Exit signs are a big deal. If you are in the construction industry and you have ever had a fire marshall inspection, you know what I am talking about. There are specific regulations on where they are to be located in a room. The exit signs have to be located in a room so they can be seen, some have to be lighted or painted with reflective paint. Also, consider the exit signs on a highway. They too fall under the Department of Transportation guidelines and must be strictly adhered to. Most of us don’t consider the exits signs near where we work or the signs on our daily commute to work. No one really notices the signs when dealing with familiar surroundings, but if we are removed from our familiar surroundings signs become extremely important. If you need to get out of a burning building you have never been in, those exit signs become a matter of life and death. The purpose of exit signs (or any sign) is not the sign themselves. You don’t get to an exit sign by the highway and park there as a destination, these signs are meant to point you to a different space. As leaders, we act as exit signs and pointing and leading people to a different space. We are not the point, getting people to a different space, that is the point.
When you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, you rely on tools to guide you through. Technology makes it a lot easier now to travel from city to city and find your way around. Want to find a coffee shop in Chicago, Siri can help guide you right there even if you have never been to Chicago before. Whether it is Siri or an old fashioned Rand McNally map, we have guidance in unfamiliar places by trusting something that knows the space. For your team, you are the one who needs to know the space they are going to. You should know it so well, that you can map it out for them in such a way that they trust you enough to follow. You may not have all of the details but if you can’t paint a clear enough picture of where the exit sign will take them, they may not trust what is on the other side. Would you venture out like that? Some would, and some won’t. Thoughts of your responsibility to provide for your family may come to mind paired up with a sense of adventure. We all live in that balance of needing to be responsible in our decisions and filling that need to take risk of some kind. Some people are more entrepreneurial than others and can work with a lot of blanks, others need structure and clear direction. It is up to you to learn what category members of your team are in. This will help you determine if you need to light your exit sign and make it more clear, or just paint it with reflective paint.
There are other types of signs of course, turn right, stay off the grass, gas price signs, and everything in between but the point of all those signs is to provide information about something, the point is not the sign. Circumstances change all of the time. We all work in very dynamic environments. If the sign does not point the organization to a successful place, however success is defined, logically the sign will have to be changed or adjusted. If you as a leader are a sign, then you need to be able to adjust as circumstance warrants. That is easy to do if you are not the point. If you are the point, then a suggested change in direction becomes a perceived personal attack and no one wins.
In the vein of self awareness, here are some ways to know as a leader if you are acting as a sign, or of you are acting like the point:
- Leaders are often asked to speak or present – use “We” in place of “I”
- Leaders are asked to give updates on projects, speak in terms of project and team goals versus personal contribution.
- Leaders should try not to take full credit for either the failure or the success. If it was a team effort then everyone was involved regardless of outcome.
- If the leader makes a mistake, don’t try to hide it or cover it up. Take responsibility in front of others and redirect efforts.
Leaders who think they are the point will eventually find themselves broken down. Picture the movie Cars and the old town Radiator Springs on Route 66. Who wants to go on route 66 when all the signs clearly point to a better faster way, the highway. While route 66 was once the only way and the familiar way, new signs pointed and communicated a different way. If the leader can make sure that they are not the point and communicate a clear vision that people will buy into, then even the old town on Route 66 can come back to life and the exit sign that was once concerned only with itself, will find that there is far more satisfaction with people being guided to a better place.