Reprint from Economic Development Now: Leaders Build Confidence

Reprint: Leadership in Economic Development: Why Confidence Matters
By Joy Wilkins, CEcD
“Leadership is not about the leader, it is about how he or she builds the confidence of everyone else. Leaders who guide winning streaks make choices toward positive, inclusive, empowering actions that build confidence. By believing in other people, they make it possible for others to believe in them. Working together, they increase the likelihood of success, and of continuing to succeed.” – Rosabeth Moss Kanter

About this series

Economic development leaders are true change agents for the world around them. The impact of their leadership on those they serve is untold and often cumulative in nature.

This article is the 16th in a series that focuses on the application of leadership principles to economic development practice. How do we respond to the call for dynamic and adaptive leadership given the ever-evolving economic, social, environmental and political considerations affecting our organizations? This series aims to contribute to the conversation.

How do we do raise up leaders? According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, we do this by truly believing in people and in their power to make a difference. When we feel and exude confidence in others, it is contagious, and they and others feed off our energy. On the flip side, a lack of confidence can be a show-stopper.

Having confidence in others is particularly important in economic development, as our work is carried out with many internal and external partners. Trusted relationships with these partners is essential for building an effective economic development team and achieving success together.

In her 2004 book “Confidence,” Kanter, a best-selling author and business leadership expert, points to three cornerstones for building confident, high-performing teams: facing facts and reinforcing responsibility, cultivating collaboration, and inspiring initiative and innovation.

Facing facts and reinforcing responsibility

Grooming a culture of increased confidence often involves admitting to errors of the past, explains the author. “It takes courage to face facts that have long been covered up, to voice truths that have been unspoken, or to apologize for past wrongs,” she writes.

This can be especially challenging in economic development, given the transient nature of our profession. Economic development leaders must atone for the errors of their organization whether they occurred before they arrived on the scene or after. Whatever the case, as Kanter explains, “it builds confidence in leaders when they name problems that everyone knows are there and put facts on the table for everyone to see.” While openly naming problems is important, she advises refraining from blaming others or putting someone on the spot.

As economic development professionals, we can play a powerful role in facilitating community forgiveness by acknowledging the errors of the past. In doing so, explains the author, we can demonstrate accepting responsibility, rather than shifting it. Leaders who do this also earn the confidence of others and enjoy greater credibility when describing solutions for the future, she points out.

According to Kanter, leaders who build confident teams are optimists who expect positive outcomes and engage in regular dialogue and widespread communication to achieve these outcomes. “Optimists simply assume that problems are temporary and can be solved,” she says, “so optimists naturally want more information about problems, because then they can get to work and do something.” In economic development, this involves not only connecting with our board members and staff, but also with our partners, volunteers, and other community stakeholders who help carry out our organization’s mission.

Repeatedly sharing goals, priorities, and standards with everyone is important for encouraging accountability, explains Kanter. While we often view accountability as a matter of holding others to meet expectations, she believes leaders should hold themselves accountable for the success of their team members, and actively work to set them up for success.

Cultivating collaboration

Building a culture where people have confidence and trust in one another is essential to solving strategic and operational problems, explains Kanter. “Confidence blossoms when people feel connected rather than isolated, when they are willing to engage and commit to one another, when they can act together to solve problems and produce results, ignoring boundaries between them,” she says.

While fostering confidence among team members can be especially challenging in environments where anti-teamwork has been prevalent, Kanter’s work shows it can be done. Kanter identifies four kinds of actions that are essential for building confidence within a team:

  1. Getting connected in new ways through new conversations
  2. Carrying out important work jointly
  3. Communicating respect
  4. Demonstrating inclusion (that everyone is part of the picture)

Successful economic development leaders fit Kanter’s definition of natural connectors – those who instinctively reach across divides to form relationships – and carry out all four of these actions as a matter of course. They spend considerable energy in building bridges and helping people connect and work on important problems together. They ensure that everyone affected by this work is part of the economic development team. And their words and actions convey respect for all, no matter the size of their role or their sphere of influence.

Perhaps the most important role economic development leaders play is in creating what Kanter refers to as “safe havens in which dialogues with peers can take place.”

When collaboration is not occuring, it may be because people don’t know each other. For example, it’s not unusual to pull a group of community leaders together, ask them “how many of you see someone in the room you do not yet know?,” and see a number of hands raised. According to Kanter, this is a stumbling block to having the confidence to work together. “Mutual confidence for working together begins with firsthand knowledge of one another and the chance to discover human connections,” she says.

Another barrier to working together is past hurts, real or perceived. Bringing people together in such cases is not a game of trivial pursuit, explains Kanter, and requires diligence to foster conversations that are a departure from the past. She explains that people tend to be open to having new conversations when there are critical problems to address. Given the matters facing our communities, economic developers, therefore, have a real opportunity to help people come together for meaningful purposes.

Says Kanter, “When people are given tasks with big consequences, they are more likely to forget their differences and bury the slights of the past, real or imaginary.”

Inspiring initiative and innovation

Kanter’s works shows how successful leaders can energize depressed people, passive teams and sluggish organizations. How? “When leaders believe in other people,” she says, “confidence grows, and winning becomes more attainable.”

In addition to believing in people, the author describes some deliberate things leaders do to foster confidence, paraphrased here:

  • They expect success: the higher the perceived likelihood of success, the greater the willingness of team members to contribute effort.
  • They encourage people to work on projects that have meaning for them: people will work hardest on projects that they value and even “stretch” for such important work.
  • They stay positive and ignore the negative background noise: leaders deliberately engage those with negative energy in a chance to contribute to a greater cause.
  • They make initiative a possible and desirable cultural norm: they fund, praise, and support new ideas.
  • They start with achieving and celebrating small wins: they provide team members with small projects they can succeed in so that they can have a taste of victory to build upon.

Celebrating small successes along the way is an essential tool for building community momentum and support. Oftentimes, those involved in doing the work are so busy that they forget to stop, reflect, understand, and report on their successes. However, providing tastes of victory, according to the author, builds confidence among colleagues and gives them the sense they are part of a winning team. It also inspires confidence by outsiders in the team. “A series of small wins restores external confidence that winning is possible,” she says. In other words, confidence breeds success, and success, in turn, breeds greater confidence.

What is the ultimate sign of confidence? “A virtually self-organizing system in which people feel empowered to seize the initiative, to solve problems, and to seed innovations without even being told to do it,” says Kanter.

In closing

“Leaders who guide their teams toward success espouse the values of accountability, collaboration, and initiative in their messages to others, model those qualities in their own behavior, and create formal programs and structural mechanisms to embed them,” explains Kanter. According to the author, it’s not enough to have confidence in one’s self; one must have confidence in others.

It’s all about the choices we make, she explains. Kanter’s work points us to several questions we can ask ourselves about instilling confidence in others:

  • Do we use transparent processes involving open debate and dialogue?
  • Do we expose facts and support abundant communication?
  • Do we seek solutions to problems by taking actions under our own control?
  • Do we seek collaborators?
  • Do we stress collective goals that unite people?
  • Do we promote mutual respect and relationships?
  • Do we encourage initiatives for improvement?
  • Do we invest in numerous small wins in many places by many people?
  • Do we emphasize sources of hope?

Instilling team confidence is particularly important in our profession of economic development. The issues affecting communities are broad in nature and rife with unknowns, and they need leaders with the expertise and confidence to carry out the courageous actions to address them. Likewise, leaders need communities to have confidence in them, to fuel their work in the midst of changing conditions.

“Confidence provides motivation to keep up the effort,” says Kanter. “It is a source of resilience to overcome adversity, to choose to work hard to solve problems.”

Source: International Economic Development Council, ED Now

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