When I get asked what the hardest thing about leading a growing company is, I run through the spectrum of challenges I face...worrying about cash flow, understanding our customer perceptions, thinking about where we should be in 2016, dealing with the architect on how we're redesigning our offices to fit more people in...but I believe that sometimes the hardest challenge is mindset.
I have a distinctive set of preferences for how I go about my work. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love mixing it up, I want people to think big (and back it up with data) and I don't need all the details because I place a lot of trust in my teams and believe they'll get things done.
I know though that this mindset certainly isn't shared by all my employees and even our small senior leadership team. And that's good! But it also means I need to lead differently than I might like.
Leading out of your comfort zone is extremely challenging but brings big benefits. Let me illustrate what this looks like with a story of one of our clients.
Kevin is the CEO of a local company with 2,000 employees, and he dreads town hall week. Once a quarter he holds 10 town-hall- style meetings for employees who want to get information about the organization and ask questions. Kevin would much rather convey the information via newsletter and answer questions by email, but he knows that's not what is best for the organization. By the end of town hall week Kevin is actually re-invigorated, optimistic and glad he came up with the idea. He feels this way until town hall looms on the calendar the next quarter, when he begins to dread it again.
This is a great example of a leader leading outside his or her comfort zone. The truth is that as a leader, you will undoubtedly be asked to perform tasks that are outside your normal, preferred way of acting. You're expected to recognize what is best for the organization and to meet each situation whether or not it is within your comfort zone.
The fact is, leading outside the comfort zone has direct benefits for your employees. This leadership style allows them to live inside their comfort zones and be more productive.
In Kevin's situation employee surveys showed a desire for the company's leaders to be more visible and accessible. Although this wasn't a crisis situation, Kevin recognized the potential direct benefit of doing it, and his comfort level simply did not matter.
The employees appreciated Kevin's appearances, but he also gained valuable information about his organization that simply would not have been available had he just written a newsletter. He got employees' perceptions, heard their major concerns and complaints, and like it or not, got a report on what's new in the rumor mill. He created an environment where employees felt heard and respected and that bred confidence and productivity.
Leading outside your comfort zone shows empathy, which is key to leadership in 2015. Your employees don't know or care about your comfort level. They care that you took the time to do whatever it took to address a situation. When you crack a joke, tell a story, or shed a tear in front of your staff, you open lines of communication that a newsletter simply cannot.
No matter what the activity, remember that progress is often made outside the comfort zone. The organization is the primary beneficiary, but personal growth is also a byproduct. And just as a reminder, operating outside your comfort zone doesn't mean you are not being authentic. It shows the moral compass and dedication that authentic leaders possess. I am certainly not suggesting that we live outside our comfort zone all of the time — only that we take frequent trips away from it to reap all the rewards that new experiences and perspectives provide.