INTERVIEW with Leslie Peters, Author of ‘Finding Time to Lead: Seven Practices to Unleash Outrageous Potential’

National leadership expert Leslie Peters is known for her no-B.S., straight-talk perspective — and for moving leaders past the status quo. She is the founder and CEO of Elements Partnership, a consulting practice that helps organizations get “unstuck,” and is the author of the new book, Finding Time to Lead: Seven Practices to Unleash Outrageous Potential (2018). We recently had a chance to sit down and talk at length about the struggles CEOs face, how leaders can tackle issues that don’t have good answers, and how to engage with employees in a way that builds trust. Here’s some of our conversation.

What aspects of leadership do CEOs struggle with the most?

In my experience, CEOs struggle to strike a balance between doing the work and being the leader. Leadership isn’t something you do; it’s someone you are. We never say, “You do leadership really well.” We say, “You are a great leader.”

CEOs, and leaders at other levels of an organization, are leading all the time. Every time we walk into a meeting, every time we send an email, in every interaction we have, we’re leading. All of these interactions have a disproportionately large impact; while everyone else creates ripples, from tossing pebbles in a pond, CEOs create waves from dropping boulders.

Which leads me to the next struggle I see: CEOs have unrealistic expectations of themselves and feel like they have to prove that they deserve to be sitting in that big chair.

The fact is, as CEOs, we don’t leave our humanness at the door when we take on the role. We’re still human; we’re still imperfect. CEOs often believe that everyone is looking to them for the answer. But there is rarely one right answer. The issues and dilemmas CEOs face are complex, and they don’t lend themselves to “answers.” That’s tough for high-achieving CEOs to accept, especially for those of us who have high expectations of ourselves.

How can a leader assess if his or her leadership style needs a tune-up?

First, there are the obvious signs: slumping results, turnover, not being able to recruit top talent. Then there are the more personal signs: lack of excitement about your work, inability to make and execute on key decisions, not feeling proud of the culture you see developing around you. These are all signs that you could use a tune-up.

In the book, you explain that the absence of information can drive employees to “make things up.” I found this fascinating. Why does this happen, and what can leaders do about it?

You know how kids are always asking “why?” “Why is the sky blue?” “Why don’t you like that?” “Why do I have to eat vegetables?”

They do that because they’re trying to make sense of their world. That’s what we do as humans — we’re constantly trying to make sense of everything around us. This doesn’t go away when we grow up. If we don’t have answers about what’s happening, we make up stories to fill in the blanks. It’s a subconscious thing we all do.

When Joe doesn’t show up for a meeting, for example, we start to conjecture about why: maybe he had a car accident, maybe he got fired, maybe he doesn’t think this meeting is important, or maybe he just doesn’t care about this project! We don’t say, “Hmm, Joe didn’t show up today.” We make up all kinds of stories to explain why Joe isn’t at our meeting.

What can you do as CEO to alleviate this?

Tell the story. Which means: be as transparent as you possibly can, all the time. Fill in the blanks for people so they don’t have to make up explanations for what’s happening.

In our example about Joe not attending the meeting, a text from Joe saying, “Sorry I’m missing the meeting. I got stuck out of town last night and am trying to catch a flight this morning. Go ahead without me and I’ll catch up with Molly later today,” fills in the blanks. There’s no need to spend time spinning explanations or wondering what’s up. The meeting goes on, and Joe catches up later. Simple.

You advise CEOs to “hold the tension of opposites.” What does this mean?

Holding the tension of opposites is simply acknowledging that there is rarely one right answer. Sometimes the answer that’s “right” from one perspective is completely wrong from another perspective. The short-term solution to a problem may actually detract from the long-term solution, and vice versa. Sometimes the best thing to do from a sales perspective is all but impossible from an engineering perspective. These are opposites, and there is a tension between them. As CEO, acknowledging and holding those tensions enables you to be creative and to look for solutions that will serve all needs in new and more expansive ways.

It will be helpful for you, and for everyone else, if you acknowledge this tension. When we address an issue — when we speak it out loud and acknowledge its existence — we diminish its power. The confusion (or outright anger) that people feel when they’re on opposite sides of a problem is real. Acknowledging that there are opposites, and that those opposites are in tension, depersonalizes the situation and allows for different and better dialogue.

How can leaders engage with others in a way that’s productive and builds trust?

We like to think that if we find just the right words, people will understand what we’re trying to convey and they’ll be on board with where we’re headed. That’s why we spend hours (or days or weeks?) crafting the perfect messages and preparing masterful PowerPoint presentations.

It’s not that the right messages and the right slides are unimportant. It’s just that we think that if we get the words and the slides just right people will instantly understand what we’re saying and be committed.

However, in the real world, each person brings his or her own experience, knowledge, perspective, and narrative to every message we deliver. Every person will interpret what you share through his or her own lens. Every time. No matter what.

If we want to engage in ways that are productive and build trust, we have to start by acknowledging the reality that we can’t come up with the perfect words. We have to allow people to process our messages and make sense of them for themselves — in their own way. It’s about making those carefully crafted messages meaningful in each person’s own experience.

One good way to do this is to tell stories. Stories are human. They connect us, and they’re more memorable than any message you could possibly craft. People trust people who tell stories, and they’re the perfect way for a leader to engage with their team.

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Jennifer Woods

Jennifer Woods

Entertainment Writer, Books, Authors, Politics, Indie Films, Lifestyle, Tech, Start-ups

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