In times like this when leadership is being challenged in all fronts, the experimental leader rises to the forefront, armed with a team imbued with a culture of adaptability and innovation. No other time is more apt than now to propagate the message of a new kind of leadership that harnesses the potential of the team to the fullest. Melanie Parish succinctly describes this kind of leadership in her talk during the April 28th, 2020 online book launch of her book, The Experimental Leader: Be a New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators. Melanie firmly believes that experimentation in leadership opens up to the possibility of change everywhere. Listen in and start to unleash the creative energy of your team!
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The Experimental Leader Online Book Launch
Without further delay, let me introduce you to Melanie. She's a speaker, an author and a master coach. She's an expert in problem-solving, constraints management, operations and brand development. Melanie has consulted and coached organizations ranging from Fortune 50 companies to IT startups. She is the author of The Experimental Leader. Please give a warm welcome to Melanie Parish.
My Leadership Journey
I've been working with leaders for many years and every leader I work with questions their ability as a leader. Given our situation with the global pandemic, leadership is being challenged on all fronts. The reality is that weeks ago, most leaders burned their strategic plans and they started experimenting in ways they never intended to. It might be about direction, people, operations, outcomes or delivery. Regardless of what they're thinking about, the fact is they have questions. They have been asked to lead and yet, no one has never taught them how to lead, especially not in these challenging times. These questions haunt leaders like never before.
Many years ago, I found myself in a similar place of leadership. I started a web company and a coaching company at the same time. I found myself supervising 25 people. I was a new leader. I didn't know how to do it. I had a lot of questions, “Were they my friends? Should I go out for beers with them? Was it my job to invest in their professional development? We weren't profitable yet, but should I pay them bonuses?” This might sound fundamental, but I didn't have an instruction manual. I had to find my own leadership approach. I looked around for other leaders to emulate and the obvious role models were dominant white men.
I tried that on. I tried being bossy and telling people what to do and holding them accountable. I tried being a tough negotiator. Most of it didn't work, but I didn't know which parts weren't working. What should I keep and what should I discard? I wasn't collecting any meaningful data, so I asked my staff to give me feedback using a 360 feedback tool. I was devastated by the results. I had many places to learn. I didn't know where to start. The longer I tried, the worse it got. My team had stopped sharing ideas because it didn't feel safe. I then tried being a more democratic leader. I got lots of feedback. We created and shared values and a mission statement, but then there were new team members that came and all team members left and some of those things fell away.
Eventually, the team became immobilized by too much input and too little direction. At one point, I read about being a servant leader, so then every day I stop what I was doing and I made my team lunch. I never found my feet. It was hard to find a clear path. I was doing some of the right things. Some of these were valid leadership strategies, but none of it was working for me. I wasn't inspiring my staff. They were ready to revolt. They didn't like me or trust me. Probably, they were talking behind my back. It was an incredibly vulnerable time for me. I didn't have the map for the journey we were on and my team wanted me to know what to do. I didn't know how to get traction and I wasn't collecting any data. Although, I was trying lots of things, I wasn't getting any better. The longer this went on, the more I knew how much I was failing.
I didn't know how to learn from what I had tried to improve incrementally as a leader. I didn't know how to create a culture where my team understood the speed of innovation and how a series of incremental measurable experiments could facilitate change. Because I didn't know, the web company failed and the coaching company shrunk. There were many contributing factors, including an economic downturn, but my leadership was one of them. I was left knowing I needed a new path for success. I look to experimenting to find a roadmap for intentional creativity and innovation. I want to talk to you about being an intentional leader. Also, how an experimental mindset can create new opportunities for those on your teams to encourage them to try things faster so you can harness the power of intentional creativity and innovation.
First, I want to talk to you about your own leadership. What's your leadership style? How is it getting in the way? Often when I get hired by a new leader, they've been a fantastic individual contributor and they've gotten promoted. They're used to being good at what they do. They're trying to figure out how to be good at being a leader and a manager of others. When we're unsure, we look around for people to emulate role models. We look for successful leaders. I shared how I tried this as a new leader, but I wasn't experimenting from a place of neutrality and curiosity. We have no way of discerning whether the leaders we emulate are good leaders. Sometimes, we emulate their reactive leadership styles. Reactive leadership styles come out when we're faced with a stressful situation when leaders are afraid and they don't know what to do.
There's an unlimited number of reactive leadership styles, but these are a few that I like to talk about. There are dominant leaders, influential leaders, stickler leaders, conflict-averse leaders, naysayer leaders, complacent leaders and manipulative leaders. I'm not going to talk about all of these, but I do want to talk about a few of them. The first one I want to talk about is the dominant leader. This is what I think of as the quintessential dad leader. This is the leader that has all the answers. It doesn't have to be a man that's the dominant leader. Women can also be dominant leaders. This is the leader that feels like, given any question, they are the best one to answer it in an organization. They're always confident and sure. Sometimes they use the force of character to move things forward. That may be good if the path is clear, but what the dominant leader blocks are the free flow of ideas from the entire team. What happens with the dominant leader who's reactive, the collective brain of the organization shrinks to the size of that one person.
The influential leader is a near cousin to the dominant leader. If the dominant leader uses force, the influential leader uses charm to push their own agenda. We sometimes call these leaders charismatic, but they are influencing others to their position or their idea rather than opening the field to the ideas of many people in the organization. The manipulative leader is similar. They may use force or influence. They use whatever it takes. The manipulative leader is a leader who is looking at how they can forward their personal agenda rather than the agenda of the organization. What's wrong with these reactive leadership styles is that they get in the way of the free flow of ideas. The free flow of ideas where everyone's thoughts are taken into account, help move the organization into a creative space.
The Experimental Leader
How do you make that happen as a leader? What's the alternative? I believe the alternative is to become an experimental leader. Before you do that, what you have to do first is to create a blank slate. You need to become more neutral, absorbent and curious. You want to open communication pathways and feedback loops. You want to become neutral. What we want is for everyone's brain to be working on the problems of the organization. To open up the free flow of ideas, we need to shift our leadership approach. When we lead by default, we emulate by default. As a result, we find ourselves in reactive leadership styles. However, as intentional leaders, what's important is to first foster internal neutrality to invite others to join you as thinkers and problem solvers. Once you have a team of thinkers and problem solvers, what do you do with them? How can you best utilize these individuals to harness the best assets of your organization? You start by developing an experimental mindset. This is how you make the magic happen.
Something's going to happen when you experiment. At first, this might be small. Eventually, it gets more interesting. You, as the leader first, need to become a good experimenter yourself. The way that you do this is that you find a way to start practicing the skill of experimentation. This can either be in your personal life or your work life and because we're doing skill drilling, it doesn't matter. One of the places that I always point to when people are trying to learn to experiment is to look for something in your life that annoys you a little bit. What's something that if you were to spend a little time on it, you know that you could solve, but you're not sure exactly what it would look like. That's a good place for an experiment. You want to bound your experiment to be somewhere between 24 hours and 7days.
You want to have a short experiment and you want it to be a single variable experiment. If you change everything in your first experiment, you won't know what worked and what didn't. If something changes, then you have to go back and start removing things. We want to do single variable experiments and we want to collect data. We want you to gain more understanding. I want you to ask yourself, “What did I learn?” Think about the next experiment. In that, you can iterate over and over again until your process is exactly the way you want it. As I've worked with clients, I've watched do this and there's a clear moment in time where they say to me somewhat surprised, “I think I'm done experimenting.” I want it to be exactly like it is. I want to remind you that you want your experiment to be safe to fail. It's important.
Once you have become good at experimenting, then you can start to ask your team to experiment. When they come to you with challenges, you can start to use the language of an experimental mindset. You can say, “What's the first thing you want to try? What's the experiment that you're going to try to help you solve this challenge? When will you come back and tell me what you learned?” That language helps them start to experiment. You want to also teach them about being safe to fail. If their experiments aren't safe to fail, it's time to relook at the experiment. Perhaps it's too big. Make sure it's small and incremental.
You can start to be a leader who harnesses your best assets, the collective brains and the minds of your team to work incrementally to better the organization because you're a leader of leaders who are inspired to drive change. What happens to the organization when people start to experiment? Incremental change creates confidence. People start to discard learned helplessness. The leaders nowadays with the pandemic fall into two camps. There are those who are day drinking and those who are dressing the feeling of helplessness with action. Everything can change and the foundation can be shifted if people start to experiment. They start to act faster. Problems are no longer barriers. They are information providers.
You can create a culture that sets the organization up for intentional creativity. The most powerful force is a team that believes that change is possible. They look for it everywhere. They collect data from their experiments because an experimental leader is also a data-driven leader. The team becomes confident in their actions. They start asking why questions, “Why do we do things this way?” They remember that their experiments need to be safe to fail so that they can incrementally change every layer of the organization and they iterate that action regularly. This is the way that intentional creativity happens. Intentional creativity is the path to creativity and innovation. When we experiment, what we create is the possibility of change everywhere.
When I think back to the first experience I had in leadership, I was naive. I thought I could figure it out. I'm a smart person. I had read papers and many leadership books. I was leading people, but what I didn't have was a plan. I didn't have a vision for my own leadership. It looked a lot like the Flavor of the Month Club. I knew I had to change my approach. Over the past years, I have delved deep with leaders. I've become an expert at understanding how to help others become expert innovators by using an experimental leadership approach. I help leaders create their own experimental culture and supercharge their teams with this experimental mindset, which helps these teams with intentional creativity. It leads them to reliably innovate.
When you're an intentional leader and using an experimental mindset, you create new opportunities by encouraging them to try things faster, then you can harness the power of intentional creativity and innovation. Now, more than ever, as we are experiencing a global challenge, I want you to dive into your own leadership and become an experimental leader. I want you to reap the benefits of data-driven leadership. I want you to feel amazing about the work you do and to inspire the people you lead. Thank you.
Thank you, Melanie. That was fantastic. Let's take a moment and raise a glass. Maybe you've got some champagne by your side or perhaps some tea, whatever your special drink is. I want to say congratulations to Melanie on the publication of your first book on this incredible compilation of your life's work. Congratulations on getting this out in the world. The world needs it now more than ever. No matter how long it took to get it out there, it came out in the exact perfect moment to be able to address what was happening in our world. Thank you for all you do, Melanie. Cheers.
About Melanie Parish
Melanie Parish is an author, public speaker, host of The Experimental Leader Podcast, founder of Experimental Leader Academy, and MasterCertified Coach. An expert in problem solving, constraints management, operations, strategic hiring, and brand development, Melanie has consulted and coached organizations ranging from a Fortune 50 company to IT start-ups. Her individual clients include those in FAANG and other top global IT companies. As an author, educator, and creator of The Experimental Leader book, Melanie shows people new ways of thinking about their leadership, informed by her understanding of the fast-paced ride of technology innovation. She is based in Dundas, Ontario and Las Cruces, New Mexico.
A public speaker, consultant, workshop leader, author, and Master Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation, from whom she received the Prism Award, Melanie is an expert in problem-solving, constraints management, operations, strategic hiring, and brand development.