Opportunity Focus

Opportunity is more powerful even than conquerors and prophets.

Benjamin Disraeli

Do you aim to be a problem-focused leader or an opportunity focused leader?

Many work environments place a premium on leaders with critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. However, that premium often places too much emphasis on being critical and dealing with problems. In such workplaces, leaders can become downers, always harping on what's wrong and what needs to be fixed. Such leaders often resort to stoking people's fears to motivate them to get things done. This fear-stoking is exemplified by one of the most overused phrases in the history of business: What keeps me awake at night is . . .

Think about it. When leaders talk about (or more often brag about) what keeps them awake at night, aren't they
really just showcasing their fears and anxieties? It's as if some leaders believe that the only way they'll get any rest is to make the entire workforce share in their fears. Unless people are as afraid as they are, the leaders think that no one will be motivated enough to address whatever is causing them to lose sleep. But putting people on the your 24-hour fear cycle isn't motivating at all—insomnia shouldn't be a leadership badge of honor.

Leaders would be better served to talk about what gets them up in the morning instead of what keeps them awake at night. Opportunity attracts and excites employees more than problems do. People want to follow leaders who have such confidence in them and the opportunities that the future holds. People want to follow leaders who sleep soundly at night.

Are You a Spiller or a Filler?

Leaders generally fall into two broad categories: spillers and fi . Spillers motivate people by stoking their fears. They view most situations as threats to be controlled and neutralized. When confronting a challenging situation, they immediately jump to the worst possible potential outcomes. By injecting you with fear and anxiety, they drain off your confi and courage—hence the term “spiller.” Always expecting a catastrophe, spillers blow things way out of proportion. They say things like:

• You have a huge problem on your hands. • Do you realize how much that puts us at risk?

• If you mess up, we'll all be in trouble.

• Do not, I repeat, do not make a mistake.

Fillers, conversely, motivate people by appealing to their innate desire to excel. Instead of playing not to lose, as spillers do, fillers play to win. In the same situation, they look for opportunities to exploit, not threats to control. Instead of transmitting fear and anxiety, they give followers a fuller sense of confidence and excitement. They say things like:

• Hmm, this is a challenging situation . . . and it's full of opportunity.

• Here's why I think you're the right person to take on this challenge and why it would be good for your career growth.

• I have every confidence that you'll be successful, and here's the support you can expect from me . . .

• What do you think? What should our first steps be?

Keep in mind that both fillers and spillers can get a good job out of you. You may perform well for spillers because you know how much trouble you'll get into if you don't. You'll perform well for fillers because they believe in you and you don't want to let them down. However there is one consequential difference between working for a spiller and working for a filler—fillers get deep loyalty from the people they lead; spillers get deep resentment.


Open-Door Leader Examples

Opportunities come in many forms. Sometimes they simply present themselves at an opportune moment. Other times they are intentionally created by the open-door leader. Here are some real-life examples:

The owner of a respected construction company notices that one of the company's mid-level managers seems particularly skilled at building client relationships and winning work. He is also aware that there is no successor to the company's VP of business development, who is a few years away from retirement. He reassigns the manager to work directly with the VP, with an eye toward his eventually becoming the VP's successor. The owner has the opportunity to fill a position with a qualified person, and the manager has the opportunity to grow into a position where he can excel.

The managing director of a large consulting firm tasks a new manager with facilitating the director's weekly staff meeting while he's on a two-week overseas business trip. Every meeting attendee, including his former boss, is more senior than the manager. The managing director knew that the manager was looking for more opportunities to demonstrate leadership and he decided that facilitating a dominating group of senior execs would be a great start.

The executive committee of a $300 million company decides to mobilize a small “Lessons Learned” team of emerging leaders to conduct postmortems on large successful and unsuccessful projects. The team members were chosen based on the skills that the organization needs them to grow, not the skills that they currently have. The team is responsible for gathering lessons and best practices and making recommendations to the executive committee.

During the early parts of a three-day strategic-planning off-site meeting, the senior executive team of a medical device company receives a call from the home office confirming that the FDA is recommending a recall of one of their products. Instead of cancelling the off-site meeting, the execs decide that the emergency presents an opportunity for their successors—who are still in the home office—to lead the company through a substantial challenge. The execs make themselves available for morning and evening conference calls to stay apprised and lend support and direction.


 
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