Leadership Expert Liz Wiseman

We recently asked Liz Wiseman, best-selling author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work and Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, about her leadership philosophy. She said that the leader’s job is to focus the capability of the organization and set the challenge, adding that the best leaders bring out the best in others by creating an environment where people can contribute fully and by challenging them in ways that their people and the organization grows.

“A bad leader will tell people what to do. A good leader will ask questions and let his or her people figure out the answers. A great leader asks the questions that focus the intelligence of their team on the right problems,” she says. The president of The Wiseman Group, which teachers leadership to executives and emerging leaders around the world, recently checked in with us to offer more of her insight on what it takes to be a great leader in business today. Here’s what she had to say:

You’ve written a couple books where you talk about leaders as multipliers. What is a multiplier?

Multipliers are leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. When these leaders walk into a room, light bulbs go off over people’s heads, ideas flow, and problems get solved. These are the leaders who inspire employees to stretch themselves and get more from other people.

How do multipliers vary from other leaders?

At the core, multipliers believe that “people are smart and will figure it out.” Diminishers operate under the assumption that “people won’t figure it out without me.”

What are the biggest leadership lessons you’ve had to learn through your career?

Lesson 1: Do what needs to be done, not what you want to do

When I was a new professional working at Oracle, Bob Shaver, my VP, gave me some guidance that has shaped my career. I was contemplating an internal transfer and was interviewing for a job in Bob’s division. I described the kind of work I wanted to do and what I hoped to accomplish in the job. Bob assured me that my intent was indeed worthy but that it would be far more helpful to him and the company if I figured out my boss’s biggest challenge and helped her solve it. I reoriented my thinking away from what I wanted and toward what the business urgently needed. While the initial work wasn’t my true passion, I dove in wholeheartedly. I think I built a reputation as someone who understood the strategy and got the most important stuff done. This, in turn, opened up many career opportunities to do work that I truly love.

Lesson 2: It’s not about you anymore

At some point, every new manager has to figure out that it isn’t about them anymore. I learned this lesson the hard way. I was thrown into my first management job with two significant handicaps. One, I was young (25 years old) and still unsure of who I was as a professional. Two, I’m a doer – the compulsively productive type that gets an intoxicating high in crossing things off her to-do list. But great doers don’t necessarily make great leaders.

My crisis hit six months into my new job. It was 7:30 p.m. as I sat at my desk at Oracle’s main office tower. The halls were dark and all of my staff had gone home for the night. I was still busy closing out my “to dos” for the day, many of which had emerged during the workday as one little crisis after another landed on my desk. I wondered: Why am I still doing so much of the work? I’ve delegated. Why does it all come back to me?

I became irritated at my team for not doing their jobs. Then, alone in a dark office, I had the epiphany: I wasn’t doing my job. It was my responsibility to manage the work, not do the work. My job was to flow the work to my team and keep it there. It is an embarrassingly simple idea; but as a newly-promoted manager, it was startling.

Several weeks later, my boss punctuated this realization by telling me, “I don’t really care what you do. You can sit at your desk and read novels all day long. The only thing that matters is what your team accomplishes.” I realized that I needed to turn my focus outward, enabling everyone else to work at their best. Instead of being a role model, I needed to be a multiplier to my team, sparking good ideas and fueling intelligent action in others. It’s a harder job, but a far more impactful role.

Lesson 3: As leaders, we often do our greatest damage when we hold the best of intentions

As I have studied the effects that managers have on the people they lead, I’ve been surprised to see that many leaders were simply unaware of the restrictive impact they were having on others, especially the way their own ideas were shutting down ideas in others. Their intent was different than their impact. Many of these leaders had been promoted into management having spent years being praised for their intellectual merit – and thus assumed they were supposed to have all the answers.

For example, what happens when a manager is too quick with ideas and too swift with action? Or too supportive and helpful? Or just enthusiastic or optimistic? Surely these are character virtues like those taught in school or church. Indeed they are, but many popular management practices can lead us subtly but surely down the slick slope to becoming what I call an accidental diminisher.

Becoming a great leader, one who is a multiplier to the talent of others, requires us to understand how our most noble intentions can have a diminishing effect, sometimes deeply so. While leaders view their own leadership through the lens of their good intentions, their staff perceives that same behavior only by its consequences – the consequences on them and their colleagues.

What is today’s research saying about what makes a good leader?

We can all feel the work environment changing. Instead of going to a workplace every day, we’re operating in a “workscape” characterized by vast amounts of information that we’re constantly trying to process. Our cycles are spinning faster; we can work more and get more done, and things change so quickly that many leaders don’t face the same problem twice. Innovation cycles are spinning faster, too, which means obsolescence is going up. The things we know to be true don’t stay true for very long.

Most leaders are now working in an environment far more complex than the one they learned to lead in. Information is widely accessible, with the sheer volume of available information doubling every 18 months (and every nine months with bio-data). Trying to master this information glut will prove useless because this knowledge isn’t standing still. If you work in the field of science or technology, just 15 percent of what you know right now will be relevant in five years. As the pace of work quickens and cycles spin faster, experienced leaders who have built the right capabilities and forged the right career paths can get left behind.

At the beginning of the Information Age, knowledge was the critical commodity. But that is changing. Today, being able to access information quickly when you need it is the critical skill. There is great power in learning right now, and there is also power in not knowing because it propels you up a learning curve and you are driven to find answers. In the current environment, the most critical asset is not what you know, but how fast you can learn. A great leader with a “rookie mindset” has the ability to continue to learn, change and grow – and helps others do the same.

What are the qualities of good leaders that never change?

Multiplier leaders want to learn from the people around them and understand. They are full of curiosity and questions that bring value to those working for and with them. Rookies (those doing work that is hard and important for the first time) of any age thrive in fast-changing, complex environments and in projects that explore new approaches or have a myriad of possible solutions.

Some of the world’s greatest leaders and top professionals have rookie mindsets. They are curious, humble and playful about work and learning. For example, consider photographer Annie Leibovitz, whom Disney hired to photograph celebrities as fairy-tale heroes. Leibovitz approached the job as if it were her first assignment and produced a stunning series of amusing, insightful portraits.

What are some more unconventional leaders or leadership techniques that excite you right now?

I’m really interested in the idea of fluid leadership – the notion that modern organizations need leaders who are willing to take charge but who also are willing to follow someone else’s lead. We need to stop looking at leadership as a managerial position that we undertake or are appointed to, and see it as a role that we step into and out of. The best leaders need to remain great followers, knowing when to be big and take charge and when to be smaller and follow someone else’s lead.

What should organizations be doing to grow their own leaders?

People revere experience, especially in the workplace. They admire those who master a skill, rise to the top, or accumulate successes. A repertoire of abilities, resources, and situational acumen comes with experience. Research shows a connection between experience and honed intuition. Many people believe that true mastery demands following the “10,000-hour rule,” which says that gaining proficiency in a skill requires investing 10,000 hours in learning and practice.

Yet research into rookie performance tells another story. In some instances, teams of rookies can perform better than teams of veterans. Studies suggest that most current workplace skills take only 20 hours of practice. Effectively marshaling a team’s talents is more important in achieving high performance than the team members’ level of experience. In fact, experience can prove to be a handicap.

For example, veteran employees can stop learning and listening when they believe they already know what to do and how to do it. My research showed that experience tends to make people resistant to input and reluctant to seek advice. It heightens their opposition to new ideas, fresh approaches, or constructive criticism.

Rookies outperform veterans at innovation and at time-to-completion. Top-performing rookies seek out experts, connect the dots, experiment, learn from mistakes, and focus on incremental gains. Top-performing veterans are fast to act, marshal resources, find simple solutions, and solve the right problem. However, ingrained work habits lead veterans to develop blind spots as their interest in feedback and different perspectives diminishes. Rookies remain open to new information, advice, and ideas.

People feel ready for new challenges every three months, they seek a new role about once a year, and grow stale when they’re stuck in the same position for two years. To keep employees in a fresh, rookie state-of-mind, organizations should:

  • Design one rookie component into each job – Make sure every employee has at least one area in which to learn and grow.
  • Offer lateral (as well as promotional) assignments – There’s room on either side of the ladder, as well as up. Job swaps can keep things fresh.
  • Make management changes mandatory – Move managers into new roles every few years to prevent them from becoming rigid or complacent.
  • Redefine the succession-planning criteria – When hiring, look for candidates with rookie-smart characteristics; they’re “curious, humble, playful, and deliberate.”

What are some of your favorite resources for those who want to read more about leadership?

Blogs: I’m an avid reader and regular contributor to:

  • Harvard Business Review
  • Fortune Insider Network

Podcasts: Some of my favorites are:

  • LDRLB by David Burkus, which shares insights on leadership, innovation and strategy.
  • Read-to-lead by Jeff Brown, which shares insights on personal development and leadership.
  • Great Work podcast by Michael Bungay Stanier, which shares quick, practical tips on employee engagement and how to do less good work and more great work.

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