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What's in your toolbox?

Did you know that there are over 40 different types of wrenches? Some are common enough, like the trusty adjustable wrench, while others are specialized and probably unfamiliar, like the dog bone wrench. But the complexity doesn't stop there. Even the recognizable adjustable wrench can come in Metric, SAE or even AF (if that bolt happens to have been made before the mid-70s). Then you have brand names, colors, materials, grips and on and on.  Finding the right wrench for the right job can be surprisingly difficult. Use the wrong one and you break the wrench, the bolt or worse!

So what does a wrench have to do with leadership?  A lot. I can remember when I left home for college, my father gave me a ‘starter’ toolbox with all the basic tools I would need as I headed out on my own.  They were all familiar and over the years he had shown me how each one was used. There weren’t hundreds of wrenches, just one, but I knew what a wrench was, and I knew enough not to try and hammer in nails with it.  

When I think back to my first leadership position, I wasn’t so lucky.  I had been promoted based on doing one type of work into a leadership role where I would be doing entirely new things.  In hindsight, I was unprepared in many ways, but the biggest hurdle was that no one provided me with a set of basic tools that I could use to help me get things done.  Worse than that, I only had my own experience in watching other leaders, so at best I could mimic their behavior (or the opposite of it in a lot of cases).   

Almost all of the management or leadership training I received over the years in different organizations was geared toward a detailed description of an outcome – i.e. how to ‘correctly’ complete the annual performance evaluation form.  No one went into detail on why it was important and how to actually manage performance, but I knew what boxes needed to be filled out on which forms, who needed to fill out what and by what date it was due. If I got that done, I could check the box, and everyone was happy.  Except me.

Being a leader is more than checking a box and we should be equipping leaders with the tools that they’ll need today and as they grow.  It’s a lifelong process of continuously refining skills and tools that become more and more specialized based on the situation. Exceptional leaders have the giant free standing tool chest.  They have a drawer full of wrenches. They know how each one is used and when to use it versus another. They understand the value and responsibility of being a leader and treat it as a vocation.  They are on a journey of mastery, but never become masters because there is always more to learn – which is why they keep adding new tools and discarding those that are no longer useful.

As you look at yourself or at your organization, do you feel that leaders are being supported and prepared?  Do new leaders get ‘thrown in the pool’ and are expected to figure it out as they go? Do experienced leaders have resources available to help them grow?  Do leaders know what is expected of them and the why and how behind those expectations?

Having worked with hundreds of leaders around the world, I would be comfortable saying that many of you would answer ‘no’ to most, if not all, of these questions.  In my experience, many leaders want to learn and grow but aren’t given the time or space to do it. In some organizations, it is even considered a negative to need or ask for training when you’re in a leadership position.  There is perceived value in ongoing training and development for everyone except for the leadership team.    

If we truly want to take advantage of everything good leadership can do for an organization, we should treat it like we would any technical discipline.   We need to remove the stigma of a leader working on their development (yes, that means even the C-Level team) and put real training programs in place that allow our leaders to start building a consistent set of tools.  Consistent tools applied expertly turn into the kinds of results that we are all looking for. Leaders that are inspired and inspiring. Teams that are engaged and motivated. A culture that invites curiosity and growth.  An organization that is thriving.   


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