In business, we often think extensively about our own success, potential, and career trajectory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s important to take ownership of our life and career. When it comes to individual success, it matters whether you develop an internal or external locus of control. If you have an external locus of control, you feel that outside forces, such as luck, are responsible for your outcomes (e.g. I was late for an important meeting because the train was held up). Alternatively, if you have an internal locus of control, you believe that you are in control of your own outcomes (e.g. this meeting is important, so I’ll set off early in case there are any delays).
This attitude is valuable, but for success it’s even better to extend this feeling of agency to encompass your working relationships with others. For instance, if this is how I can help myself, how can I help my fellow team members?
The canvas strategy is an approach pioneered by the writer and strategist Ryan Holiday. In a nutshell, his advice is to focus your efforts on making other people look good (which he neatly summarises as: ‘Find canvases for other people to paint on.’). By clearing the way for others to focus on their strengths, you can help them to succeed and learn from them as they do. Better still, if everyone in a practice is doing this, you’ll all ultimately achieve your goals and reach your potential, which can only be a good thing; both personally and collectively.
When it comes to creating a successful team, it’s therefore not about having a culture that goes up and down, but rather across. Practices are most successful when each person within them is interested in what others are doing, and thinking about how they can help. This means that team members are there to make each other look good, rather than falling back on the old competitive dynamic of individuals looking better when others fall down (e.g. your mistake is my gain). Rather than highlighting when someone else fails, in this situation a team member might notice a potential problem in advance and ask if they can do anything to assist. For instance, ‘Have you placed that order? I can see you’ve got a busy day ahead, so would you like me to do it for you?’
As the leader of a practice, it’s your role to help your team get on board with this approach. Try to make time to check in with them, and to prompt them to help each other. If you can create the right conditions for your team to work in a truly collaborative way, you’ll find that the payoff is higher performance and a better workplace vibe.
This is something that we can see in action within many existing practices. Often, the best-paid nurse in a practice will earn higher than the average, and this is because their job is to make the clinical teams’ lives easier. They’re not working longer hours, but being thoughtful and spotting ways to shape the conditions for success (for instance, by setting up ahead of work). In this example, the clinical lead will recognise and reward this, by paying for it. This creates a performance culture, rather than having each person existing in a defined ‘box’ of what they do and don’t get involved with.
Of course, this may go against the grain of how some people traditionally choose to work. Sometimes, people are afraid to take on too much accountability, and fall into the trap of batting away any liability due to fear of getting told off. If you only work within a defined role, and don’t step outside of this, it’s easy to say, “well, I did my bit” and “that wasn’t my job”. Sure, this has the benefit of taking blame away from your own door, but it doesn’t do much for morale or team culture, and it’s the polar opposite of how good customer service should be organised.
In business, as in life, there are good collaborators, and bad collaborators. The bad might commit their colleague to a short deadline in emails with a client, thus cutting across the collaboration process and creating stress. In contrast, a good collaborator will speak to their colleague separately first to agree on an achievable timescale and divide responsibilities, before looping them in on the client-facing email. For the client, the outcome might be similar, but for your team, one is infinitely better.
In short, the best thing you can do as a leader is to promote the canvas strategy and collaboration at every possible point. Be obsessed with it, and think and talk about it a lot. Repeat yourself, live it yourself (leading by example), and have your eyes open for opportunities to help others; it’s surprising how often these present themselves when you’re aware of them. You may be hierarchically superior, but some of the strongest team leaders are also the strongest team members.
If you’d like help getting the best out of your team and business, get in touch with our management consultancy team.