In a recent meeting between my team and a client’s marketing team, the CEO asked us a question. Everyone waited for me to answer—CEO to CEO.

I started by saying, “We’ve had great success in the first few weeks of doing that work with your team.”

Then I asked a member of my team and his counterpart at the client’s business to weigh in.

They took turns walking through the data and showing results from our combined efforts thus far. The next few questions the CEO asked were directed at the two of them.

I sat back and watched the magic that was happening.

\A few years ago, that would have hurt my ego a bit—the CEO not wanting to hear from me. Now I realize that the less they want to hear from me, the easier it is for me to scale my business and the easier it is for me to empower my team.

People buy from people—people they trust. Building that trust between my team and that of our clients has become my job. And I take it very seriously while my ego takes a chill pill.

As it turns out, research shows that the leaders who share the spotlight with their team are the most effective. This comes as no surprise to me, though it hasn’t been the easiest journey.

Elevating Others Creates Loyalty

According to a study by Yuan Zou, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, “managers who elevate others are more likely to hold on to valued employees.”

The study goes on to say, “These managers also reap their own professional rewards, with the research showing they are twice as likely as the average manager to be promoted to CEO. And when they reach the CEO spot, they tend to boost returns for their firms.”

What this looks like in practice is akin to what I described above. And it doesn’t matter if you have any direct reports or not. Sharing the spotlight is an emotional intelligence skill every one of us can hone.

Don’t Be This Guy

A couple of weeks ago, my sister-in-law was in town and she told me an incredibly frustrating story. During meetings, if she responds to a question or has an idea, a man on her team repeats what she has said, but with bigger words.

She said, “I feel like, because he has an MBA and I do not, he’s using his MBA speak to say the exact same thing I did. And everyone celebrates him for the very idea I presented only minutes ago.”

This is very bad behavior.

It’s bad behavior from a peer and it’s horrendous behavior from a boss. Do not do this. Ever. This is not sharing the spotlight and it proves he has zero emotional intelligence. Do not be this guy.

Don’t Be Younger Me

But it’s not easy. When I started my business, clients wanted to hear from me. They wanted to work with me. They got frustrated when I had someone on my team respond to their email or return their phone call. And it was all my fault.

I talked over my colleagues in meetings. I interrupted them if they were going down the wrong path. And I, gasp!, corrected them in front of clients. NO WONDER our clients only trusted me. I had made it clear I was the only one with the answers.

And it was very bad behavior. My emotional intelligence was not strong and it was impossible for me to scale my business, let alone keep good people. I had a very kind business coach who told me, under no uncertain terms, that I could not behave that way…and he gave me the tools to build my EQ and learn how to let my confidence build on different strengths—such as showing off the smart people I had hired.

In meetings, I sat back and listened. I took notes. I did not interrupt, even if the person in charge was going down the wrong path. It was not easy—and my ego did get a little bruised when the client essentially ignored me. But it worked! 

Within a year, the clients were going directly to their account leads on my team—calling me only if they wanted to catch up, were in town and wanted to have dinner, or if they had a strategic issue that was confidential and only I could help. 

While that happened, my team became empowered. Suddenly, they saw the clients as their clients and began to take care of them better than I would. Their counsel was strategic and smart. And I rolled into a mentor and coach role versus the smarty pants who always had the answers and everyone rolled their eyes at me behind my back.

It took me a long time to build that muscle, but today, it’s not even a thought for me to share the spotlight. It’s a habit. 

Being Inclusive Means You Win Every Time

The research I mentioned earlier from the professor at Harvard Business School? She co-authored it with Ethan Rouen, also an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and Wei Cai, assistant professor at Columbia Business School.

The paper is titled, “Inclusive Managers,” but the title is a bit misleading. It actually found that most were not at all inclusive.

In the study’s sample set, the average manager did not engage colleagues even once during the year. Not even once! 

We’re in the midst of the Great Resignation—of people either leaving their careers for something new, of working moms struggling to do it all, and of people fed up with being paid crappy wages. And, on top of it all, managers are not inclusive.

Let me tell you something, this is not the way to win friends and influence others. It’s not the way to unite groups or boost morale.

Zou says in the paper, “Inclusive leaders are becoming really important as companies get bigger and more complex. Managers need to know how to create an inclusive culture for employees so that they have the psychological safety to be motivated to contribute to the company.”

In this case, “inclusive” means managers who engage colleagues, often junior ones, for information or advice. 

And You’re More Likely to Be Promoted

But the benefit isn’t just for the colleagues who are called upon to share the spotlight. In fact, managers who share the spotlight were nearly 11% more likely to be promoted than those who do not. It also boosts retention, which is increasingly important in today’s environment. Those who work with someone who is willing to share credit were less likely to leave the organization the following year.

Interestingly enough, the study also found that women are more likely to share the spotlight than men. I could make a joke here about women having more emotional intelligence, which has some truth to it, but I think it’s more that society, to this point, has required it of us. 

If a woman acted like my sister-in-law’s colleague and took credit for something a man did, it would never fly. But if a man does it, everyone allows it to happen.

While Building Your EQ Muscles

No matter your gender, we can all continue to build our emotional intelligence muscles. To do that, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Focus on small wins. Ask for more feedback and be more interactive with your peers, your direct reports, and your colleagues. During meetings, share the spotlight. Ask people to be prepared to speak about something they’ve recently done well, both to educate the rest of the team and to give them some credit. And, during decision-making, ask for opinions from all team members—from the interns on up to the executive team.
  2. Drop in on people unexpectedly. This is much easier to do if you’re in an office together—I call it “walking around,” but the idea is you walk around the office and stop in to see people impromptu. This creates an opportunity for people to share what they’re working on, but also where they might need help. If you’re hybrid or remote, I like to call people unexpectedly or ask someone to jump on Zoom or a Slack huddle. The first few times you do this, people freak out. So make sure they know they’re not being fired; you just want a few minutes to catch up informally.
  3. Include, include, include. We are all talking about DE&I and how to make sure we’re being the best stewards of it. And, while inclusivity means making sure that you have women and people of color represented at all levels of the organization, it also means sharing the spotlight. It means including people in discussions and meetings and it means making sure that all voices are heard without repercussions.

Like I said, it’s a muscle you have to build, just like you would do in the gym. You can’t see how lean it’s getting, but the people around you will know how it makes them feel. And making them feel included creates all sorts of long-term benefits.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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