In August last year I decided to paint my house. Well, more specifically, the back of my house, to start with. It took me 2 months, a lot of paint, tools and time, and a few Heinekens along the way.

As I was painting, I realised that painting your house has a lot of similarities to leadership. Here are my 8 leadership lessons you learn from painting your house, and how to apply to your leadership.

Firstly, you don’t just start painting your house. There is generally a reason why you want to paint it. You want to modernise it’s look, change the colour, or it’s looking tired and old and needs a bit of a refresh, but it generally starts with a reason why.

The purpose for doing it.

When we want to change something, we generally have a reason. You don’t just do something for the hell of it – and you certainly don’t decide to paint your house just for fun! It’s hard work, but change starts with a reason, and as a Leader, that should be your starting point. It all starts with Why.

We’ve all seen Simon Sineks TED talk ‘start with why’ (and if you haven’t, click here and watch it!) Simon says hands on your head that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. People connect more deeply with a higher purpose, and a meaningful reason for doing something.

For example, you might want to change the way your team works in order for them to more productive. When you ask yourself Why you really want this, and what will it mean, you might say that it is so people can feel like they are achieving more in their day, or you want to them to get through their business as usual (BAU) work faster, so they can have more time for innovation and be more proactive and less reactive; To make more of an impact, every day. Whatever the change and whatever the reason, be clear on Why? And communicate it with your team.

Lesson #1
Be clear on your purpose. What is the change that you are looking for, and why do you want/need it?

Why did I decide to paint my house? I wanted it to look more modern and fresh so that when I was sipping gin and tonics on my deck, I wasn’t thinking about how dated my house was. I wanted to feel proud and happy in my surroundings.

Preparation is key.

Once you know what it is you want to change, and why you want to change it, preparing for it is key.
You don’t just start painting your house. You have to decide on the colours, the type of paint, how you are going to paint it – gutters first vs Windows, will I include the roof?, (you might even do some research (thanks Google), then it is usually a trip to the hardware store to get the right equipment, brushes, scrapers, sandpapers, primers, masking tape, drop cloths… you get the drift.

This is all about preparing to start. Getting ready means making a plan and being clear on where you want to start, (your leadership) having the right tools, skills and mindset for the job (the team) and making sure the organisation is ready for what’s coming (the environment).

I have seen many change initiatives fail because the prep work wasn’t done. As a leader, you can’t just announce that “we are going to be more innovative” and then expect people to immediately come up with innovative ideas and implement solutions. You need to create the environment in which innovation can happen, and then give people the right tools, skills, and develop the mindset that is going to help them be successful in being ‘more innovative’.

Lesson #2
Prepare your team, and the environment before you start. This doesn’t have to take a long time, but it’s important to set the direction, have some guidelines for what’s first, where to start, and give them the tools and skills to be more confident that they can deliver.

Clean up first, so the ‘house’ is ready.

Part of preparing your house for painting, it to clean off the shit. If you just start straight in with the painting, before you have washed your house down, got rid of cobwebs, spiders, praying mantis eggs (those things are everywhere – and man they are sticky!), dirt, etc, the result is going to be less than ideal.
In leadership, you need to make sure that the conditions and the environment are prepared for the change. This means getting rid of some dirt, (the behaviours) that make it difficult to move forward.

Behaviours are like spiders and cobwebs, if you don’t get rid of the spider early on, they build cobwebs, more spiders appear, and are soon covering your whole wall.

Lesson #3
Be clear on the behaviours required for the type of work, and be clear on the ones you don’t. Take the time to get rid of the ‘spiders’.

The right tools make all the difference.

You need to start with the right tools for the job. You can’t just have all paintbrushes – you need some scrapers and some sandpaper too.
Different tools have different uses, and people are the same. Diversity and inclusion are equally important in teams and it is an advantage. Creative and Innovative cultures embrace diversity and inclusion, and make sure they have people that are going to add to the dynamic, not just be like everyone else.

Lesson #4
Actively seek out and include people who think differently, and bring different skills to the team.

You can just paint you house with the same sized brush, it takes scrapers, masking tape and a bit of sandpaper with good grit. (see what I did there??!!)

Skills can be learned

It’s amazing what you can learn from YouTube. This was my go-to starting point. I’d never painted a house before, so needed to learn what was required. So, after a bit of research, learning and mental preparation, I was ready to go.

When you are embarking on something new, you can’t just assume that everyone knows how to do it. You need to arm them with the skills and mindset to believe they can, and are willing to try. When organisations say “we are going to be more innovative with our solutions” some people will think ‘but I’m not an ‘ideas’ person?’ or ‘I’m no Steve Jobs! I can’t do innovation – what does it actually mean anyway??’.

We, as leaders, need to teach our people first what it means, what it looks like, how it feels, and what to do. I believe that everyone has the potential to be innovative and creative. Sir Ken Robison (Creativity Guru!) says that Innovation depends on three processes. Imagination - the ability to bring to mind events and ideas that are not present to our senses, Creativity - having original ideas that add value, and Innovation - putting original ideas into practice. Therefore, creativity is simply coming up with new ideas that add value, and the innovation part is making them real.

Lesson #5
Help people learn the skills and develop the mindset so first they understand, and second can be more confident that they can do what you are asking them to do.

Once you have set the direction, cleaned up the environment, got the right tools for the job, and given people the skills, only then, are you ready to start.

One step at a time.

In my previous blog, I talk about just starting. Start small, but start. And painting a house is no different. You can’t paint a house in one day, but you need to start somewhere. I chose to start with the pergola. It was small enough, and grotty enough, that it wouldn’t take me too long to complete, and I would get some satisfaction from finishing it. Leading new initiatives is the same.

Change and implementation can take time, but it is the little things that we do everyday to make progress, that eventually get us to the finish line.
If we start on something too big, it feels like you are never going to get to the finish line, so instead of choosing a marathon, start with a 100m sprint.

Lesson #6
When you are looking to start something new, or start a new initiative, chose a starting point that is small enough to make a difference, easy enough to effect change, and that will give people a sense of achievement when complete.

Learn as you go.

Some things will work, some won’t, but you learn as you go and adapt or change your approach. When I was painting my windows, (wooden – 1960’s style), they were fiddly and painful. It took me 9 days just to paint our bedroom windows. So, for the office windows, I took a different approach, and took out all the windows first, leaving just the frames in place, sanded, painted them separately, and then put back. This halved the amount of time it took fiddling around and not being able to reach some places because the windows were in the way. Boom!

Often, we continue to do the same things the way they’ve always been done – even if they don’t make sense, or take a long time. It is important that people can question and suggest new approaches when they don’t think something is working, and to try these new ways and see what happens. If it’s successful, great, if it’s not, you still gave them an opportunity to try something different.

When people feel confident that their ideas are heard and you are willing to try new approaches, it sends a great signal to the team that you are open to alternative ways of doing things.

Lesson #7
If something isn’t working, be open to ideas of how to do it differently, and try new ideas out. They will either work or they won’t, but either way, there will be a learning, and your team will be more willing to voice and share ideas in the future.

Celebrate the small achievements, often.

At the end of each section of painting – pergola, windows, gutter, soffits – I would have a little party for one (two, if you count ‘Heineken’ showing up) and would stand back and admire my work, congratulate myself and take a moment to enjoy the fruits of my labour.

It is equally important to do this in the work sense. Often, we don’t take the time to celebrate the small wins, and just quickly move on to the next thing. Or, worse still, wait until the end of the year performance review to recognise efforts and achievements through a formal process. Nothing makes people feel better about their achievements than recognising them when they happen. It builds pride in work, and enthusiasm to get on and keep going.

Lesson #8
So, take the time to celebrate the work, before moving on to the next part.

Eventually your ‘house’ will be transformed, but remember, it takes preparation, the right tools, skills and attitude, continual learning, patience, perseverance, and a few Heinekens along the way.

Once you’ve ‘painted the house’, it still needs maintenance and upkeep, of course, but that’s a whole other story altogether….

If you want to learn more about how to prepare your team to be more creative and innovative, and explore how to develop your leadership, their mindset, and the environment to get ready for transformation, visit or get in touch directly - +64 21 224 1670.