Not long ago, my son called me from Oregon. He was driving some friends to the airport when his car suddenly quit and wouldn’t restart. Beyond attempting to diagnose the problem over the phone, there was little I could do to help from where I was in Minnesota.
The good news was that we were members of AAA, so I told him to give them a call. In short order a tow truck arrived, and before long his friends had made it to the airport and the car was running again. There: a short, simple story with a happy ending.
My son’s roadside emergency was practically a non-event due to the presence of the AAA. In a similar vein, I think a kind of Leader’s Triple-A Club can help keep our teams out of trouble and on the road; we just have to re-look what the three As stand for. Read on to see if you qualify for membership.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) was founded in 1902 in response to a lack of roads and highways suitable for automobiles. Soon this association of car clubs began publishing road maps and printing restaurant and hotel guides to help drivers find good roads and safe places to eat and stay.
Later they became involved in school safety programs, driver training, and even trying to influence legislation in the effort to make roads safer to travel.
And as in the situation with my son’s car, we maintain our membership in AAA for another key benefit: emergency roadside assistance. I sleep a little better knowing that my wife and kids can get help 24/7 anywhere by making a single phone call.
It’s not too much of a stretch to draw a parallel between what the AAA tries to do for people traveling out on the road, and our role as leaders. I’m not trying to sell you a membership. I just think that if as leaders we imagine ourselves as a kind of AAA club, it may help us get better at navigating hazardous roads with our team.
Here’s what I think the letters of the Leader’s AAA Club should represent.
Start with Advocating. Just as the AAA advocated for safer roads, we need to be advacates for our teams.
Advocate for Vision and mission. Like those maps and guides the AAA Club produced, we have to help the team see the goal, and chart a course to get there.
Make sure both are simple, clear, and well understood at all levels. Talk about them continuously and reinforce the reasons behind their importance. Use the vision as a decision-making tool: if one option brings you closer, that’s a strong prod to move in that direction.
Advocate for culture. Culture is what makes the group of people we lead into a team. Like the rules of the road, it sets norms of performance, guides our interactions, and esablishes identity. As leaders, we are its primary advocate.
To build your culture, start by clarifying what you want it to look like. Then look for opportunities to reinforce it in word and action every day. And if you are in a position to add a member to the team, by all means seek the most talented applicants you can find. But as Adam Grant shares in his recent podcast, The Problem with All-Stars, if a talented candidate doesn’t fit the culture, keep looking.
Advocate for team members. A third place to concentrate your advocacy is with your teammates. Advocate for their growth, for broadening their experience, for career opportunities, and advancement where merited. Have honest conversations about where they are and the direction they want to go, then explore ways to help them get there.
As the team sees you take a personal interest in advocating for them, they are more likely to advocate for you in the form of engaged teamwork.
The second A has to stand for Apprenticing. Good leaders understand that they are always learning and that their work is never done. The closest we can come to mastery is relentless pursuit at becoming better every day. That requires the mindset of an apprentice.
Apprentice to your trade. Start with technical competence. We earn respect and the right to lead when it is clear to others that we know what we are doing.
Whatever trade you are in, learn all you can about how it works, understand the details of processes, pay attention to the little things that can have big impacts. Admit when you don’t know something; then go get the answer.
Apprentice to other leaders. This is about learning the craft of leadership.
Cultivate relationships with people who can help you become a better leader. Find a mentor and try to sit down over coffee once a month. Read about leaders in action. Spend some time in reflection to make sure you are making the most of your leadership experiences.
Apprentice to the customer. Think about who the customer is that your team serves. Whether it is someone at the point of sale, another department in your organization, another business, or something else, dedicate yourself to learning everything you can about who they are, what their pain points are, and how you can serve them better.
The deeper your understanding of what they need and how you can help, the more successful your team will be in getting it to them, and the better leader you are in making it happen.
The third A is all about Accountability.
Accountable for self. The best place to start any discussion of accountability is with yourself. Begin by thinking about what your cornerstone principles are. Write them down if you haven’t. Share them with others. And most importantly, make sure you live them daily.
Then ask yourself some questions: are you living up to the ideals of that culture you hope to establish? Are you only promising what you can deliver, and delivering what you promise? Are you setting the example you hope others will follow? Accountability starts at home.
Accountable for others. Whether a teammate has been on the team for 20 minutes or 20 years, if you’re the leader, you’re responsible for what they do. As we often heard during my time in the Army, a leader is “responsible for everything the unit does, or fails to do.” Period. Full stop. Don’t make excuses, don’t whine, don’t blame.
So whatever happens own it. Then use what Jim Collins calls the window and the mirror: when something goes well, look out the window make sure the credit goes to the people who earned it; when things go wrong, use the mirror to find the person to take responsibility.
Accountable for the team. If one of the spark plugs in your engine isn’t firing at the right time, the motor loses power, there’s a greater burden on the rest of the engine, and you are wasting fuel. As the team’s mechanic, it’s your job to fix it.
Have a candid conversation with teammates who fall short. Ask open-ended, probing questions, and find out why if you can. Help them get straight if you are reasonably able. But for it to truely be a team, everyone has to produce
Leader’s Triple-A Club: The Takeaway
The American Automobile Association came into being over a century ago to answer the need for better and safer roads. When they got my son and his car back on the road quickly and effectively it highlighted the importance of having an organization that is watching out for our needs.
The world of leadership is no less confusing and hazardous than the highways. As leaders, we can see ourselves as a AAA Club in the business of getting things done through people.
When we continually Advocate for our team and it’s culture, Apprentice ourselves to the leadership trade, and hold ourselves and others Accountable, we have a better chance of keeping our team headed safely down the road and avoiding potential hazards along the way.