6 Principles to Engage and Lead Leaders

Scott Miller

One of the most pressing issues facing many digital transformations inside organizations, especially those involving AI and machine learning, is that you have non-technical leaders leading highly technical designers, engineers, scientists, and implementors.

It’s kinda like opening a restaurant because you love food but have no experience in food service or hospitality and didn’t spend a day at culinary school. You’ve hired a chef and a series of skilled kitchen associates, and you decide you’re going to start making recommendations on menu items, food costs, and the actual plating of food.

Good luck with that. Your chef is on their way out in a matter of days.

That’s a recipe for disaster. But it’s increasingly common, isn’t it? Leaders leading people who have little to no knowledge or functional expertise in the roles of the people they are leading. And it’s only going to become more common when you factor in leaders of leaders facing the same reality. Is every CEO really an expert on marketing, finance, sales, operations, and product development? The answer is no, but if they are…RUN!

Leading leaders is a complex balance of demonstrating trust, vision, empathy, support, and collaboration.

It requires, for many of us, extending an unnatural level of trust to those leaders whose technical competence isn’t similar to our own. Especially so when it’s highly technical and relies on science and data that we’re not only uncomfortable understanding, but even more uncomfortable making decisions on that can impact the broader organization.

When leaders are leading leaders, they need to consider six principles that can make for a high level of confidence that they’re working well together:

  1. Clarity of Expectations – Ensure you’re both, consistently, on the same page about their level of empowerment and when, and on what items, you’d like to be involved.
  2. Extending Smart Trust – “Trust and verify” is a reasonable standard to instill in any professional setting, especially when one party (you) may be feeling vulnerable or facing an information disadvantage.
  3. Agreement on Success Factors – Employing “Talk Straight,” one of the 13 Behaviors of High-Trust Leaders from The Speed of Trust, is an invaluable way to prevent scope creep or mis-matched expectations. Agree on terms, language, and measures, and calibrate as needed by both parties.
  4. A Foundation of Trust – Remember: you aren’t trusted until someone else decides to trust you. You can’t declare on your own that you’re trustworthy. You behave your way into a reputation of being trusted by others through making and keeping promises.
  5. A Rock-Solid Interpersonal Relationship – Never forget, an organization’s most valuable asset is not its people. That’s total bunk. It’s the relationship between people that becomes their ultimate competitive advantage. The nature of your relationships ultimately is your culture, and increasingly, people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their culture.
  6. A Culture of Feedback – The higher up you are on the corporate ladder, the less likely you are to hear the truth. The truth about revenue, costs, brand, client retention, and perhaps most importantly, you. Providing feedback to others and simultaneously soliciting it from others is what differentiates high-courage leaders from—candidly—cowards with bravado. Don’t make the mistake of confusing bravado with courage.  

Leading leaders is arguably the most demanding role in any organization.

One that can sink you or elevate you, depending on how well you practice many of these principles. Tackle one a week for the next several months, and you will be guaranteed a different level of engagement, likely from your leaders—and yourself.

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