Habits of a caring leader

By Aleks Melnikova

The story starts last September when I joined Inviqa, to learn from (and lead) the amazing XD team here. Well, really, the story starts with us working together last week, at #WeAreInviqa day (a company wide initiative to get more people sharing their stories), which triggered a reflection on my experience with the XD team and the organisation to date.

To say I was worried about shifting contexts in the pandemic is an understatement. As a single parent, with family overseas, I felt a pressing sense of responsibility to make it work, mixed with a sense of panic, excitement, and uncertainty, facing this large and mature team. So, to make it easier for myself, I've noted down a few habits along the way. These have really helped me to shape my approach to the role, but also, stay happy and balanced throughout these weird, remote times. Here goes the list that I hope to keep adding to, with your help.

1. Listen first

…then listen more. During onboarding, I listened and mapped a whole lot (being a Service Designer helps): I mapped conversations, feelings, nuances. I approached onboarding as if I was mapping client territory – with the goal of helping a business achieve their objectives. I didn’t stop listening once I got into the team and the organisation, and continue to do so, only now I’ve added "acting upon information" as a second (crucial) part to the process of capturing it.

Map of XD team including roles and painpoints

2. Micro—act...

…daily. Change is hard, it certainly doesn't happen in a day. To me, that’s the most important consequence of listening – capturing needs and methodically taking action, slowly and steadily. This year, we have opened up many important streams of work – from setting out the team vision to establishing communities of practice within design, and we continue growing in a conscious, considered way.

XD team vision and communities of practice

XD team rituals


3. Always lift...

…individuals and teams. Where I come from [culture-wise], active praise is relatively uncommon. When we see a product, action or approach is good, we just shed a contrived smile, and move onto things that, according to our cultural frame of reference, really need discussing: things that are going wrong. So throughout my career, I had to keep breaking that pattern, to learn to celebrate small victories and acknowledge every step of the way. I am continuing that learning at Inviqa – using our 'Inviqa delights' channel (where we frequently give shout-outs to people) as one of the tools to practice that.

4. Be the last...

…to be named. Be it in meetings, in presentations, in any sort of naming context – ensure your own name comes last. If the hierarchy creeps in, make an attempt to defy it by starting bottom-up, or deliberately presenting the roles in a non-linear manner. Alphabetical order for name lists works well too.

Image of google calendar meet between Andres and Aleks

XD team structure with titles

5. Be the first...

…to take the hit. I learnt this one from Caroline Phillips, ages ago when I was trying myself at campaign deployment and accidentally deployed the whole thing to the wrong set of clients. The first thing she said to me after that spectacular mess-up was:

I must have not shown you properly, it's not your fault

This has stuck with me. If there’s an issue within the team or on the client account, it's only logical that the resolution path lies with the people who oversee the account. Taking responsibility and shielding the team from whatever is happening in that moment is, in my view, the essence of leadership. And yes, it’s very unpleasant at times, but it does provide more space for the teams between trigger and response - that space is vital to think and re-group. Sometimes, it is about providing tools to respond... Sometimes it's about complete shielding up to the point of "we will figure out how we could have made it better once we have space".

6. Be honest…

… in calling out bad practices. I’m not a big believer in the concept of “best practice” as it is hugely contextual and prone to change, but I’ve seen some bad behaviours through the years. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • The deeply rotten advertising practice of senior practitioners presenting other people’s work under the premise of “more senior leaders being better presenters”- (unfair both from intellectual labor, learning and growth POV)
  • The practice of praising people for working long/late hours as opposed to efficiency, dedication, or quality of work (hearing “someone is a 9 to 5 kind of person” can make my blood boil)
  • The practice of praising the leaders instead of crediting the teams who do the work
  • The lack of proactive diversity and inclusion focused practices – in hiring, in content, in approach. We welcome introverts and extroverts with heartwarming accents and diverse backgrounds (actively), we check our hiring ads for gender-specific language (using gender bias decoders), and we will call you out on using the term "guys" in reference to people you work with, sorry.
  • The lack of situational humility. As a team, we actively seek to create and foster environments where people can safely say “I don’t know”, as well as "I need time to look into this".

Map of world showing diversity and backgrounds of XD team

6. Check for biases…

...start from self. I learnt this from Tom Bayliss, who has the admirable quality of stopping himself in own tracks, often in very important meetings, to call out bias in self. This is a truly inspirational practice that I stole. Why am I not listening now? What bias is at play? Why am I reacting in that way? Why have I just said what I said? Rewind. Retry saying it in a better way.

7. Be conscious of 'collateral' impact…

...at all times. I learnt this from Zoe Kelleher, a brilliant communicator as well as a supporter and an inspiration. One of her main feedback points to me was needing to establish a clearer work-life balance. I am working on it as we speak. It took me a while to realise that by constant "heroism" we are, often unfairly, setting up our teams to follow that unhealthy path to burnout.

Working late? Your team will be expected to work late. Ensure you put the context around your response, and use the magic words of:

I'm replying to this now because that's how I split the working day but I don't expect an answer now

or “You shouldn't be reading this", as well as, in some instances, just plainly prioritising your own personal life. All of this helps to communicate, reinstate the balance and encourages others to follow along.

Are there any habits you have found helpful, any practices you swear by? I’d love to know! Share them with me either on Twitter or LinkedIn!