As a young manager I was on a particularly difficult assignment that had attention all the way up to the CEO of the company. The executive leading the project was a very seasoned and intentional leader who executed as well as anyone I’ve ever seen drive a crisis initiative. His ability to stay on top of the work was like nothing like I’d ever seen from other leaders in the organization. During my annual review with him, I asked what he saw as a crucial attribute of a successful leader. Without missing a beat, he gave me two words which continue to shape me as a leader: follow up.
Through the years I’ve seen how follow-up (or lack thereof) contributed to a team’s ability to successfully deliver results. Organizations that have follow-up in their DNA simply execute more friction-free than those who don’t. The leader stays better aligned with the work happening in the organization, and the followers better understand and execute to the leader’s expectations. I’ve seen it in my own experience as a leader. As my leadership skills matured and my follow-up ability became more autonomic, I saw first-hand how we were able to get things done more effectively. I also saw another benefit--my timely follow-up behavior reduced the number and magnitude of crises I had to deal with. I was more on top of what was happening, was better in sync with the team, and more engaged when the team needed my help to get something done.
Fostering a follow-up culture isn’t difficult to do, it just takes discipline. Get the ball rolling by instituting these seven follow-up tips:
There’s simply no reason not to establish and foster a follow-up culture. Just take the time to make it top-of-mind and instill the importance of it to your team.
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In 1985, The Coca-Cola Company introduced a new formula for its Coca-Cola product, calling it “New Coke.” Consumer reaction to the new formula was negative, and within three months the original formula was revived and rebranded as “Coca-Cola Classic.” The company was faced with a decision-- keep the new formula and try to change consumer perception or abandon the product. The New Coke product was ultimately discontinued in July 2002. As the company navigated their choices, the alternatives were about how to recover from a bad situation, with its management faced with minimizing a profit hit and negative consumer sentiment. Their decision path ultimately worked out well (with some speculating that New Coke was a marketing ploy to stimulate sales), but the decisions along the way were painful choices meant to minimize loss.
A huge part of a leader’s job is making decisions based on informed alternatives which articulate both the positive and negative consequences of the decision. The typical mode of operation is to look at pros and cons and do a pros to cons weight assessment of which alternative’s pros best outweigh the cons. But what about when there aren’t any pros, yet a decision needs to be made? I’ve seen leader decision-making hobbled because there is no good alternative in the decision set, looking for pros in a sea of cons. There’s no good alternative, so it’s about choosing the least-worst alternative.
The mechanics of least-worst alternative management are really no different than looking for a best alternative. It’s all about the mindset decision makers adopt when embarking on the decision. Being overt about recognizing the chosen decision isn’t about bringing benefit, but about minimizing hemorrhaging. It gives decision makers the freedom to make the best decision without the burden of justifying the lack of pros supporting the alternative.
Next time you are faced with choosing between worse and more-worse alternatives, keep the following six factors in mind:
Navigating through bad alternatives isn’t fun, but having the ability to skillfully and objectively get to a least-worst alternative is a crucial skill the best leaders possess. Keep top of mind whether you’re making a maximize-benefit or least-worst decision and ensure your decision makers understand the type of decision they’re making.
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Through my years I’ve seen many leaders at all levels struggle with getting things done either by having to work late in the evenings and on weekends or by completely missing due dates. As I’ve talked with these leaders, they just consider it part of the job, unable or unwilling to do anything about it. I found myself early in my career doing the exact same thing; setting unrealistic expectations and killing myself to try to meet them, only to have a limited success rate of delivering on time. I hated that hamster wheel.
The good news is you don’t have to accept this as the status quo. Here are six simple principles to get better control of your work and be more deliberate about what you get done:
1. Make your to-do list a “done” list – It’s commonplace to keep a to-do list. My approach is to apply four changes to the prototypical to-do list:
2. Ensure your calendar includes everything that consumes time in your day, not just meetings – I’ve seen countless examples of people only putting meetings with others in their calendars, making their days crammed with meetings, then burning the midnight oil to get non-meeting work done. Any activity that consumes time in your day--meetings, work time, personal time, professional development, or other activities--deserve time scheduled in your calendar.
3. Schedule a recurring Friday afternoon progress and planning meeting with yourself – Near the end of your day on Friday, block out 30 minutes on your calendar to do three things:
4. Make difficult calendar choices – If there just aren’t enough hours in the week to get things done, look to see what needs to change. Perhaps it’s a change in due date or altering or deferring other items in your calendar that are taking up time. Whatever the case, be willing to make some decisions about what you do and who you meet with.
5. Find hidden time in your calendar – Are there meetings you just don’t need to be at? Are there one-hour meetings that can be done in 30 minutes? Can the frequency of recurring meetings be reduced? Can some things be done through offline communication, i.e. email? Ask yourself where time spent in meetings can be reduced or eliminated without materially adverse business impact.
6. Remember that you own your calendar, it doesn’t own you – Certainly things may happen during the week which could alter what you get done (or when you do it). Don’t beat yourself up if it does happen, just look at the frequency and reasons behind the changes. If they’re happening on an exceptional basis because of unforeseen work hitting your plate, then accept it as part of the job. If they’re happening frequently, then it could be you’re either not realistic in your planning or you’re allowing yourself to be distracted. It’s up to you to decide, just be honest with yourself.
A common thread through these principles is discipline. You can put the best-intentioned techniques in place but if you don’t follow them, you’re dooming yourself to emails at midnight. Seriously consider the principles, put your spin on them, and put them into action.
My wife Patty and I purchased a townhome back in 2009. It is in a beautiful area, walking distance to the types of things we like to do. Built in the 1970s, it was badly in need of major renovation. I saw the potential and after one visit was ready to put in an offer. Patty needed to go back a couple more times to look at the townhome, the property grounds, and the neighborhood. She needed more time to think through and absorb what we were considering before moving forward. We made an offer four days after seeing the townhome, when we were both comfortable with the purchase. Then we proceeded with gutting and remodeling, then moved in June 2011. We never regretted the decision.
Our home purchase example was the first time I consciously thought about how quickly I made decisions and moved forward with implementation relative to Patty’s more deliberate approach. At first, I was frustrated with our speed differences, wondering why she couldn’t move as fast as me. As we’ve continued to grow, I’ve learned to respect and appreciate her more thoughtful and deliberate pace as she raises issues that I might not consider. We now recognize each other’s processing speed, or what I call “think-do cycle,” and how our different styles yield a decision-making speed we’re both content with.
The think-do cycle applies to work teams as well. You may have some on your team who are ready to launch on a proposed solution when others need time to process. When differing think-do cycles aren’t acknowledged and embraced, work teams could get frustrated with moving either too fast or too slow. When differences are embraced, decisions and resulting action are made with better team buy-in. As the leader, your job is to balance team-buy-in with the timeliness that a decision must be made. It’s not easy to do; but it’s something that leaders continually need to balance to minimize execution friction.
Need better awareness of the think-do cycle and how to implement in your team? Give these five tips a look:
Be mindful about the think-do cycles of you and your team. You’ll better secure team buy-in on key decisions and reduce execution friction.
As a child and young adult I was very independent. Regardless of the situation, if I was doing something I was determined to do it myself and not ask for anyone's help. In my eyes asking for someone's help was akin to admitting defeat or somehow showing others that I was weak or incompetent. My attitude was "If someone else can do it, I can do it". How Naive.
Colleagues, I feel your pain on this issue.
Scenario #1: You’ve got a critical position that needs to be filled by a qualified candidate, and quick. For every day the position doesn’t get filled, your in-box fills up a bit more with work to be done because your unfilled position hasn’t been staffed. You see tons of resumes and have interviewed scores of candidates, but the rock star you’re looking for isn’t emerging. You refuse to “settle” for a mediocre candidate, but the work is piling up and you’ve got to do something.
I recently keynoted at a Project Management Symposium. During the symposium several executives provided perspective on the importance of Project Management to the organization. One of the executives centered his discussion around people having vision. I can imagine the reaction of some of the people in the room. "Yeah, right. I've got projects with impossible deadlines, my customer is breathing down my neck because she is not getting what she wants, my project team isn't dedicating enough time on my project, and budget cuts mean I have to figure out how to get more done with less. You want me to have vision? I can barely get things done as it is!"
I feel your pain, colleagues. But I also agree with the exec.
One of the most over-used, warmed-over leadership terms uttered daily. Leaders high and low espouse their expertise in empowering teams to deliver. Some are very good at it, fostering high-performance teams who deliver great results. Others, though, only think they are good at it but frustrate teams with micromanagement, apathy, vagueness, and randomization. Most anyone who has been around the block has seen both good and bad empowerment examples. As for me, I’ve not only seen it, I’ve committed both the good and bad. It took me years to understand that empowerment isn’t just about delegating tasks to be performed. True empowerment is about entrusting individuals with problems to be solved and supporting them in the process. A high-performance empowered team owns problems or missions and is supported by a leader who provides clarity, gives guidance, and resolves only those issues the team can’t resolve on their own. To put some meat on this, I like to think of empowerment as systematic, with four critical steps needed to ensure its success. I call this intentional empowerment.
Step 1 – Define the problem to be solved and ownership
The first step in intentional empowerment is the clear articulation of a problem statement. The size of the problem doesn’t matter, it can be something that will take hours, days, or months to solve. What matters is a clear understanding of the problem statement, as well as ownership of the problem statement and the resulting solution.
Here is a good example:
Step 2 – Articulate the guiding principles
Articulating guiding principles is about policy, legal, regulatory, or other guidelines which the solution needs to adhere to. Note this is not about telling the problem owner how to do something, it’s about ensuring the problem owner knows the boundaries that he or she needs to abide by in solving the problem.
Some good examples of guiding principles:
And a couple of bad examples:
Guiding principles aren’t about controlling how something gets done, they are about the problem owner knowing what latitude he or she has in solution definition.
Step 3 – Ensure agreement on key dates
Knowing when something needs to be done and any key interim milestone dates enables the problem owner to figure out tasks and resourcing needs to hit the dates. It’s crucial here to get crisp on a specific date, not an “ASAP,” “immediately,” or “yesterday” date. It’s important for the leader to have his or her key dates thought out to ensure alignment with the problem owner. A good example:
And bad ones:
It may be that a problem needs to be resolved urgently; if that’s the case then stress the urgency to the problem owner but put a date on it. Don’t leave the when up to interpretation.
Step 4 – Establish the follow-up cadence
Key to intentional empowerment is an agreed-upon and timely follow-up cadence that both the leader and problem owner understand and agree is appropriate. When done well, the leader and problem owner stay aligned on execution and can fulfill project “asks” on a timely basis. It also minimizes surprises and frantic rework when expectations aren’t met. Just as importantly, though, is the leader staying in his or her lane by serving as a resource for the problem owner. An impatient or meddling leader can start micro-managing or dictating how something should be done. The problem owner turns into errand runner, with the leader hijacking problem ownership. Empowerment gone bad.
The cadence frequency should be appropriate to the problem and its due date, whether it be monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, or some other increment. As a leader it’s important to work on the frequency right-sizing with the problem owner; too infrequent can communicate disinterest, too frequent can communicate distrust. Here is an example for a project with a due date of one month:
For the same project here are a couple of bad examples:
There’s no one-size-fits-all follow-up cadence, what’s important is that the cadence exists, and both the leader and problem owner agree it’s appropriate. Again, too-infrequent follow-up communicates disinterest, while too-frequent follow-up communicates distrust.
I want to leave you with one last thought. Empowerment is a privilege, not a right. Those who are empowered have to earn and keep the trust of their manager, peers, and employees. Ensure when you are empowering someone to solve a problem that you are doing so because you trust him/her, and that if the trust is breached the willingness to empower diminishes. With that being said, take the time to understand intentional empowerment and use it to create high-performance teams that deliver value to your organization.
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