HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. Is your job pushing you outside your comfort zone? Probably in some ways; maybe not in others. Either way, it’s important to understand how to make the most of stretch responsibilities. In this episode, executive coach and former venture capitalist Jerry Colonna discusses what to do when you don’t feel qualified for your new role, or if you’re covering an absentee boss’s responsibilities, OR when you’re leading a team but haven’t been given formal power. This episode originally aired on Dear HBR in June 2019. Here it is.
DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. We don’t need to let the conflicts get us down.
DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions, look at the research, talk to the experts, and help you move forward.
ALISON BEARD: Today we’re talking about stretch goals with Jerry Colonna. He’s an executive coach and former venture capitalist, and the author of the book Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up. Jerry, thanks so much for coming on the show.
JERRY COLONNA: Oh, thanks for having me. It’s a blast to be here.
ALISON BEARD: So, when you were a VC, you were often investing in unproven people, and now you’re a coach. How can you tell when someone is ready to stretch?
JERRY COLONNA: Well, usually they break out in a sweat and start shaking. [LAUGHTER] Ugh, do I really have to grow, I don’t really want to grow, oh my god, I’m growing!
ALISON BEARD: But how do you know that they’re ready?
JERRY COLONNA: I watch and see the ways in which they are responding to new assignments, and this may sound odd, the mistakes that they’re making. As a father of a friend of mine likes to say, if you’re not standing on the edge, you’re taking too much space.
ALISON BEARD: There is this inherent risk of failure though, have you seen people take stretch goals and not do them well?
JERRY COLONNA: Of course. And, but Alison, you say that like, as if failure’s the problem. You know, not to get all Zen Buddhism on you, but there’s something really, really powerful and liberating when we think about each step in that stretching towards doing something new as precisely that. And the expectation is we are going to get it wrong. That’s growth, that’s learning.
DAN MCGINN: Dear HBR: A year and a half ago I relocated with my family to a new part of the country. I took a job at a new industry, and in a role that was completely new to me. I was hired for some of the finance skills I had developed in previous jobs. Also, to put it bluntly, my new employers is a small firm in a small market, my manager was struggling to find qualified people. The roll was a bit of a step back, however, I worked hard and we made it through a novel company-wide project. It received a lot of attention from senior management, and from the board. Because of his visibility on this project, and his skills, my boss quickly moved up, creating a need for someone to take his position. He believed I could fill the role. I was very hesitant, but eventually, they offered me the job, and I didn’t feel like I could turn it down. The bump in income will help at home. The increase in responsibility scares me. Here’s what I’m worried about before I got here. I had never even seen or heard a lot of the types of work that I’m now involved in. I still have so much to learn and get up to speed on. My boss understands my concerns. He’s assured me that at least for the first year or so, things won’t change much from the way we handled the work last year and that he will help me out whenever I need it. Part of me worries that eventually, he’s going to drop something in my lap and say good luck. The reality is he’s busy. Most of the guidance I get from him is on the fly. I’m beginning to understand what people mean by Imposter Syndrome. I feel like a total fraud. It’s a fairly small office, and everyone recognizes how new I am. They have to know that I don’t have experience in this kind of technical role. I worry people will think I should not have been promoted. What can I do? Jerry, what’s your initial reaction?
JERRY COLONNA: New job, new city, new circumstances, new, new, new. Well, there’s that stretching. I’m, I’m doing things I have never done before. I’m being asked to do things I’ve never done before. The thing that occurs to me, one of the last episodes of Mad Men. Do you remember that TV show?
DAN MCGINN: Sure.
ALISON BEARD: Mm-hmm.
JERRY COLONNA: I loved that show. And what was the name of the executive assistant who worked for Don?
ALISON BEARD: Peggy.
JERRY COLONNA: Peggy, Peggy, Peggy.
DAN MCGINN: She got promoted up, sure.
JERRY COLONNA: Right, so she gets promoted up to the ranks, and, and one of my favorite scenes is Peggy’s basically the boss, and she’s coming to Don trying to figure out what to do. And she’s just like breathless and filled with anxiety. And she’s like Don, I don’t, I don’t know what, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to, and he looks at her in that sort of weird sage-like way, and he says welcome to the not knowing.
ALISON BEARD: Because he’s the master of faking it till you make it. So, is that what you’re supposed to do?
JERRY COLONNA: He is not only the master of faking it till you make it, but he’s actually saying something that’s genuine and true. Which is that leading and stepping into that leadership is welcome to the not knowing.
DAN MCGINN: Yeah, I think one of the things that’s important about Imposter Syndrome is that everybody feels that way at some point.
JERRY COLONNA: Exactly.
DAN MCGINN: It’s a universal feeling, everybody thinks oh, it’s just me, I’m the only one that doesn’t know what I’m doing. No, everybody feels that way.
JERRY COLONNA: That’s right. Buried within the universality is the opportunity for your own self-growth, because wait a minute, wait a minute, so here I am in that Imposter Syndrome moment, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, I’m worried everybody’s going to figure it out. Wait, everybody’s walking around feeling that way?
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, so just to clarify Imposter Syndrome is a term originally coined by two psychologists. It basically means having self-doubt, insecurity, worry that you’re inadequate, and it’s going to be discovered.
JERRY COLONNA: That last bit, Alison, that you just shared, that it’s going to be discovered, I think that’s really important because it’s not merely having self-doubt, but it’s having self-doubt in the midst of a bunch of people who somehow have figured out that you don’t know what you’re doing.
DAN MCGINN: So, even if this is totally normal though, it’s still not very pleasant. What constructive advice can we give him to try and reduce these unpleasant insecure feelings?
JERRY COLONNA: Well, first connect with the universality of it. Don’t fake it. Don’t walk around and pretend that you know when you, in fact, don’t know. Cause I actually think that that feeds the Imposter Syndrome.
ALISON BEARD: Absolutely. We published a great piece by Andy Molinsky at Brandeis who talks about recognizing the benefits of being a novice. You know, don’t act as if you are an expert, understand that you’re not, and then ask really smart questions.
JERRY COLONNA: Yeah, I think the, I think the most under-utilized statement in these situations is, I don’t know, I haven’t done this before, what would you do.
DAN MCGINN: I think there’s a happy medium in terms of, of advertising his lack of technical skill and his novice status. But, I think he probably wants to err on the side of acknowledging he’s not a super technical person and he’s going to need some learning curve and some help with this.
ALISON BEARD: And I think that will go a long way into his employees embracing him as a leader.
JERRY COLONNA: Can I add a corollary to this?
ALISON BEARD: Yeah.
JERRY COLONNA: When a leader, in a new situation, in a stretch goal, is able to sort of connect with the reality of what they know and they don’t know and speak truthfully from that, there’s this lovely, lovely corollary benefit that occurs called trust. Then all of a sudden you start to pull the team together and people start rooting for you.
DAN MCGINN: In terms of people rooting for him, the thing that I like most about our listener situation here is that it sounds like his boss is a really good guy, it sounds like the boss wants him to succeed, has the technical skills to help him succeed, how can our listener get the knowledge he needs from a supportive boss who’s crazy busy?
JERRY COLONNA: Well, the first thing to also, I would add, is it sounds like the boss believes in the listener.
ALISON BEARD: And there are clearly other people in the organization who feel the same way because they offered him this promotion.
JERRY COLONNA: That’s right, that’s right. And that’s a reality. I mean, we can see it because we’re not in that listener’s body feeling the panic. So, that’s the first thing is like okay, if I believe in these people, and they believe in me, then maybe this Imposter Syndrome isn’t 100% accurate. Then to walk in and say look, I know you’re really busy, to send an email or something, I know you’re really busy. Some point in the next two weeks, can I get an hour. And you just want to sort of develop that communication and that cadence, and that will go a long way to easing some of the anxiety.
DAN MCGINN: It sounds like our listener is reluctant to bother his busy boss with questions, which makes sense, you know, everybody wants to be respectful of their boss’s time. But at the same time, it’s in everybody’s best interest here for this knowledge to get transferred and for him to succeed in this. Because if he fails, it’s not just him that fails, it’s going to be problematic for the organization. He’s already said that this is an organization that really has a hard time finding qualified people. So, organizationally everybody here wants him to succeed and he needs to think about that when he’s sort of reluctantly asking for time.
ALISON BEARD: And going back to the team rooting for him, you know, he talks about it being a small office, he doesn’t talk about anyone being resentful, you know, or some rival being angry that they haven’t been promoted to the position, so I do think that he’s underestimating everyone’s support for him.
JERRY COLONNA: I think you’re right, I think you’re spot on.
DAN MCGINN: Do you think that any of the people below him in the hierarchy, the team, might have some of these skills? Instead of just looking upward up the ladder to get the training and technical know-how he needs, I wonder if he could look downward and see if the people that are on his new team might be able to transfer some of those skills.
JERRY COLONNA: That’s a great observation and insight. Those people quote below them, may, in fact, be dying to be able to share that technical knowledge. They may be looking for that opportunity to shine. And that’s also something a good leader can do.
ALISON BEARD: I also wonder whether he could find a training program, or work with a consultant, just to build those skills as rapidly as they possibly can without taking too much time from his boss should he not be able to find it within the organization itself.
JERRY COLONNA: Yeah, I’d add to that too, peer groups, getting groups of people together cross-functionally within the same organization, or even outside your own organization, but people who have similar responsibilities. That can be an enormous resource for people. But you have to be willing to admit that you don’t know something in order to get the value out of a peer relationship.
DAN MCGINN: Since part of his problem seems to be confidence here, maybe he can talk directly with the boss and say look, you know, you just, we just did this big project together that was successful when I was in my old role, is there anything we can do in the first three months in this new role I’m in that will be a success, give us a W, and maybe give me a little bit of a boost I need to feel like I’m actually qualified to do this.
JERRY COLONNA: I feel like those early wins are a great way to foster that sense of, of shared accomplishment of a goal as well.
ALISON BEARD: Is there any chance that our letter writer is right and that he has been promoted beyond his abilities?
JERRY COLONNA: Sure. And I think that that’s sort of an interesting stretch-point, right, because people are promoted beyond their abilities or promoted, let’s call it prematurely, all the time. That’s what fast-growing companies need to do. There are many people within the organization who are probably being stretched by being promoted into positions that under traditional circumstances they may not have otherwise qualified for.
ALISON BEARD: Right. I guess you can be promoted beyond your abilities, but then as long as you are on a perpetual learning path, eventually you’ll be able to handle the job no problem. I think that was another great bit of advice from Annie Molinsky that you should measure yourself not by everything that you’re getting done or how much you know, but by how much you’re learning each day, how much better are you getting.
DAN MCGINN: That’s a great point. That can almost be part of our listener’s messaging here, which is, look, I realize I’m not the perfect person for this job, but the company seems to think that I’m the best available under these circumstances, and I’m going to do my best to learn and get up to speed.
JERRY COLONNA: Yeah, I think that’s great. And what I would add to that is, and I welcome your feedback when you see the things that I could be learning and growing further around. And that just opens up all the space for growth for everybody.
ALISON BEARD: So, Dan, what are we telling our letter writer who feels like an imposter?
DAN MCGINN: Well, first he’s not an imposter. What he’s feeling is totally normal and widespread, and we think he’s really well situated here because he has a good boss, who’s invested in him, who has the know-how to help him learn the skills he needs. So, I think they need to get into a very good structured check-in kind of schedule. Don’t look upon this as a burden, this is the boss’s job, and he needs to structure a way to make time for it. At the same time, the listener should recognize that there might be other sources of know-how that he can tap into. He can look towards peers or even subordinates in the organization, some of whom may have the technical skills that he lacks. He can look outside the organization, whether it’s informally through peer organizations or whether it’s through some sort of a more formal training program. And finally, we think it would be great if he and the boss came up with a plan to get him some early wins in the new role to help develop his confidence and to help to prove to everybody that he is making progress in getting up to speed and the requirements of the job.
ALISON BEARD: Dear HBR: I’m a junior communications manager at a small but very quickly growing software company. Our director of operations is this all-star player, who’s practically running the company by herself for a few years. We’re restructuring in order to spread out the work, but her schedule is still so full, that it’s been a real problem. She frequently misses meetings and ignores emails. She comes in and out of the office so quickly that catching her in person is nearly impossible. We pride ourselves on our awesome company culture, I feel that she is detracting from it by not being present or even approachable. It seems like she doesn’t respect my time, or anyone else’s, and can’t be bothered to change her ways. This is having a negative impact on my own work as a new manager. I’ve been tasked with taking over some of her responsibilities, but I can’t meet with her to discuss expectations and transitional steps. I feel like I’m floundering. How can I succeed without knowing how, or even sometimes what she needs me to do? How can I navigate our relationship to make sure it doesn’t sour? What can I do to stay out of her way, and still deliver on my job?
JERRY COLONNA: So, the main thing that occurs to me is like our last listener, there’s an opportunity here to talk to some peers. I can almost guarantee that our listener, and this letter writer, is not the only one who’s struggling with this and that there are other people within the organization. In this case I wouldn’t even necessarily go outside yet to some of the other peers, but to really sort of gather together, and to ask people how are you handling situations, and to really talk about defining your own KPIs, to defining your own OKRs, defining your own stretch goals, and really sort of handing those back to the organization.
DAN MCGINN: Do you think it’s important for the listener to recognize that there are great things that come from being at a quickly growing start-up, but that one of the downsides of it is that people are going to be stretched, people are going to be busy, that the culture is probably a little bit less structured than General Electric or the US Army.
JERRY COLONNA: Yeah, I’m glad you asked that, Dan, because the first thing I wrote down was quickly growing. And yes, there’s definitely opportunity implicit in that, because in that constant shift and that constant challenge, oftentimes there is opportunity that gets created for people to sort of rise up and take on more responsibility, to stretch. I would go back to encouraging the listener to set up a dialogue within the organization to talk about the pros and cons of this quickly growing culture.
ALISON BEARD: I think that’s hard to ask for in this very busy environment. We’ve published, you know, research that’s showing even outside the start-up world absentee leadership is the most common form of incompetent leadership. Many managers are just too busy to be fair to their employees. You know, they’re under lots of time pressure, and so they just can’t treat employees as well as they might like to. So, this is the reality, the idea that she can change that culture or change her boss might be a stretch.
JERRY COLONNA: Oh, yeah, and a stretch in a way that’s a set up for feeling terrible. I would say there may be more of an opportunity to change the culture than there is to change the boss. You know, one of the gifts of less competent management is we have a very clear model of what we don’t want to do as a manager ourselves. And there is that opportunity in there, it’s like learning by observing, we made that point before, and observing what works and what doesn’t work.
ALISON BEARD: And how does she do that without creating sort of an us-versus-them dynamic?
JERRY COLONNA: Well, you know, it’s funny. It brings me back to my early 20’s when I was promoted early. And I remember giving one of my employees an extra week of vacation because he had a sick child and he needed some extra time at home. And I remember being chastised by the HR department, how could you do this, what do you think you’re trying to create a better organization than the rest of the organization. It’s unfortunate that that might get perceived as an us-versus-them culture, but I’d encourage our listener to be the kind of manager, to be the kind of leader that she herself would like to be led by.
DAN MCGINN: Is there an argument that what’s going on here is that simply the communication’s function at this company is not the priority and not the biggest problem that the director of operations has? Maybe, for instance, getting the software out the door, making sure customers are happy, making sure quality is there, could this director of operations actually be doing the right thing by making communications a lower priority at this moment in the start-up’s life?
JERRY COLONNA: Possibly. That doesn’t feel particularly sustainable though. I often say to a client that you’re in the process of building a company, you’re not just building a product. We’re trying to build exquisite, beautiful products and services while simultaneously building a company that can sustain that and go for the long term. And I don’t hear that latter part going on in this quote awesome culture.
ALISON BEARD: It’s clear to me that our letter writer should be more proactive. Absolutely, like you said, Jerry, in talking to her peers, but I think also in just sort of figuring out what her own priorities should be what her role is.
DAN MCGINN: I’ll go even further. On paper it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have the communications person reporting to the director of operations, those are two kinds of really disparate functions. How about our listener identifies somebody else in the organization that she would like to be her boss, that there’s some logical connection with, and say, hey, I noticed you’re so busy you’ve skipped our last five meetings together, maybe I should be reporting over to this person who has a little bit more time and makes a little bit more sense to oversee communications, what do you think?
ALISON BEARD: Tricky conversation, but a great idea.
JERRY COLONNA: Yeah, I agree. It’s a tricky conversation depending on the culture, but I do like the direction that you’re headed with that, Dan.
ALISON BEARD: One of our author Amy Jen Su says that you know, there are two questions to ask when your boss is not prioritizing your work for you, and that is what is my highest contribution, and what am I passionate about. So, where can I make the most impact in this organization? And then, I think, she can, once she sets out those goals for herself, share them with the boss, solicit feedback, but in a way that’s not as needy as she seems to be approaching it now.
JERRY COLONNA: Can I add a question to Amy’s questions?
ALISON BEARD: Yeah.
JERRY COLONNA: What kind of leader am I? And I think that there’s a self-reflective component in that. Or what kind of adult do I want to be? What kind of company do I want to work for? I think that those kinds of self-orientation questions can be super helpful in these kinds of situations, especially when your, your supposed manager is absent, right? Cause it puts it back into your very capable hands and says, okay, I lack a model, so I’m going to be my model, I’m going to be that person that I need to be. And I think that’s super empowering, even in the midst of the whole chaos here.
DAN MCGINN: Are there some people who are just not cut out for the chaos that you’re going to experience at some point in the growth of the start-up? Could this just be a personality kind of issue for her?
JERRY COLONNA: Sure. Almost implicit in every start-up is a varying degree of dysfunctionality. And then there’s, you know, and I’ve unfortunately had to be in these situations, there are companies where, you know, there are fist fights breaking out on the floor. And what individuals have to do is have to look, they have to look inward and say is this really for me, is this the company I want to work for. And if it’s not, then I really have two kinds of choices. Can I alter that company, can I alter the trajectory of that culture or not, by my growth or my agency, or is it time for me to actually find a different place.
DAN MCGINN: Alison, what’s our message to this listener?
ALISON BEARD: So, first we completely understand her frustration. Her boss is supposed to be helping her make this transition and is actually an impediment. At the same time, she’s working in a really fast-moving environment, her boss is probably always going to be extremely busy, and this is why she’s getting more responsibility. So, we think that she should talk to her peers about how they’re handling it, how the work is happening, and how they can help each other. We also think that she should think about her own goals and priorities and be proactive. She should ask what value she adds, and what kind of leader she wants to be. And then she should communicate what she’s going to do to her boss, and maybe not even expect a reply. And last, we’d just like her to consider the broader context. How important is communications to the company right now? Maybe she could even look at the org chart and figure out whether there’s another team where she more logically fits.
DAN MCGINN: Dear HBR: I work in the tech field. I’ve recently changed jobs going from a huge organization to a much smaller one. I’m not the most senior engineer in my immediate team of five. My manager wants me to provide technical leadership to the team. Before I joined, the other four members had been working on the project for about four months. They’re a very smart bunch, even though some of them are barely out of college. I’ve never been in a similar situation before. I’ve either joined an established team with more senior engineers who helped me out, or I started from scratch and had other engineers join in later. This is the first time I’m expected to come in and lead from behind. My manager has not given me useful guidance on this. What should I do?
JERRY COLONNA: Well, I love this question because there’s, there’s an implicit understanding about leadership that I think is somewhat false, that I think that leadership is only coming from one position, the front. And I applaud the organization first of all for being able to ask people at various levels to lead in a particular conversation. This is really good training. You know, earlier we made reference to the notion of the battlefield promotion, that military notion of someone all the sudden being thrust into a leadership position. One of the great things a culture to do is to give people small bits of leadership opportunity throughout the organizational structure. So, hats off to the manager who asked our listener to step in.
ALISON BEARD: So, one tension I see here is that it’s unclear whether the manager has told the rest of the team that he wants our letter writer to be their leader. It’s unclear whether he has any formal leadership role. So, how does he navigate that?
JERRY COLONNA: That’s a great point. I think one of the first things to do would be to clarify that that has been communicated, because otherwise, the listener is kind of in danger of being perceived as a little bit arrogant, a little bit assuming too much. So, that would be the first thing I would ask for.
DAN MCGINN: This kind of leadership seems a little bit tricky cause it doesn’t sound like these people are going to report to him, it doesn’t sound like he’s going to have a lot of authority, it sounds more like sort of a coaching, sort of wisdom passing on, this technical leadership, but not being the manager. Is that a particularly tricky role?
JERRY COLONNA: I think it is, but I think it’s a particularly rewarding role as well.
DAN MCGINN: Why?
JERRY COLONNA: Because it’s leadership without power.
ALISON BEARD: That sounds, does not sound rewarding to me. [LAUGHTER]
JERRY COLONNA: Don’t be so terrified. It’s leadership that stems from the internal capacity of the individual. It stems from kind of the way in which the individual holds themselves. The manager who is asking for this is seeing something in our listener that that listener may not see, and that’s really fascinating to me. They’re kind of calling forth leadership with a lower case L, and they’re being asked to take that position, without, you know, having the dint of some sort of organization chart that says I’m the boss.
ALISON BEARD: There does seem to be a generational element here too. You know, he’s an older person coming into an existing team of younger people, and A, trying to break his way onto the team, but now being tasked with leading them, how does he get over the perception that he’s just the old guy coming in and telling everyone what to do?
JERRY COLONNA: I would embrace the gravitas that comes from wisdom and life experience. And gravitas is a great word, it’s I’m here. I would not pretend and fake that I have authority, that I might not have authority.
DAN MCGINN: In this situation, it seems like figuring out whether he wants to have a push system or a pull system would be important. Is his role going to be to proactively teach and correct and instruct, or is it more to wait for questions to come up and be kind of like the local help desk that the younger people can come to? Sort of figuring that dynamic out seems like it would be important to be effective and to fit in.
ALISON BEARD: I vote for pull.
DAN MCGINN: You vote for pull?
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I think he should get to know people, and then explain that his door or cubicle is always open.
JERRY COLONNA: Can, can I vote for the middle way?
DAN MCGINN: Sure, how does that work? Tell us.
JERRY COLONNA: I’m a Buddhist and I can’t help but vote for the middle way. I would advise them to sort of listen a heck of a lot, so I’m like you, Alison, right, to sort of lean in on that, but then I would use the word coax, and to create conditions for people to sort of come forward. I wouldn’t necessarily take the posture of imposing wisdom, let me tell you how to do it. Cause I think that that can create all sorts of negative dynamic. But ask some really, really powerful questions that come from that place. And the questions should be open and honest to sort of coax and invite more participation.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I think that’s great advice. You know, when I’m thinking about people starting a new job and particularly taking new leadership roles, I always go to Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, and he talks about questions that you can ask right out of the starting gate just to get people aligned. They are what will we accomplish, why are we doing it, how are we going to do it, and who’s going to do what. And just to set the team up for that sort of group discussion, to allow people to have input, but then it just opens a conversation for all of these technical issues that they need to figure out together. With our letter writer’s leadership.
JERRY COLONNA: Yeah, I mean, I’d add questions like, specifically for this listener, how would we know that the project’s succeeded? What would the benefit to the organization be if the project succeeded? What resources would we need in order to accomplish this, right? And the whole idea is early on in that process to kind of coax an imagination, and to pull the team together to jointly come up with that image.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, Dan you talked earlier about early wins, and I think that is critical here, you know, demonstrating that he’s adding value by pulling the team together and getting them to execute on something sort of more quickly or more efficiently, or at higher quality than they would have otherwise.
JERRY COLONNA: It does not feel like leading from behind, what we’re describing, it feels like it’s leading from shoulder to shoulder standing together, right, leaning into the work that’s in front of us. And to me, yeah, that’s harder. To your point earlier Alison, that’s harder, cause you’re leading by dint of your gravitas, not necessarily by dint of some sort of De Juro organizational structure. You’re the boss, therefore you make the decision. I think leadership that’s like that just inculcates a much healthier culture and allows everybody to step up and grow up.
ALISON BEARD: On a more personal level though, how does he step in and make all of these people feel like a team, feel like peers, especially when there’s an age gap.
JERRY COLONNA: My default answer in all those questions is actually to model it themselves.
DAN MCGINN: I wonder if there are structural things they can do as a team to try and create more of a culture of teaching. For instance, I’ve heard of organizations, whether you are programmers or sales people where you create a structure where people come in and talk about, you know, a sale that we just made, and what the keys to it were, and what the lessons that could be learned from this particular closing this deal were, or if you’re a software programmer, how you sort of cracked this stuff problem. Basically giving people a forum to talk about a recent success, try to draw some lessons from it, and put everybody into this role of teacher, at least for a few minutes.
JERRY COLONNA: Yeah, I mean one of my favorite tactics is the notion of a blameless post-mortem. And it’s especially helpful for a failure where you are analyzing what happened, what were the processes by which decisions got made, what were the questions we were seeking answers to, and how did things unfold. And the most important piece of that is the notion of not seeking blame, but really creating a learning retrospective. You know, Dan, you were speaking about the successes, but I think that here is where you can create a culture where okay, let’s examine what went wrong, understand what happened, and then go back in and re-engineer processes and organizational structure to be able to respond to that.
ALISON BEARD: And I don’t actually think that it has to be as formal as you all are describing. I think that our letter writer can start to create a learning culture just by demonstrating that he wants to learn from his colleagues too, even though he has more experience, and maybe more skills, surely there are elements of their work that they are expert at, that he can take away lessons from them.
JERRY COLONNA: Really well said. I agree.
ALISON BEARD: So, Dan, what are we telling our listener?
DAN MCGINN: So, leadership as our listener recognizes, doesn’t only come from the front. And he’s being asked to provide leadership in a different kind of structure than he’s used to, so this is a good thing, this is a growth opportunity for him, and hats off to the organization for setting up this kind of structure. It does take a little bit of getting used to, you’re leading without a lot of formal power, without a lot of formal authority. The leadership mechanism here will probably feel a little bit more like coaching. We think you should utilize his experience, his age, his gravitas. He should listen and ask a lot of questions and coax, and try and create an environment and a mechanism where people will bring him questions and problems, rather than sort of intrusively getting into their business all the time. We think that it would also be great if he created a format for a learning retrospective so that the whole team feels like they’re sharing and teaching other rather than having a very sort of top-down environment. Lastly, it’s important in this kind of soft leadership environment that he not fake authority that he doesn’t have, and that he work appropriately to be more of an advisor than a boss.
ALISON BEARD: Great. Jerry, thanks so much for talking with us today.
JERRY COLONNA: Can I just say this was a blast, guys?
HANNAH BATES: That was executive coach Jerry Colonna – in conversation with Alison Beard and Dan McGinn on Dear HBR. If you liked this episode, check out Dear HBR wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, be sure to subscribe to HBR at HBR.org. This episode was produced by Curt Nickisch, Anne Saini, Ian Fox, and me, Hannah Bates. Music by Coma-Media. Special thanks to Rob Eckhardt, Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.