On my leadership journey, I’ve learned many formative and fundamental lessons about developing character, competence, performance, and relationships — 12 to be exact. Among the most important truths I’ve learned is that whatever behaviors we want to see manifested in others — we must start by modeling the desired behavior with our own actions. We can’t expect high-character, high-competence contributors if we are not sufficiently dedicated to being high-character, high-competence leaders.
One of the best ways I’ve found to lay the groundwork for building productive working relationships, and modeling desired behavior, is through a practice called Declaring Yourself (lesson 7 of my essential 12). This one highly effective habit jump starts our relationships so that we grow and achieve together with greater trust and more efficiency.
The premise of the practice is simple: the people with whom you work are not mind readers. You can never assume they will understand your intentions. But you can be sure that, absent any other information to help inform their impression of you, they will carefully observe your behavior and make judgements about your character and competence. A narrative about who you are, and how you operate, will begin to emerge in their mind whether or not it is accurate. Likewise, an image about the other party will begin to take shape in your head, as the working relationship slowly develops. Oftentimes, productivity in this early stage of a working relationship is stagnant or slowed as both parties try to suss each other out, and solve the “puzzle” of who the other person is and how they get things done. Sometimes, the conclusions reached are inaccurate and other times misconceptions prevent one or both parties from efficiently advancing the goals of the enterprise.
But what if there was a better way to begin your working relationship with transparency and purpose — a way that honors your unique perspectives and sets a positive tone for all your future interactions? I have seen that such a way does indeed exist. It involves being a little vulnerable but it pays big dividends in superior collaboration and business outcomes.
The people with whom you work are not mind readers.
This better way is the practice of Declaring Yourself. Here’s how it works: the first hour of the first day I work with someone, I declare myself. I set aside an hour for a one-on-one meeting aimed at removing the mystery from our working relationship. Rather that unproductively spending the first few months working together trying to indirectly figure out what to expect from one another — I have found it to be much more productive to take the issue head on. Then, we can constructively focus on the challenges at hand as quickly as possible.
So what types of things should you include when you declare yourself? Anything you deem pertinent. In my “Declaring Myself” document and accompanying conversation I declare:
- What is important to me
- What kind of leader I’m trying to become
- What I value in an organization
- What I seek in direct reports
- How I believe our industry operates
- My planning philosophy
- My operating style
- My background
- My favorite quotes
At the end of the hour I make the following point: I just spent an hour sharing with you the way I intend to behave and some of the motivation for that behavior. If I do what I say I will do, I guess that means you can trust me. If I don’t, I guess that means you can’t.
This process engineers tangible accountability into my leadership. Now people have words, my words, to measure my actions against. And we can proceed with the challenges of the day. Importantly, I always invite the other person to share with me, at a subsequent meeting, their personal philosophy as it relates to their work. Not everybody takes me up on it. But when they do, it profoundly advances our working relationship and often leads to better performance.
For example — at Nabisco, as a result of this direct and candid approach, one executive shared with me very early on that he was a recently divorced father of two boys and that he was committed to being a significant presence in their lives. To do that, he needed a little flexibility in his work arrangements. Because we had declared ourselves to one another early on, I was able to meet his needs for flexibility in a win-win way from the start. I went the extra mile for him. And in turn, for as long as we worked together, he went the extra mile for our company time and again.
If I do what I say I will do, I guess that means you can trust me. If I don’t, I guess that means you can’t.
I encourage leaders at all levels to try this highly effective leadership practice. It works powerfully in two important ways. First, it spreads trust exponentially from the inside out. As you model the practice of being forthright and championing transparency, people can approach their work demands with that same spirit of transparency. And they can proceed with all the necessary information to work smoothly alongside you. It is a relationship accelerant that dissolves mystery and enhances understanding between co-workers.
Second, it creates strong accountability for you to keep to the commitments you make when you declare yourself. I have found that these two reasons are deeply compelling; the practice of declaring myself has become integral to the way I lead. Try it on your own leadership journey. I am confident it will add depth and intimacy to your working relationships — and will help you immeasurably as you cultivate high-character, high-competence teams.
This post first appeared on LinkedIn here.