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Leading in a Complex World: 10 Lessons From Leadership Guru Chip Colbert

  • By Jim Kaitz
  • Published: 4/23/2019

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Being a leader is never easy, nor does it come easily. Here are 10 lessons from leadership guru Chip Colbert.

“Well, if there were an easy solution it wouldn’t have been brought to me, right? It would’ve been handled at lower levels of the organization.”

The above quote comes from my good friend Chip Colbert, Managing Director of ITC Global Advisors. A retired United States Army officer, Chip also is a leadership expert who will offer executive coaching advice at AFP 2019, this October in Boston.

I think Chip really nailed what is so challenging for every leader—whether you are a treasurer of a Fortune 500 company or an FP&A manager at a nonprofit. Leadership is hard, and rarely are there any easy answers.”

I recently interviewed Chip on AFP Conversations: Leadership Series podcast. I could talk to Chip all day about what he learned in the Army. But I wanted Chip to give listeners—and, now, readers—advice on how to be great leaders.

With that in mind, here are Chip Colbert’s top 10 tips to help treasury and finance professionals be better leaders:

GREAT LEADERS PUT THE NEEDS OF THE ORGANIZATION ABOVE THEIR OWN.

“It can have kind of a draining effect when you’re always thinking about the needs of others before necessarily thinking about your own needs. But your people have to know that they are your top priority. When they know that they will respect and respond to you.”

GREAT LEADERS DON’T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS. IN FACT, THEY ARE OPEN TO GOOD IDEAS—WHEREVER THEY COME FROM.

“I think there is a stereotype about leadership where the leader is sort of all-knowing, has all the answers, with a very hierarchical, top-down approach. But I actually found that when the stakes are highest good leaders are generally open to good ideas no matter where they come from. The best military units were really operating as teams in which every member of that unit felt empowered to contribute to the mission.”

GREAT LEADERS INSPIRE TRUST.

“There’s an old saying: Without followers there is no leader. When I was back at West Point as a cadet I thought, ‘If I’m going to be the leader, I want my people to trust me. I want their loyalty.’ And I would argue that it’s very much a two-way street in that it starts with the leader. If you want that trust, if you want loyalty, then you need to demonstrate that to your people, and I think one of the best ways a leader can demonstrate that is by listening to their people and asking for input on different decisions, different situations, when the circumstances allow for that.

“There are always going to be times when, whether it’s because of time constraints or the risks are too great, that the leader’s just going to have to say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ But in those situations in which the leader has some flexibility and you can take some time and elicit input from your people, I think the more you practice that the more you engender trust; and that gives the people in the organization license to offer up good ideas and have a voice.”

GREAT LEADERS POSSESS SELF-AWARENESS.

“I think self-awareness is one of the most critical pieces of leadership because if you go into a meeting and you’re trying to articulate a vision or the tasks that need to be accomplished and you walk out of the room thinking that the meeting went a certain way, and in reality everybody in the room is not clear on what it is you were trying to say or do... If you don’t have that self-awareness of how you present, how you show up in a room, how people hear what it is you’re trying to articulate, I think you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

GREAT LEADERS SEEK FEEDBACK—EVEN CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM.

“Being a leader means making it a habit of eliciting input from your people: ‘Hey, how did that meeting go? What did you think?’”

GREAT LEADERS ARE NOT AFRAID TO HOLD DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS.

“People generally tend to shy away from difficult conversations. To help with this, there are two rules that I’ve picked up along the way. First, correct the behavior, not the person. No ad hominem attacks, no generalizations. Second, address the issue immediately. A lot of times when you’re dealing with leaders they’ll say, ‘I’ve got this issue with this person at work and for the past six months they’ve been coming in late.’ My first question is, ‘Why has it been six months? The first day that person exhibited behavior that wasn’t consistent with your expectations as a leader, why didn’t you just pull that person aside?’ And the sooner you can address it the better because the research is 100 percent clear: The most damaging thing you can do with a relationship is ignore that person.”

GREAT LEADERS CORRECT IN PRIVATE AND PRAISE IN PUBLIC.

“If something goes well, somebody does something well, the organization has a success, you as a leader, should recognize that publicly. And that if there is something that needs to be addressed that’s negative, then you never do that in front of the group, and especially in front of a person’s peers. Always pull that person behind closed doors and have that conversation.”

GREAT LEADERS READ PEOPLE.

“This is where emotional intelligence really comes into play. Your ability to read people, especially reading the boss, is critical and you need to determine a strategy for the best way to manage up or to lead up. And I think that’s a matter of understanding the person. If you work for a boss who’s very focused on data and analytics, and you have an opposing view that you want to present, then think in terms of, ‘How do I couch my argument in terms that’s most going to resonate with the boss?’ If you’ve got a boss who is very relationship-based, maybe you think about, ‘Who are my allies?’”

GREAT LEADERS ARE ACTIVE LISTENERS.

“I think active listening is one of the most underrated or underappreciated aspects of leadership because, it’s something that most people are generally pretty bad at. I would define active listening as being fully present in the conversation you’re in. I think that can be really hard for leaders because you’ve got an inbox that’s just constantly filling all day, you’ve got people that want to talk to you, you’ve got a device that is pinging. And so, when you engage with a member of your organization set your phone on silence or you ask somebody to hold your calls or whatever the environmental circumstances you need to adjust to allow you as the leader to be fully engaged to that conversation. You’re making eye contact; you’re asking clarifying questions as needed to make sure that you understand. Follow up with, “So what I heard you just say is… Do I have that right?’ If you do that as a leader, the people in your organization are going to feel that much more heard, they’re going to feel that much more engaged.”

GREAT LEADERS AIM FOR OUTCOMES; THEY REFRAIN FROM MICROMANAGING.

“One of the most powerful ways to get buy-in from every member of the team is to give them a voice in the process of what is going to be accomplished. You may or may not have the ability to choose the what. But what you definitely have the autonomy to choose is the how. And I think as a leader the more you involve your team and the more you give them a voice in how they’re going to accomplish something the more ownership they’re going to take if they feel like it is part of their plan. It’s the opposite of micromanaging approach of, “This is what needs to be accomplished, this is how we’re going to do it, and I want you to do this by A, B, C and D. If you take a little bit more time at the outset and you come together as a team, say, “This is what it is that we need to accomplish. Let’s figure out the best way to do this and who’s going to own what pieces.’ The more you practice that, the more buy-in you get, the more ownership you get, I think the better organizational performance you will achieve.”

Hear the full interview on the AFP Conversations: Leadership Series podcast. Listeners of the podcast can get special pricing to AFP 2019 in Boston. Listen in and then register here.


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