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The "code-shifting" challenge for leaders

Whether you call it ‘code shifting’, ‘situational awareness’ or ‘emotional agility’, this concept is vitally important — especially for leaders in new roles ...

By Jay Fehnel for Johan Advisors

One of my executive coaching clients described the biggest challenges of his new management role as "the code-shifting problem."  For him, this meant the need to shift from one mode of leadership to another quickly, several times throughout the day.

Since my client had a technical background, he described this challenge in computer science terms, referring to the process of switching from one type of computer program (say, data cleansing) to another (like data analysis).

To him, this meant clearing the leadership approach he was using from his current mental "cache" and "uploading" another way of being a leader, as the situation dictated.

Just realizing that this switching was an important part of his leadership role meant my client was already on the way to developing this dexterity.

Whether you call it "code shifting", "situational awareness" or "emotional agility", this concept is vitally important -- especially for leaders in new roles, who find themselves dealing with more people, in a greater variety of circumstances, with higher stakes.

How can you become better-prepared to shift your management style as the situation dictates throughout the day?  Here are some important ways:

1.  Think Ahead -  Take time away from the day-to-day grind to think about the individuals and audiences you work with.  Consider what their needs and priorities are and which communication approach seems to work best for them.  By being thoughtful and intentional about how you'd like to work with others, you'll know the optimal "code" to upload as you go from one situation to the next.

2. Be Present  -  You can't anticipate or plan for every situation you'll face -- and even if you could no one wants to feel like they are just an "input" into your current leadership "program". Almost any interaction is a success if the person you are working with feels they had your total attention and you understood their point of view.  Keep your attention in the foreground and your program in the background.

3.  Call "Time Out" - If you can't be focused and thoughtful in a conversation due to other pressures or constraints, be honest, call "time out," and reschedule.  I know my colleagues have appreciated it when I've told them, "I've got to be honest.  I'm really distracted and can't really give you what you need right now."  This isn't disrespectful, in fact, it lets your colleagues know you value them enough to be honest, even when it takes admitting a weakness.

4.  Ask Questions -  No one manager can anticipate -- or meet -- the communication needs of every colleague or client.  Look for signs during your conversations that your colleague is uneasy, disappointed or confused.  Ask if your sense is right.  Being able to read cues is a key skill for leaders.  

5.  Reflect - You won't get every conversation right, no matter how many you have.  So, take the time at the end of each day or week to reflect on the conversations and meetings that worked well and those that didn't.  Like any code, the "leadership code" has to be tested in the real world -- and tweaked based on user feedback.

The leadership positions I've enjoyed the most have had the greatest variety.  With that variety, though, comes the need to become a code-shifting athlete.  As you become more aware of this concept, each successful shift throughout the day can be a small win to enjoy, taking you and your team one step closer to your goals.