There is a song that haunts me. It’s a camp song, often misattributed to Albert Camus, which I learned as a teenager and which I find myself humming and reflecting on even now, more than a decade after I first learned it. The melody is simple but the lyrics are profound:
Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead
Just walk beside me and be my friend
And together we will walk in the ways of Hashem
Embedded in those four lines is the most important organizational lesson I ever learned: Leaders who blaze a trail forward but forget to check in with their team risk leaving it behind. Leaders who set the team loose without empowering its members risk that their team won’t step up. Only those leaders who walk hand-in-hand with their team consistently reach their employees engagement goals.
When I worked at Cisco, I was part of a career-shaping team. My boss was young, brilliant, and decisive. She knew how to spot talent and nurture it. She avoided the “seniority trap,” which can loosely be described as the trend to delegate more and more work as you climb higher and higher in your career. She was hands-on, she was your partner, and she always had your back.
These are the lessons in hand-in-hand leadership that I learned from her:
- Build a team full of agile, intelligent, and likeable employees. Focus more on their ability to learn than past roles or experiences.
- Start off important projects with storyboarding. It’s really hard for your team to look inside your head, so invest 30 minutes up front on articulating where a project should go, then let your team go off and figure the rest out.
- Don’t assume your team has the same executive-level context as you. Your job as their leader is to set them up for success. Take time to walk through the slides with your team a few days before any executive-level presentation and help them anticipate the questions or rabbit holes that might come up.
- Pre-socialize. With your team, determine who needs to endorse your team’s work. Before any decision-making meeting, meet with key stakeholders in a small group setting so you can already be working out their objections and garnering their support.
- Give credit to the people who do the work. As a leader, your team will appreciate the opportunity to present to executives. Team members might not have the polish you have, but it’s through the practice you give them that they will get better.
- Pull the plug if people aren’t ready. If you have the walk-through mentioned earlier and it’s obvious that the team isn’t prepared, delay the meeting. It’s better to delay than make the wrong impression.
- Be decisive. Help your team make decisions with the information they have. In business there will always be ambiguity, and the leader who walks hand-in-hand with her team will help it move forward and get things done even when it’s uncomfortable or unclear on how to proceed.
In my different roles, this approach has helped me gain the trust of my colleagues and steer the team during times of ambiguity — common with the many organizational changes or budget uncertainty experienced in large companies. These lessons, learned almost four years ago, have shaped my career path with varied and exciting experiences. My advice to aspiring leaders is to start practicing working hand-in-hand with their teams.
For more on the role that trust and employee empowerment plays in an organization, read this paper from Baylor University.
For more insight on the importance of employee empowerment, see How Empowering Employees Creates a More Engaged Workforce.
Mandy Lin heads the Industry Cloud’s social business practice. On her general management career path, she has changed functions and roles frequently and aims to be agile and likeable, as described above.