Lean Out – a Collaborative Approach

Lean InI’ve had the uncommon pleasure in my career of reporting into five different VPs of Engineering that were women and, as a result, learned to appreciate an experience that was different from most working in high-tech. As such, I was a bit surprised and dismayed when Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and thought I should write a book or blog post entitled Lean Out – Men Learning a More Collaborative Approach. It seemed that Sandberg was advocating women in particular to behave more like the stereotypical Type-A, white American male, rather than calling out the value of diversity as described in Diversity: The New Global Mindset

MultipliersHowever, after reading Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers – How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, I arrived at a refined perspective on how and when to lean. I then concluded that we should indeed lean in when we are the junior person at the table. This is when it’s good to inject new ideas and be heard. It came to me that I had been coached to do just that at Informix by a retired exec from IBM. On the other hand, in 28 years of management I’ve discovered there is a great empowering value if we Lean Out when we’re managing down – when we are the most senior person present. When, as a leader, we lean out, we allow our teams and more junior colleagues to be empowered by creating the space for them to lean in. When as the leader we lead in, we diminish and dis-empower our teams – denying our team members, more junior colleagues the opportunity to lean in and contribute. Wiseman speaks of the overly assertive, proactive, vocal leaders as Diminishers as we rob others of the opportunity when we lead in that manner. She argues that they continue to operate in a one brain, many hands organizational model that stunts the growth of both intelligence and talent around them. She also brings lots of example of leaders that multiply the value of their teams by creating opportunity and space for them to be more proactive and participatory – to lean in (though she doesn’t use that term for it).

It can be particularly challenging to lean out in a business that wants to aggressively move forward. As a knowledgeable leader it is often more expedient to lead into any situation and provide the solution – all with good intent – rather that allow our teams to arrive there on their own. Even when it’s as simple as starting with asking: what would you do, asking: have you thought about this potential challenge – and helping them arrive at the “right” outcome, it is still more expedient to just telling them what the “right” answer is. However, I feel that is limited to that situation and by disempowering them, we are required to be there for every decision and it becomes less expedient over even a short period of time. It can hard to resist that temptation when we are eager to move forward quickly.

The Confidence Code The Science and Art of Self-Assurance - What Women Should KnowOn another note regarding leaning in or out, in Katty Kay’s and Claire Shipman’s book The Confidence Code – The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know they make reference to a Stanford Business School Study that revealed that women who combined the qualities typically found in men (assertion, aggression, confidence) along with qualities more typically found in women (collaboration, process-orientation, persuasion, humility) do better than others. Note, oddly, the study did not reveal this advantage when men adoption both sets of traits – though I still suspect they’re missing something there. Note, as I point out in Confidence Villains, I think Kay and Shipman miss the power that can be derived from confidence robbers.

Yet another consideration for leaning in or out is what to do when the situation seems to be going off the rails. There may be times where a leader feels compelled to jump in and grab the wheel and steer back towards safety. Can that happen too often? When do you, as a leader in that situation relinquish the wheel again and do you do so conveying some lesson from the near mishap?

Beware the danger of leaning out to the point where, as a leader, you aren’t contributing or adding value to a meeting. You can and should chime in to champion ideas others have raised and build on them: ~”Kate raises an excellent point that could also lead to …” Add value in support of others rather than hijacking a meeting.

One way you could think of this in terms of levels of leadership:

  • Level 1 Leader – someone who feels at home at the wheel driving their team
  • Level 2 Leader – creates an environment where someone else can be at the wheel and only jumps in to grab the wheel if the vehicle is about to veer off into the ravine
  • Level 3 Leader – creates teams where every member feels not only empowered but also responsible to grab the wheel if they see it about to veer off the road.

The Culture Code The Secrets of Highly Successful GroupsWhat I’m calling level 3 management here is a shared sense of responsibility which Daniel Coyle describes is how SEAL Teams operate in his book The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. He also brings various examples of being vulnerable by letting go of control and asking for help as being an effective way to work more collaboratively as a team.

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