As is so often the case, in the last few weeks, I found found myself somewhat oversubscribed in terms of meetings, phone calls and evening engagements. As such, this post is a little later than anticipated, but I was inspired to finish it yesterday after attending District Officer Training as part of my role as Area Director for Toastmasters.
Like most organisations, Toastmasters International is a veritable hive of eager minds and grand plans just awaiting the desire to be understood and implemented. Yesterday, at the training day in Woking, I was introduced to fellow Area Directors from across the south of England as we all went through the Grand Plan for 2015/16. We were welcomed most warmly by our District Director, Jean Gamester, who exhorted us to great heights of achievement by laying out of mission for the year; ‘Creating new clubs, and helping existing clubs to achieve excellence’. As a relatively new member of Toastmasters, I was struck by just how much big the organisation is – and how incredibly difficult it must be for those at the top to really understand the needs of those they are leading.
We listened to talks on a range of topics, from creating a healthy culture, to meeting growth targets, to how to lead effectively, handle conflict, and all the other various standard talks experienced by so many people, so many times in their lives. I once heard a slightly tongue in cheek comment from a colleague; that mission statements are simply ‘bits of paper taped up in the office kitchen and ignored’, and I remember thinking how true this was. How many of us have heard the Grand Talk from the most exulted Manager/Director/CEO, encouraging us to meet our goals and achieve excellence? And how many of us have listened to those talks, and a week later found ourselves continuing in much the same way as we had before we heard them?
I can’t imagine I need to conduct much of a poll to figure out that it’s most people reading this post. Perhaps you yourself have found the need to give one of these ‘rousing speeches’, and in doing so have seen the effects (or lack thereof), from the other side of the podium. So as a leader, as well as someone who’s looked to others for leadership; what is it I’m looking for from those at the front of the room?
1) Be CREDIBLE!
In my experience, the reason these sorts of speeches fall flat is because of a lack of credibility between the speaker and their audience. Just because you’re a Manager/Director/CEO doesn’t mean that you have the respect and engagement of your audience. Think about it logically; your audience is sat alongside people they know personally, and chances are that this is the very first time they’re seeing you in person…and it’s not really in person because you’re up on a stage! Who are you more likely to trust? The people you work with every day, that you might know outside of the office, on weekends, as friends? Or the person you’re hearing for the first time?
Obviously if, like Jean, you’re leading hundreds of people spread geographically across half the country, you cannot hope to speak personally to even half of them – but this is where your middle management come in to play.
I’ve only ever met Jean a handful of times, but she’s always greeted me by name, known my background, and taken the time to ask me how I’m doing. In short, she’s shown interest in me as a person, rather than another pawn in a game of chess.
So when I hear Jean speak, I know the speaker – I know her goals, her background, and what she’s like as an individual. She’s established a rapport with, and in doing so has earned my trust and respect. This means that even though Jean will likely never meet more than a handful of the 150 people I lead in Oxfordshire, she will have a trusted voice passing on her message to those who will be implementing it.
2) Be ACCESSIBLE!
Following on from the idea of being a credible speaker, it’s terrifically important that you are accessible to your audience. By this, I don’t mean in a vague ‘my door is always open’ kind of way. All leaders, by their nature, engage far more people than they would have time to meet individually. But by acknowledging this, it’s important to remember that it means we have to work harder to engage them on an individual level.
When we’re speaking to friends, or family, we change our tone, our body language, our very style of speaking to best engage the person we’re talking with. As leaders, it’s terrifically important that we do our best to find alternatives to provide this level of engagement.
By hiding behind grand speeches and job titles, we are actively disengaging the very people we are seeking to lead! A good leader doesn’t hide behind props and middle-men, they get involved with their followers!
Again, I saw evidence of this yesterday in the language used (informal and friendly), and in the behavior of the senior management team between events – rather than huddling together in a corner, they split up and got talking to people. They handed out business cards, arranged informal meetups, and got to know their team as people.
3) Be REALISTIC
Finally, but possibly the most importantly, let’s ensure that as leaders, we are realistic at all times. The number of speeches, and management memos I’ve read with impossible targets, deadlines that will never be met, and generally flawed analysis – things which half the people on the ground could tell you well in advance of the next speech trying to cover up ‘unforeseen circumstances’.
Saturday’s session in Woking acknowledged some fundamental facts about the team in the room. Firstly, that we’re all volunteers – dedicated, yes! Determined, certainly! Trained speakers, undoubtedly! But volunteers, non-the-less. And if you try to overwork those giving up their spare time, if you hassle and hector, there’s nothing stopping them from simply walking away.
Secondly, yesterday showed that the senior team were aware that no matter how grand their plans, that it would all be achieved by members. These members are after a wide range of experiences – some are here for public speaking training, some are after a social event, some have been sent by work.
Thirdly, knowing the above, the senior team proved their worth – by acknowleding these points and focusing their talks around member’s needs.
As leaders, it can be incredibly easy to get drawn up in the grand titles, and the great plans, but all of that is for naught if you forget those that put you there. Inspirational leadership isn’t just about making grand speeches and leaning on past achievements. It’s about knowing your team, being interested in them, and understanding the constraints of your situation.