Creating space in leadership


This is something that’s fascinated me for a while now – how to create space for teams to thrive, solve problems and do their best work while shaping direction and managing risks as a leader?

Years ago when I led communications and marketing teams in the public sector, I used to frustrate my team regularly when they came to me to ask for help. I’d reflect the question back to them and ask them what they thought before sharing my opinions.

In that role I had the professional domain expertise to have an informed enough opinion – I’d started my career in communications and marketing and had a good few years experience to draw upon.

But I always had a nagging doubt that even with that experience, there was no way I could have a better way of solving an issue than the person who was bringing it to me.

It struck me that facilitating them to find their own solution was a better way of helping team members develop and to find better ways of solving problems.

Yet the typical organisational hierarchy and directional management styles that were deeply woven into the way the organisations worked felt like they worked against a facilitative leadership style.

Fast forward a few years and now I lead a vibrant and innovative digital agency working with open source technology. I’m lucky enough to be part of a team that has passionate people wrangling new technology and creativity every day of the week.

There’s no way I can offer any useful domain insight into many of the specialist disciplines we have within the agency. We hire the best people we can in these fields precisely because we need expertise.

It now seems more counter-intuitive than ever to me that someone in a leadership position should be offering strong opinions on what should happen when teams are delivering services and solving problems.

With the right people, processes and tools, the leadership role is about creating space for those teams to do great things and help them through when they hit blocks.

But as leaders we have to accept that what we say and do (as well as the things we don’t say and don’t do), carry weight with our teams. The role that a leader holds gives them a level of influence, whether they realise it or not.

So I’ve been making deliberate efforts to not give opinions or potential solutions as I may have done all those years ago.

I’ve been retraining myself to use questioning as my predominant mode in discussions, meetings and workshop.

One day I tried to go the entire day using only questioning to contribute towards team discussions. I didn’t manage it for the whole day, but it was a great way of forcing myself to think differently about my interactions as a leader and facilitate better.

While it’s been hard to break some long-held habits, I’ve been amazed at the power of using open and deliberate questioning in discussions to help team members solve complex problems themselves.

This helps individuals in their own professional development as well as shaping a culture where the solutions to problems can come from anywhere in the team.

So next time you’re asked for help, start thinking questions first, not answers.