Leanne Pilkington: Leadership without answers

Leaders often feel pressure to have all the answers. But in challenging conditions or in times of crisis, often what people really need from their leaders is for them to acknowledge the questions. This paves the way for leaders to navigate the ebbs and flows with their people, to ride the bumps and bruises, and to arrive at the solution together. The true value is in the shared journey. Laing+Simmons CEO, REIA President and Chair of the Sister2Sister Foundation, Leanne Pilkington, says expectations of leaders have changed in recent times. Instead of expecting all the answers, people just need to know their leaders care. And this, you can’t fake.

I’ve been fortunate over the years to have been trusted to fulfil various leadership positions, at the organisational, industry and philanthropic levels. 

What team members expect of their leaders has always evolved, but the pace of this evolution has ramped up in the past few years.

Leadership has never been as simple as, ‘Do as I say’ but more recently, particularly since Covid, it requires leaders to take a much more thorough and holistic view of their team members as people.

There are numerous ways to do this.

At Laing+Simmons, we use a range of behavioural profiling tools like Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI) and Drive, Influence, Support and Clarity (DISC), which help us all understand ourselves and how we interact with others, both when things are going well and when we are in conflict.

This is complemented with team bonding trips which are part-work and part-recreation, which really help everyone get to know each other.

Leaders must make a genuine investment in getting to know their team better because ultimately, people want to know that their leaders care. 

This care is best expressed not in words but in actions.

Caring through actions requires leaders to seek out opportunities to share experiences with their people.

The best leaders have the natural inclination to do this anyway.

Sharing the challenges

Not all experiences will be positive. Covid is an obvious case in point.

But some of the most poignant and powerful lessons in leadership I’ve learned were a result of navigating those tough days in tandem with my team. 

What I found was that people needed clear, consistent communication.

Even when I didn’t know the answers, just knowing I was there to share the challenge made people feel calmer.

At least once a day, and often more than once, myself and REINSW Chief Executive Officer Tim McKibbin would provide video updates for the network and the industry, keeping everyone up to date with the rapidly changing operating landscape, even if the update was ‘no update’ at the time. 

The nature of a challenge is that success isn’t always guaranteed.

Leadership means making it clear to your team that you don’t expect everything to be good all the time.

Failure is an expected part of success.

Taking this approach empowers people to get curious when things do go wrong and to think about how to go about things more effectively.

A team with the psychological safety to be open about its challenges is better equipped to face up to those challenges.

Sharing the objectives

Knowing your team means knowing how important success is to them.

And success comes in different forms. It is defined in different ways by different people. 

So, as a leader, it makes little sense to dictate to your team what success should look like.

Instead, it’s about sharing the journey to success with them, supporting them to be their best, but being conscious that what constitutes their ‘best’ is subjective too.

Of course, team members will typically value the input of their leaders when it comes to setting their goals and objectives.

At Laing+Simmons, we run a series of workshops inclusive of the corporate team and our offices to uncover the values, motivations and goals for all of our team members.

Making it a collaborative exercise means people have ownership in their own path to success.

It’s also the best way to establish that the journey, from the outset, will be shared. 

Sharing the mindset 

Leaders accept everyone is different.

Those who take the time to gain an intimate knowledge of who their team members are as people will find it easier to establish the common ground needed to take the journey together. 

It’s possible – and perfectly ok – for you and your team to be motivated by different things in pursuit of a shared objective. 

You may want to see someone deliver a certain performance standard to meet specific business goals.

Their motivation might be to progress to the next level in their career.

It might be to gain a new qualification to add to their CV.

It might be to hit a personal finance milestone enabling them to make an important purchase.

A house or business, perhaps.

Sharing the mindset doesn’t depend on sharing the motivation.

Leaders can’t tell people what their motivation should be.

This is not an answer we have. It’s asking the question that’s important. 

Knowing your people opens the door to finding the common ground you both need.

And this means genuinely caring.

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Leanne Pilkington

Leanne Pilkington is Chief Executive Officer and Director of Laing+Simmons.