Good leaders inspire others to excel. They create an environment in which people can reach their full potential, but they step back to let them do their job and shine. This kind of leader is commonly referred to as a multiplier.
Coined by American author Liz Wiseman, the concept is a central component of the leadership learning program at SAP that more than 5,000 managers have completed. What exactly do these courses teach? Here are some of the things that managers learn.
“Our course participants are quick to agree that we should give employees freedom and space, and that we must avoid the temptation to micromanage too much,” says Harald Gabriel, an expert in the Talent and Leadership Strategy team and an experienced course instructor at SAP.
But many fall back into the “diminisher” trap.
In contrast to a “multiplier,” an “accidental diminisher” is someone who has good intentions, but who stifles the energy, creativity, and innovative spirit of others. This often happens with managers who consider themselves the experts, and therefore want to be the decision-makers, or tend to monitor others too closely.
During the leadership program, says Gabriel, participants often experience a ‘light bulb’ moment when they realize that as managers, their role is to let other people be the experts.
That means having faith in the abilities of others.
“For me, it’s imperative that employees make decisions and take responsibility themselves,” says Friederike Hertenstein, who leads a solution go-to-market team in the SAP Ariba Center of Excellence and has completed the leadership program. “You can’t always know exactly how things will pan out, but no-one should be afraid to make mistakes.”
When Hertenstein took over her team in April 2017, she found that she was dealing with heterogeneous structures and roles. “It was a priority for me that my team understood their role and their purpose in the context of the SAP strategy,” she explains. To that end, she began by drawing up a team charter that mapped out the teams’ tasks and future plans and showed where it could add value.
That included highlighting the team’s potential added value within the organization, and increasing its visibility. That’s something that should not be underestimated, according to Martin Jones, a digital transformation expert in Hertenstein’s team. For Jones, it was important to know that “we are seen as adding value, that we‘re a highly respected team and that we’re developing ourselves and going forward in the wider SAP business.”
Ultimately, of course, it’s all about targets, revenues, and metrics. Because at the end of the day, that’s how we’re all measured. “But I don’t want to probe every step my employees take,” says Hertenstein. “I want to help them find and follow their own path.”
Alongside the usual day-to-day conversations, she offers her team members an hour’s coaching once a month. This has had a motivating and energizing effect, she says, “because I let people talk – and they answer their questions themselves.”
Gabriel also advises course participants not to focus just on efficiency, productivity, and metrics straight away. People have different communication styles and needs, and some managers need to be made aware of that. In the early days particularly, it is crucial to invest plenty of time in getting to know people and their individual characteristics.
That ties in with Hertenstein’s own experience: “We don’t sit together in an office. I have a virtual team spread over several countries. That makes it even more essential that I understand how my team members tick and treat them accordingly.”
A careless remark can very quickly destroy trust. But there are also specific behaviors that managers can follow to build trust. That doesn’t mean “cozying up” to employees, but, for example, creating an open, fear-free conversation culture.
“I think that’s particularly important given that SAP’s goal is to be innovative,” says Hertenstein. “But an innovative environment must also offer platforms for critical debate, because that is often what sparks new and creative ideas.”
Open, respectful discussion, she adds, also conveys a vital message to employees: “You are valued, we’re listening to you, you have a key role to play in the company’s success.
Many team leaders face an unpleasant dilemma. They are ready and willing to implement the leadership skills they have learned but their own managers have set targets that leave little room for maneuver.
“There will always be situations where decisions are made at the top,” says Gabriel. But he encourages course participants to be active and to voice their stance clearly. That means talking openly with the team about what is possible and what isn’t, and making your own decisions within the constraints set “from above.”
In spite of their good intentions, stressful situations can cause managers to regress into top-down decision mode.
“Managers may occasionally have to dictate decisions ad hoc, but it’s not a successful approach in the long run,” Gabriel believes. “Over the years, I’ve learned that I can’t keep on telling people what to do indefinitely.”
A more fruitful approach in the long term is to talk to people and explain how certain tasks contribute to the company’s success.