Words and interview by Simon Bland.
It’s one thing to simply manage a team of people but actually leading them requires a completely different set of skills. It’s this key transition that Blaire Palmer has made a successful career out of helping people achieve. An author exploring the space where personality and business intersect and the CEO of leadership mentoring organisation That People Thing, Palmer has spent years lifting the lid on the complex ways in which we interact with others and the role it plays in a workplace environment that’s constantly evolving.
Earlier this year, we were lucky to welcome Palmer to host one of our Screen Growth seminars as part of Creative Enterprise, our scheme aimed at helping businesses reach new heights. It was during this discussion where attendees were provided with a host of practical advice and knowledge to help them make the all-important leap from manager to leader – a role that improves both sides of the creative equation by giving employees the tools they need to achieve greater success and managers the freedom to focus on other key elements of creativity.
While her masterclass covered a range of topics, Palmer started by clearing up some common misconceptions – specifically those surrounding what it actually means to lead a group of people. “There are lots of ways to be a visionary leader but I think a lot of people get hung up on the management stuff,” she told listeners before suggesting that our definitions of the term could be due an update. “We have assumptions as to what ‘leadership’ looks like and typically, that is quite an old-fashioned idea which most people can’t really connect with.”
According to Palmer, placing too much emphasis on hosting regular one-to-ones and overthinking who to hire in order to create the perfect team are examples of “transactional management topics” that – while undoubtedly important – often get in the way of focusing on the real matter at hand: becoming a “visionary in the organisation that drives change.” Whilst distracting in the short-term, it’s also something that can hinder our ability to access our full leadership potential: “We think we can’t be leaders because we don’t look like what we typically associate a ‘leader’ to look like – but actually, leadership can look lots of different ways.”
First, Palmer suggests building a strong base to work from before creating your new definition of leadership. “Know what you stand for and then stand for it. This is all about having principals,” she began. To employ this, she recommends practising what you preach in order to combat our growing distrust of authority figures. For example, if you agree with an employee’s comments out of hours, back those thoughts up in meetings: “If you don’t, people will think ‘This person says one thing and doesn’t actually stand up for it when it counts’. This doesn’t mean you have to win every argument or be willing to resign if you don’t get your way,” admits Palmer, “but if you’re not willing to put your ideas on the table, people will think ‘here’s another example of somebody in authority that I can’t trust.”
This unified-front-theme feeds into Palmer’s next point: don’t be afraid to forge a human connection with employees. “Leadership is different than it was in the past because previously we had more respect for leaders that didn’t show us their flaws. We wanted them to be somehow superhuman.” Instead, she suggests finding a comfortable line that works for both parties where you can drop your “professional mask” for a moment and make a meaningful bond. “Today, we don’t trust what we think is fake. We want to see vulnerability and that people don’t always have the right answers – that enables us to trust them.”
Throughout it all, the ability to link all of these leadership techniques back to the shared task at hand is key. According to Palmer, this element is particularly useful in developing employee trust and ensuring you’re both on the same page. “It’s a values-driven motive,” she reasons. “What’s motivating you to take an employee for an after-work drink following a slightly tense conversation is because you want to make sure you’re still aligned and trust each other. To the outsider, it might look exactly the same as going for a drink after work but the motive is different – and that’s what matters.”
While developing strong relationships with your employees is undoubtedly beneficial, the trap no leader wants to fall victim to is cultivating an environment devoid of criticism or outside opinion. Luckily, Palmer has a fix for this too in the shape of the “critical friend”. “Friends are your biggest fans. They’re 100% supportive and want you to succeed – but the critical element says that ‘in order to help you do well, I’m going to critique what you do’,” she explains. “It’s coming from a place of wanting you to succeed but it’s about giving feedback and reflecting. It’s about asking challenging questions in order to help the other person succeed.”
As Palmer points out, mentors who miss this distinction often regret it later down the line: “Companies that are too nice tend to do badly because they don’t want to disrupt the lovely feeling by speaking their truth, then it becomes very dysfunctional when stuff goes wrong,” she says. “No one wants to speak up until it’s basically too late and no one can ignore it.” By cultivating the “critical friend” into your leadership practice, you’ll be able to increase your chances of avoiding this pitfall.
However in a world where workplaces have become an ever-evolving beast thanks to covid, how do you manage people’s performances if half of them are on Zoom? Before the pandemic hit, Palmer argues that most organisations struggled with a “proximity to power’ issue that basically saw people do dysfunctional things in order to prove their company worth – and it’s something that’s still happening during remote working. “They’d go to every meeting – meetings they weren’t even invited to – or they’d constantly send emails or updates in an attempt to keep that proximity to power,” says Palmer.
The solution? Focus on end results not misplaced efforts. “What are people actually doing that is moving the dials. It’s not about how many hours they’re doing, it’s about the quality of the outcomes,” she says. This may even involve rejigging your working day in order to rest, read more and simply find time to get inspired. “That’s when solutions to intricate problems are going to come,” suggests Palmer. “Not while you’re sitting at your desk, firing off emails and filling in reports.”
However when it boils down to it, one of the most important things you can do to become a better leader is to actually lead. In fact, learning how to teach others to problem-solve and think for themselves is one of the most impactful things you can do which benefits all areas of your organisation. “When someone comes to you and asks ‘What should I do next?’ an alternative is to remind them about where you’re going, the mission at hand and what you’re trying to achieve – and then do some coaching,” concludes Palmer. “‘Ask them ‘What do you think needs to happen next?’ It’s all about helping your employee think through the next steps so you can pass on the responsibility for doing the thinking,” she smiles. “That way, people become more responsible and more empowered.”