By Don Kennedy, Managing Partner

What having a new driver in the family has reminded me about leadership

My oldest son turns 16 today.  For people that say “time flies”, this occasion is a stark reminder that this is indeed true, and that our kids turn into young adults faster than you can imagine (or most likely want).  Personally, I feel both really old, yet incredibly proud as he takes on more “adult” responsibilities while still technically being a kid (don’t tell him I said that).  One such responsibility is driving, and as I ride shotgun with a newly permitted driver, my thoughts are a simultaneous mix of extreme focus, a little fear, and gradually more trust.  After several recent trips as a passenger in my own car, I’ve thought about the many parallels between the process of working with a new driver, the positive traits of many of the best leaders and teams that I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my career, and how these two seemingly disconnected things are deeply intertwined.

Like a new or newly promoted team member that successfully made it through the interview process, my son spent the required time in the classroom and passed the written test with flying colors (he said it was easy).  He was judged capable enough to be in the seat.  That being said, he’s still fairly clueless about what being a successful driver (employee) really entails.  Many things look easy from afar, or from the backseat, and it’s not until it’s your time in the spotlight where you realize everything is not as it seems.  Even though I’m in the passenger seat, I still own the car and am completely accountable to his results.  It’s no different than any leader that manages a disparate team of people with varied experience levels of experience and competencies yet is accountable to a Board or shareholders to deliver.

As I’ve plopped down on the couch (sometimes with an adult beverage) after many a car ride of late, I’ve come back to a few concrete leadership principles and how they are just as applicable to my son learning to drive as they are to successfully leading an organization of any size.  Here are a few….

Planning and follow-up are critical

Successful people and organizations don’t just wing it. They plan, they execute against the plan, they review, they learn, and then they do it all over again.  A trip to the mall with a new driver is not dissimilar to a client meeting for a new team member.  Where are we going? How are we going to get there? What is the checklist we are going to go through before each and every trip or meeting? What did we learn after the fact and how will we implement that into the next opportunity?  Waze may be able to show us a shortcut to avoid traffic, but there are no shortcuts when it comes to the necessary heavy lifting of the planning and follow-up process.

You’re not a hero because you are multitasking

Many leaders wear multitasking like some badge of honor. Somehow we’re supposed to be amazed at your ability to simultaneously carry on a critical conversation while also writing an email on your desktop or texting someone on your phone.  Meanwhile, we teach new drivers that it’s all about focus.  No phone.  No texting. Turn the music down.  We are teaching them the importance of being present and staying laser sharp in the moment.  An accomplished leader with thirty years’ experience is no different than a sixteen-year-old with a learner’s permit in this case.  If the mission is critical, and the passengers are relying on me for their safety, they deserve my full focus and attention for their well-being.

Micromanagers are just backseat drivers with a P&L

The single hardest thing for me sitting in the passenger seat has been biting my tongue and avoiding the urge to give constant feedback. I think my son is a smart and responsible kid.  I also think he’s not a great driver yet.  He’s new to it and has a lot to learn.  Me chirping in his ear nonstop while he is trying to maintain focus on a task is not helpful.  There are of course critical moments when I have felt the need to speak up, but at the same time, it’s only through experience and empowerment that he will gain the confidence to succeed on his own.  This same principle applies to the workplace.  Just as nobody has ever uttered the phrase “backseat driver” as a term of endearment, I’ve also never heard anyone say “I sure love our leadership because they micromanage us all day.”.  If you have hired the right people, trained them appropriately, and held them accountable for preparing a plan and honing their craft, you need to empower them to succeed.

Accountability creates long-term success

The first three bullets I’ve discussed are largely associated with things that good leaders and teachers do, and don’t do, to effectively lead their teams. However, at the end of the day, everyone on the team needs to be highly accountable for their own success.  As leaders, you can train, mentor, and put your team in a position to succeed, but you can’t do the work for them.  As the parent of a new driver I’ve tried to remain 100% positive as he learns, but the reality is that this isn’t a video game.  The dangers are real, and the consequences of a bad decision can be fatal.  This isn’t to scare him, but at the same time, it should be a stark reminder that poor judgment, whether intentional or not, can have a lasting impact.  The sooner a new team member (or driver) embraces this concept, the more he or she will thrive for many years to come.

The first time I sat in the passenger seat with my son at the wheel was one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced.  It felt like just yesterday that I was wrestling with the car seat while I tried to strap him in, and now he was adjusting the rearview mirror himself in the driver seat.  In the following weeks, with a lot of practice, he is getting better as a driver.  He still makes mistakes and has a TON to learn, but I’ve also come to see how my role as an active and present “leader” is critical to set him up for success in the years to come.