation, help them develop it further.
For example, Gillian might be passionate about women in leadership, and already has a blog, Facebook page, and YouTube channel about that topic. Any leader in any organisation can support this, especially if you work in a male-dominated industry.
Look for ways to support her - for example, giving her time to work on this passion, finding conferences and events for her to attend (or present at), showcasing some of her work in your internal publications, and so on.
Be careful not to 'take over' her platform. You can invite her to contribute to internal publications, but don’t force her to bring everything under the organisation’s umbrella. If she’s passionate enough to have built a following, she’s passionate about it being hers. Support her in continuing to build her expertise and authority, and you will benefit anyway.
- Make them a mentor
They might have a mentor, but invite them to be a mentor as well. This doesn’t have to be mentoring somebody junior, as traditional mentoring would suggest. It could also be mentoring somebody more senior in the organisation, in an area where your team member has expertise - for example, social media, consumer behaviour, technology trends, or consumer electronics.
- Tap into their networks
Your team members operate in completely different social circles than you, so you might think their networks are not valuable to you. However, the exact opposite might be true. This difference might be useful because they connect you to completely new people. Mark Granovetter called this 'The Strength of Weak Ties', in his paper of the same name, which has become one of the most widely-cited papers in the social sciences.
Ask your team members to reach out to their networks when you need help with recruitment, product recommendations, product testing, and so on.
- Let them do more meaningful work
If they express an interest - or even passion - in something non-work related but which you can support, do your best to offer resources to support them.
Some organisations actively support employees who want to make a community contribution. For example, mining giant Rio Tinto runs a 'Dollars for Doers' program, which rewards employees who volunteer significant amounts of personal time to a not-for-profit organisation by providing $5,000 to that organisation, on behalf of the employee. Other organisations even make community work an integral part of each employee’s role, and tie it to their salary package.
Even if you don’t have this authority, you can still support them by giving them time and other resources within your control.
Whatever method you choose, consider it an investment rather than a cost. Your team members will be more motivated to do their regular work, and might also find creative ways to link their regular work with their community work.
- Empower the connectors
Finally, don’t assume that only you can help your team members. Find the natural connectors in your team (perhaps they are the ones who are always on Facebook!) and ask for their suggestions. They might host social events with other teams, start a monthly mastermind group, or tap into their social media network to find a guest speaker for a team meeting.
Gihan Perera is a futurist, conference speaker, author and consultant who gives business leaders a glimpse into what's ahead - and how they can become fit for the future. Since 1997, he has worked with business leaders, thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and other change agents - helping them with their strategy for thriving in a fast-changing world. Forbes magazine rated him the #5 social media influencer in the world in his area of expertise www.gihanspeaks.com