Stepstones and pitfalls of a successful leader
Taking responsibility, setting boundaries and communicating openly
The increasing need for experienced leaders encourages existing professionals to think about whether they should aim for a leading position as the next logical step. In times of information density and constant change, the requirements and the expectations for these positions rise and shift continuously. The transition periods become the new normal and being able to create stability and trust within the team is the key to success.
After working with leaders on their problems during various Auntie sessions, I also interviewed Mika Kupila, the Head of Service at Auntie, to share some insights on his role. Together with information about the important skills for becoming a successful leader, it can be helpful to decide whether this career path is for you and what skills are worth improving.
Image: Mika Kupila, Head of Service at Auntie
Manager’s responsibility as a role model
The personal responsibility, on how to regulate your stress level e.g. by following a self-care routine and balancing your work-life and private life, will be observed closely by your employees. You are the role model, who either includes stress regulating exercises, regular breaks and a healthy lifestyle or burns out. Also, Mika states that setting clear boundaries and showing respect for the time of your co-workers will reflect on how people work with each other.
“I’m aware that what we as managers do and how we behave affect more than what we say. I try to be open about when I work and when I don’t, and then respect when others say the same i.e. not sending a message if someone is on vacation or outside normal business hours. As the pace at work can sometimes be quite hectic, we need to actively schedule breaks and time to recharge during the day. A walk outside at lunchtime or having a walking meeting is encouraged.”
This requires creativity, compassion, and constant personal growth to use the trickle-down-effect for strengthening the team, creating opportunities to learn, increasing motivation, and improving communication. A leader has the unique opportunity to create their own team culture.
Additionally, there are the more traditional responsibilities like having an eye on quality management while optimizing processes, regulating overtime, increasing efficiency in decision making by carefully curating participants in meetings, and an undisturbed flow of information that ensures everyone involved has easy access to important information.
Setting boundaries is a required skill of a successful leader
While setting boundaries and respecting the time of the co-workers, misunderstandings can easily arise. Mika explained why open communication is important to reduce the pressure in working together.
“I try to respect work time to my best capabilities and have openly discussed that I may sometimes work in evenings or weekends but do not expect my team to do so, and on the rare occasion that I send a Slack message, I do not expect any answers. If it’s urgent, we can call each other and this also means, if they call me during a meeting, I will always answer.”
Offering your team the opportunity to reach you at any time satisfies the basic need of security and community, which will strengthen your leader position but also bears a risk of creating pressure for the leaders. Therefore, setting clear boundaries is a crucial skill in leadership.
Another pitfall for leaders with extended knowledge and projects under time pressure, is taking over tasks colleagues are struggling with. This can lead to either micromanaging your team or ending up with the same responsibilities they tried to delegate in the first place. Mixing responsibilities will create uncertainty around you. Instead consider creating opportunities for your team like learning from you and establishing expertise themselves. Alternatively, you can pair them up to support each other, assign a mentor or motivate them to give it another try before involving you. In any case you will have to start setting clear boundaries for delegation and saying “no” without feeling guilty.
Open communication encourages trust
Building trust encourages exchange and helps to create a psychologically safe environment. Allowing employees to open up about mistakes, worries or feelings of lacking experience, offering them acceptance regarding their shortcomings and encouraging them to focus on the opportunity to learn and grow, is a good start. Suffering from insecurity during the onboarding process while building or restructuring a team, is normal for employees and leaders. Mika noticed that sharing information gets easier when people feel safe.
“I try to create a culture where it is encouraged to ask questions, discuss and challenge. Especially for Finns, it’s not always easy as we tend to be quieter. It’s something that I’ve said many times aloud and will keep saying, many brains are smarter than one and when we don’t ask, we miss out on the collective knowledge we have. I believe that in our team we have become quite good at this already, and I hope we can continue with it in the future as well.«
Agreeing on common values can help new employees to find courage to speak up, which creates meaning in their work and helps them to become more independent for example in prioritising tasks. Seeing every colleague as an individual and acknowledging their needs and reasons will help to establish a bond of trust which keeps the team connected and forms an even closer connection. Mika has used this successfully with his team.
“We all have our lives outside of work, and I think it’s important to talk about struggles and challenges, and of course happy events in our private lives. We are human after all, and holistic creatures where everything affects everything else. We have monthly retrospectives where we as a team think about how we as a team work, what went well and what can be improved. It’s a safe environment to challenge ways of working in hopes of improving how we as a team perform.”
Thank you, Mika, for your time and all the valuable insights. Being a leader requires skills, which need to be learned, trained and from time to time refreshed. Auntie has designed different leadership packages: Born to Lead, Leading with a Meaning, Dream Team in Process, Leading from a Distance, and Leader in Rough Waters. These meet the needs of the leadership roles and its requirements by supporting reflection on existing skills, building new skills, and finding the right routines to become a more successful leader.