Last week, I traveled to San Francisco to speak at a conference. I took an extra day to visit the famous California Coast Redwoods.
I’d read about them and seen many pictures, but the reality of standing beside the tallest living things on the planet was astounding.
If you’ve never been and you have the chance, you don’t want to miss these giants, some of which are thousands of years old.
How You Grow Tall
The tallest tree was the height of a 36 story building with a trunk that would take ten or twelve people to encircle. Wow! When I got back to my hotel that night, I read some more about these trees. In particular, I wanted to know about their roots. How do these 300+ feet trees anchor themselves to the ground?
What I found surprised me. I expected the redwoods to have deep root systems, but they don’t. Their roots only go down five or six feet but they extend outward 100 feet. In fact, the roots of nearby trees entangle, connect, and even fuse with one another. Together, the trees anchor one another through thousands of years of storms, wind, and floods.
Think about that for a moment. The tallest living things on earth don’t get tall on their own. They do it together. As a leader, your trajectory and success also depend on your connections. There are three connections I’ve found that propel every great leader in their career.
The first connection is with your team. It’s true that as a leader you are there to serve your team. But a funny thing happens when you do this. You will find your team also serves you. You don’t have to problem solve on your own. You can rely on them. Where you need to grow, they’ll challenge you. When your team trusts you, they’ll do amazing work with you. When you lead well, your team makes you stronger.
The second connection to propel your career is with a community of peers. Leadership is challenging work. It’s not easy and it doesn’t always feel good. It can be difficult, but extremely rewarding to find a good group of colleagues who will encourage you and help you problem solve. If you haven’t found one, consider starting one. (Hint: The Lead Change Group is an awesome community of supportive and encouraging leaders.) In addition to mutual encouragement and problem solving, you also benefit from time spent with people outside the bubble of your organization. You’ll see your own situations with fresh eyes and better perspective.
Your Mentors and Coaches
The third connection that propels great leaders is a mentor or coach. In fact, many leaders have a series of mentors and coaches over their lifetime…but it’s your responsibility to find them. Recently, I saw an aspiring leader sit back on a social media forum and post something like,: “Hey, I really wish you’d mentor me.”
It was a generic comment that felt needy and like the person was a victim. Most mentors won’t respond to that sort of energy. You want to find people who are farther down the road, who are doing what you want to do or have the kind of influence you want to have, and then approach them with a specific and actionable request.
You might say: “I’ve noticed you are very effective at cross-departmental relationships and problem solving. I’ve been challenged in this area and have some specific questions I think you could help with. Would you be willing to mentor me in this? You’ll find that I take your suggestions seriously and put them into practice as soon as possible.”
Accept their answer. If they say yes and have a particular time or way they want to work, go with it and follow through. If they say no, honor that too. The chemistry must be there for mentoring relationships to work.
There are also times you’ll want to rely on a coach. Coaches can provide targeted, objective feedback and skill-training to shorten your learning curve and help you make rapid progress with your leadership challenges.
Just like redwoods, great leaders become great based on the strength of their connections to their team, to a community of colleagues, and with mentors and coaches.