Keys to peer leadership: An unlikely source

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As a small business CEO observed a window washer at the Atlanta airport one day, she asked what she thought to be a straightforward question, "What's the secret to window washing?"

"No secret, ma'am," the window cleaner said as he continued working. "I just focus on keeping on with my tools and my experience. I keep on going."

The master continued working with repeated, slick motions, his tool remaining fixed to the glass, and leaving not one smudge. Then, true to his word, he kept on going.

When the CEO asked what was in the blue water, the cleaning professional smiled and said, "I can't tell you that! If you knew that, you could do my job!" Then, before attacking another pane, he said, "It is very special, though."

When a professional window cleaner uses just the right combination of resources—minimal tools; years of experience; a flowing, non-stop motion; and a secret concoction of suds—his or her work is efficient, engaging, and looks natural—perhaps easy—to those who observe.

Unlike the window washer, many team leaders don't find their work to be efficient, easy or appear natural. These leaders often do not have degrees in leadership; they are promoted because they are very good at their jobs. Their former colleagues and friends now report to these "peer leaders."

There is a skill to leading your former peers without encountering resistance, resentment and regret. When your toolbox contains a simple collection of thinking, communicating, and acting that is coherent, ordered and intentional, your leadership appears as if it is natural. When you're charged with leading a team of your peers or former peers, the right combination of resources makes all the difference. The following techniques should be at the core of every peer leader's toolbox.

1. Minimal tools keep you focused.

The most effective leader uses only one tool: his or her personality. One great peer leader uses his thirst for understanding and information. When a member of his team enters his office, he asks that person to be the teacher while he plays the role of student.

"Any questions I ask are merely a student asking," he explains. "Then, I never use the words 'I' or 'you'…I only use the words 'we' and 'us.' I want them walking out of my office feeling better than when they walked in."

By using the mindset of education, the pressure is removed from his "teacher" so that no question is off limits. This philosophy sets the tone for education and teamwork. If, instead, he were to use his intellectual curiosity to demonstrate that only he knew the correct answer, he could face resentment. The best peer leaders learn to harness their personality to inspire trust and teamwork.

2. Experience gives you credibility.

Just as window washers have well-exercised wrists, your team wants to see that you still need and relate to them.

While your team is working to create the next product, researching relevant case law, or driving across town at a moment's notice to meet with a customer, they want to know that you're there with them. Sometimes that means that they want your hands working alongside theirs, and sometimes it just means that they want to know that you understand their daily routines, frustrations and joys. Regardless of which approach your team members prefer, they want you to guide them in the next, and right direction.

Your team will remember that you were there with them when you encourage. Today's culture makes it easy for bosses to find faults, but you will have much greater influence when you frequently ask this question of your team members: "You know what I liked about what you did (or said)?" Be relentless as you look to find the ways that their input, skills and contributions have benefited the entire team. This is always of interest to the receiver; no one has ever responded, "No, I don’t want to know what you liked!"

3. A flowing, non-stop motion is very intentional.

There are few things more beautiful than a leader who knows how and when to listen and where and when to speak; the times to agree and those to dissent; when to stay with the group and those other times when to go out on a limb. Just as the window washer intentionally follows a specific pattern, the successful leader never allows these moments to be chance events. Instead, they are always intentional. While employees sometimes want to be inquisitive, your peers want to be connected with you. With intimacy comes great trust and loyalty.

A consistent engagement with your team on a personal level (within the business environment) turns your role from that of a boss to one of a fearless leader, mentor, and teacher. This intimacy comes when you go beyond their favorite sports team to learn about their childhood passions, when you understand their family's immigration experience deeply affected their outlook on international business, and that their self-directed nature comes from their Eagle Scout training. To the inexperienced leader, these characteristics are mere factoids. The best peer leaders know that an understanding of these experiences and traits lead to unbreakable loyalty, an impassioned work-ethic and—most importantly to the company's owners—higher profits.

4. Your secret formula keeps you ever useful.

Famous chefs sometimes share their secret recipes, for they know what many of us have learned after carefully following the same recipe three times: there are just some techniques that can't be explained with words. Food rarely tastes the same way twice and rarely as good as it does in your favorite restaurant!

The window washer humorously refused to share the ingredients in his bucket for fear of being replaced. The best peer leaders are afraid that their talents and "secret concoction" may go unused, so they focus on how their team is furthering the company's mission. When leading a group of your peers, you must have a firm hold on the secret formula that lies within you. Ask your team members what they believe to be your "secret sauce," and be ready to listen without judging their responses. You may find that your team wants you to talk more at meetings, even though you might think you talk too much. Your team may want you to consult them but ultimately make a firm decision, while you may lead by consensus for you fear making decisions alone.  When your team tells you what they want, find a way to do what they have asked!

Dolly Parton said, "Figure out who you are and then do it on purpose." All of what you do as a leader must be naturally intentional, obviously purposeful, yet elegantly skillful.

Kevin E. O'Connor, CSP, is a facilitator, medical educator and author. He focuses on teaching influence to scientific and technical professionals who are charged with leading teams of their former peers. His latest book, "Fearless Facilitation," is due out in 2013. For more information, please visit www.kevinoc.com.


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