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This article is one of a four-part series adapted from Les McKeown’s book, Do Lead, in which Les examines four ways in which anyone can start leading, by starting small; starting big; starting early - or even starting late.
If you’ve got this far, one thing is clear: you want to lead. But how do you get started? Where’s the right place to begin? When’s the best time to start? Which is the most appropriate opportunity to take?
So, rather than giving you some rote formula as a half-baked answer, let me close by telling you the first of four short stories that may help you answer those questions (and a few others) yourself.
In the early 1990s I was running a niche consulting company based in Northern Ireland. Started by my business partner Will and me a few years earlier, it had rapidly grown from a two-person shop to the point where we had almost 100 employees and multiple offices worldwide.
The work – helping economic development agencies build indigenous businesses in their communities – was incredibly rewarding, and we were expanding rapidly.
On this particular day, Will and I were ensconced in our conference room, interviewing for a position as regional manager for a new office we were opening in San Francisco.
This was an important new hire for us, and we were keen to get it right.
The successful candidate would be many time zones and thousands of miles away from us, and we would be placing a lot of trust in their ability to work without detailed oversight.
Also, as it was a brand-new position, and because they wouldn’t have staff to begin with, they’d have to be capable of doing just about everything well – from making high-level strategic decisions to the day-to-day grunt work of running an office.
The interviews weren’t going particularly well.
One candidate would knock it out of the park on the strategic stuff but would visibly squirm at the thought of taking out the trash and doing the filing.
Another would clearly be a great office manager but couldn’t seem to grasp what we were trying to achieve overall.
Yet another seemed perfect until he confessed he didn’t own a passport and had become homesick whenever he’d had to spend a week at camp.
Will and I took a break to gather our thoughts and regroup before ploughing into another round of interviews.
Discouraged, we swapped views on how hard it seemed to be able to find the right person for what should have been a highly attractive position for any candidate.
As we were talking, Alycia (not her real name), our shared assistant, came into the conference room, quietly, unobtrusively, as she always did during a break.
Working her way efficiently around the detritus-strewn table, she tidied everything up, putting trash in a bag and refilling our coffee in what seemed like one effortless motion.
When she’d finished restoring our working environment to its pristine condition, Alycia returned – again reappearing as silently as an apparition – this time bringing with her the interview files for the next wave of candidates.
As always, each file carried a cover sheet with all the pertinent data summarised in two or three paragraphs, and, as always, Alycia talked us through a one- minute overview of what she had concluded about each candidate, based on her interactions when pre-screening them before setting up the interview.
Her summaries were lucid, precise and almost always right on the button.
As she left to summon the first in the next round of interviewees, I asked Alycia to hold off on showing them in for 10 minutes. I wanted to speak with Will.
Cutting a long story short, Alycia, in her early twenties and holding down her first job out of college, was offered the strategically vital, highly attractive position as our programme manager in San Francisco (and, by the way, knocked it out of the park for almost five years).
Why did we offer her the post?
Because in the seemingly small things she did simply as part of her job – keeping our working environment in order and giving us pertinent, yet strategically astute information, Alycia demonstrated not just leadership, but the precise type of leadership we needed at that point in time in the growth of our business.
As I hope you’ve seen throughout this book, once you reframe leadership as helping two or more people achieve their common goals (as Alycia did for Will and me that day), then even simply clearing away coffee cups can lead to great things.