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I sighed at the important email. It'd been sitting in my inbox for over two weeks, and a reply was long overdue. I felt some frustration, as I had the past couple weeks, that it was still there—requiring a hard decision, unresolved, periodically weighing on my mind.
I considered doing what I normally did in these situations: continue punting on it until I finally decided to power through or until I just declared bankruptcy and archived the email.
This time—though I felt a little silly doing it for something as small as a email—I decided to tell Jean that I was stuck on a email and ask her for help.
She coached me through my resistances and guided me through a few different perspectives. What's important to you? What would the decisive, CEO version of yourself do? What would Tony Robbins do?
And then Jean looked at her watch and said, “You have five minutes to write this email. Go.” Surprised, I paused for a moment. Then, I just smiled and started typing away. Five minutes later, the email I had dreaded for two weeks was sent. And a few hours later, I even got a response that closed the loop. I felt great.
Asking for help can often be hard. What shifted this time that made me more comfortable asking for help?
A few weeks ago, as an exercise, Jean and I had enumerated each other's strengths. Mine included leverage-based thinking, patient listening, optimism, focusing on the long-term, and simplifying complex concepts. Jean's included a bias toward action, decisiveness, authenticity, self-confidence, a willingness to experiment, and pragmatism.
Because we both knew that one of Jean's strengths was decisiveness, I felt much better about asking for her help, even though I felt some embarrassment that it was around something that felt basic to me—we all have email after all. But when we know someone else is good at something, asking for help becomes much easier. I can trust that my request will likely be productive, which makes me more willing to share what I'm struggling with. I can be curious about what makes it easier for her to handle email—she'd probably have some tools and mental models around decision-making that I would benefit from.
But here's the even bigger kicker. Jean later told me that she wouldn't have had the courage to boldly tell me to write my email in five minutes had we not had a conversation around the strengths we saw and valued in each other.
This explicit, shared awareness around each other's strengths changed each of our behaviors. It made it easier for me to ask for help. And it gave her fuller permission to leverage her strength because she knew I valued it. Neither might have happened had the strength been implicit and unsaid—that email might still be in my inbox.
This shared awareness becomes even more valuable when we scale beyond a two-person team like ourselves.
A couple Fridays ago, Jean and I co-led a leadership workshop called “Discovering and Owning Your Superpowers” with thirteen members of the Medium engineering team. It was the first of a series of three workshops in a leadership program we had custom designed for them.
At the workshop, we helped each attendee identify his or her superpower that added the most value to the team and then capture it with a fun name: “Sourceress,” “Keystone,” “Jedi,” and “Boulder” to name a few.
Next came the even more important part. We led an exercise where each person heard first-hand from everyone else in the group the impact that their superpowers have had on them. You made me feel more welcome on the team. You keep everyone calm whenever high-stress and high-stakes situations show up. You make me feel that hard problems are tractable.
They also heard what would be possible for them if they fully embodied that superpower. You could become a really great manager. You could help make non-engineers feel included on the team. You could shift the culture in the tech industry by modeling good behavior.
The impact of creating this shared context is that one participant shared afterwards that he felt validated that his efforts meant something to the team. Another shared that the acknowledgments about the impact he's had finally led him to feel like he belonged on the team. Another felt seen and appreciated.
Creating that feel-good sense of validation and belonging would have been good enough outcomes for the workshop—it's something very powerful that can often be missing from teams.
But another important reason we spent our time on creating this shared context around each person's strengths and impacts is because it gives people fuller permission to exercise those strengths.
Oftentimes, we find ourselves leading without explicit authority. For example, you might be a senior individual contributor—say a tech lead, product manager, designer, or data scientist—who potentially has a lot of influence but no direct reports. Or you might be a manager who's working on or wanting to work on something that's not explicitly in your sphere of responsibility.
Without explicit authority, it's easy to worry about stepping on other people's toes. What will other people think if I started playing more of a leadership role? Will I upset other people? Disappoint them? We make up stories about the impact we have, and those stories and worries cause to us to hold back and to play smaller—even when our actions might be very much needed or welcomed.
That's where a shared awareness around your impact comes in. If you know that other people on the team value your leadership and your contributions, you feel a stronger sense of permission to continue to step up.
And when everyone on the team feels like they're leaders who are aware of their impact, that's when you have a solid foundation for an exceptional team.
What strengths do your teammates bring to your team? And what impact do they have on you when they use those strengths? Find someone on your team, and let that person know how his or her strengths have impacted you. When you make the strength and the impact explicit, you give the person fuller permission to leverage that strength more. And you make it easier for yourself and your teammates to later ask for that person's help.
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