Warning: Leadership Construction Zone Ahead!
When it comes to leadership, you can build a house of sticks or straw by focusing just on your ability to plan, your people management and cultivation skills, or your ability to drive work. What I’ve found is that while each of these attributes is important, leaders of today cannot rely on just one attribute. Leaders of today need more. They need three crucial raw materials to be a complete leader. They need to excel at the Three P’s: Planning, Process and People.
The Leadership Made Simple Series focuses on building your planning, process, and people skills to ensure your leadership house isn’t built of vulnerable straw or precarious sticks. Rather, your leadership house will be built of solid brick and mortar and will withstand many of the challenges you will face, whether you are leading a large team in a corporate environment, a PTA organization, or a student project. Each Leadership Made Simple ebook is designed to give you some very practical, relevant and actionable nuggets which you can apply to whatever leadership situation you may be in. Regardless of your experience level or situation, you’ll find some value in each and every Leadership Made Simple ebook.
Lay the first brick and start building your leadership house right now. Let’s get to it!
Planning – Just get in the car and drive south until you see Mexico
True, this scenario sounds ludicrous in terms of planning your next vacation, but think about a situation where your leader (or maybe you were the leader) set a goal but had no idea as to how you were going to achieve that goal. The team was left to figure things out for itself, maybe do some ad-hoc planning, or fumble around in the dark hoping to somehow hit the target. Great leaders simply don’t commit to goals without knowing how the team will get there. Great leaders can lay the tracks so that the team just has to follow along, gliding smoothly along the guidelines set out for them. Great leaders are great at planning.
To get some perspective on what effective leaders who are great at planning do, look at some of these attributes and think about how you may stack up against them:
- They know the goals and the plan to get to the goals – Job number one of a great leader is understanding the goals that need to be achieved by his or her organization, and ensuring a clear path is defined as to how these goals will be reached. Any leader who makes a commitment to a goal and follows it up with “We’ll get there somehow” has just set his team up for a lot of late nights and weekends executing to “somehow.” This isn’t courage in the least; it’s recklessness personified. Great leaders don’t set their teams up for failure. They clearly identify the goal and lay the foundation for how that goal will be met.
- They can clearly communicate the goal and plan to others – I’ve seen plenty of leaders who would spend days and days putting together super-nifty charts and spreadsheets outlining goals and plans, only to be met with a deer-in-the-headlights look from his or her team. Putting together goals and plans are really important, but if the leader can’t clearly articulate what they are to others, then you might as well be reading hieroglyphics. The goals and plans have to be clear, concise, and understandable for them to be executed. Great leaders not only know how to identify a goal or strategy, they also know how to communicate it in such a way that the team clearly understands what they need to do.
- They make sure they have the tools to meet the goals – A great field general doesn’t send his troops into battle armed with garbage can lids and pea shooters. He ensures that his troops have the equipment and supplies that will best secure success. A great leader is no different. Great leaders strive to ensure that the team has what it needs in terms of human and capital resources to secure success. Now, from a practical perspective, does this happen 100% of the time? Not in my lifetime. What the leader needs to do, though, is understand the risks (see below for more on this) of not having everything which is needed, then make decisions on how they are going to mitigate the risk. That being said, leaders shouldn’t let their team jump out of an airplane with handkerchiefs for parachutes.
- They’re not afraid to change the plan if it means greater likelihood of success – Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men go awry. Maybe something happens which causes a goal to no longer be important, or creates a greater sense of urgency where the plan needs faster execution. Great leaders keep a 360-degree lookout for signs that the plan needs to change. What great leaders don’t do, though, is get into plan du jour mode and change the strategy so much that the team no longer knows what they are executing to. Thoughtful, deliberate changes that increase the likelihood of success are a sign of a leader who is keeping his ear to the railroad tracks. Either adhering to a stale plan or one that changes too frequently is a sign of a leader who forgets to take his ear off the railroad tracks when a train is coming.
- They know the risks and how to avoid them – I am still waiting for the day when I can execute a project, initiative, or business process which contains absolutely no risk. They just don’t happen. Great leaders understand not only the goals and the plan to get there, but also the potential pitfalls that can derail a project’s execution, and how to avoid hitting unexpected potholes. Active, deliberate risk management encompasses identification and mitigation strategies, as well as execution management to ensure risks don’t create surprise problems for your team.
Process – Sign, sign, everywhere a sign…
When it comes to processes, some leaders take comfort in having a standard, repeatable, and efficient process infrastructure. Others can either take or leave a well-oiled process infrastructure. Still others see a structured process infrastructure just like sign, sign, everywhere a sign. To those people, structure means hindrance and suppresses getting things done.
Where a structured infrastructure runs amok is when process takes precedence over from a results-oriented approach to fulfilling objectives. I’ve seen all too many situations where things were done according to the book but in the end the team still failed in meeting its intended goal. Great leaders need to be bullish about a well-oiled process infrastructure, but need to be in tune enough with what is required to know when the rules need to be bent. So, a structured process infrastructure needs to exist, but leaders need to apply sound practical judgment to ensure they are doing the right thing, not just doing things right.
Think about these characteristics as you think about your own process leadership qualities:
- They evangelize rigor and consistency in processes – There have been enough studies and analyses on the virtues of standard, repeatable, and efficient processes to squash any argument advocating random and inconsistent processes. Standard, repeatable, and efficient processes translate into savings in time and money and allow a leader to get more done. Great leaders promote process rigor and consistency to reap the savings potential, and work with their team to establish and follow process standards. Key to this characteristic is practical efficiency. I’ve seen lots of standard and repeatable processes get implemented and followed which were neither practical nor efficient. By all means put good processes in place – just be sure they make sense and get the job done efficiently.
- They continually look to improve and update processes – Being focused on process rigor and consistency is great. But let’s face it; what you do a great job of today may not be so great tomorrow. Great leaders recognize this and look for ways to accomplish something better, faster, and cheaper, or to stop doing something altogether if it no longer makes strategic sense. So, in addition to a process being consistent and efficient, it needs to be continuously improved and relevant to the current need.
- They leverage technology but are not slaves to it – I am a huge fan of technology and love to look at how technology can help us become more efficient and effective in what we do. Many times leaders are either too slow to utilize an enabling technology, too quick to implement an unnecessary technology, or have unrealistic expectations about what problems a particular technology will solve. Great leaders are aware of enabling technologies and are able to embed technologies into their overall process environment. Leaders who implement technology because it’s slick and sexy, or avoid it due to fear of change, simply hinder their team’s performance at its full potential.
- They know when processes can be bent to get something done quicker – I once took over an organization which had to implement an enterprise-wide planning system in a very compressed timeframe. A traditional systems implementation path would have taken too long to execute and I didn’t have the flexibility to extend my end date. I was forced to compress my schedule through over-lapping some tasks and putting more people on the team than I was comfortable with. However, I had to do it, so that’s what I did. Great leaders aren’t a slave to structure; they make surgical choices about when it is the best business decision to break structure for some greater good. They use structure as a tool to getting things done as efficiently as possible, not as shackles to define what can and can’t be done.
- They take deliberate action when things don’t go as planned – If you’ve managed an organization or project you’ve had things crop up called issues. These little gems seem to pop up at the least opportune time and can create minor headaches, or even torpedo a major piece of work. Life would be so much better if we didn’t have to contend with issues. Now, back to reality. Issues create a deviation in a plan to where unanticipated work has to be expended to address the issue. Many leaders are either slow to address issues or sweep them under the carpet altogether. Great leaders sniff out issues in advance, keep close watch over those issues which can materially impact their work, and take deliberate action to address issues before they spin out of control. Let an unmonitored issue grow too big and you’ll see it consume time and money which you can ill-afford to lose.
- They know the value of synergy – As a young manager I very much took an attitude of “I can do it better than anyone else” and saw things like leveraging the work of others or sharing resources as a sign of leadership weakness. After getting whacked across the skull a number of times due to the failures this mindset helped propagate, I finally got it; I can be more successful as a leader if I find ways to create synergy by partnering with others or using things that others have created. Great leaders share with others and find ways to get things done through others. The term “not invented here” has no place in a great leader’s vocabulary. It doesn’t matter where a great idea or process came from; all that matters is how that great idea or process can be used by the leader to be more efficient and effective.
People – Take me out to the ball game….
Great leaders know how to get people rowing in the same direction to deliver great results. They recognize that far more can be accomplished when a team works together than when any individual member works alone. They also recognize that individual performance and skill cultivation forms the foundation which great teams are built and know that poor performance by any individual can spell doom for a team if gone unchecked.
Great people leaders demonstrate outstanding individual and team cultivation skills. See which of these resonate with you:
- They surround themselves with great people whose strengths complement their own weaknesses – Look at the human body. A hand is great at grasping, a brain at thinking, a foot at walking. Each body part is tuned for a specific purpose. Try to ask an elbow to do the job of a thumb and you’ll have a lot more difficulty getting things done. Great leaders know how to leverage their own strengths and find those who have strengths where they are weak. As an example, if a leader isn’t technically strong, he may employ a manager who can oversee technical aspects of his team and advise him on technical issues. Taking this approach requires you as a leader to be very comfortable in your own skin and openly acknowledge your weaknesses. Without this willingness you may surround yourself with great people but might find yourself in competition with them versus listening to them.
- They reward great performance and address sub-standard performance – One of the greatest job satisfiers is praise. Sincere recognition of a job well done goes a long way towards motivating a team and driving great performance. Great leaders know this and openly and sincerely praise great performance. I’m not talking about the “thank you for a job well done,” which has all of the warmth of a bag of frozen peas. I’m talking about from-the-heart sincerity which demonstrates to the team you truly appreciate great performance. While great performance deserves praise, sub-standard performance requires the great leader to take action. Allowing slackers to skate by without pulling their weight requires that the leader address the performance and expect improvement. If improvement doesn’t happen, then the leader is required to continue holding the slacker accountable until either performance improves or the team member is reassigned. It’s a tough job but great leaders accept the responsibility.
- They look to work themselves out of a job – One of my favorite responsibilities as a leader is to build and cultivate new leaders. For me, helping others grow into a position of leadership is one of the most important responsibilities that we have as leaders. Great leaders who subscribe to this viewpoint are on the constant lookout for successors who can take over their job and enable them to take on greater (or different) areas of responsibility. I’ve done this many times in my career without jeopardizing my employment or putting myself in an unfavorable position.
- They look beyond obvious skills – Several years back I was hiring a procurement manager to do vendor assessment work. I was growing exasperated with candidates that for whatever reason didn’t quite fill the bill. A colleague passed a resume on to me for a fellow who worked in a very different industry and on the surface didn’t look like he would fit in. I interviewed him anyway and saw some skills which could be very applicable to the job. He ended up being one of my best hires. Great leaders are able to look beyond surface skills. They see core skills which can be molded and shaped to meet different challenges. They see beyond the obvious; they see potential in others.
- They don’t reward or promote prima donna behavior – You’ve probably experienced this in a colleague at some point in your career; that person who felt his or her performance was superior to others, was more important than others, and deserved higher pay than others. I’ve made the mistake in my career of not standing up to this type of behavior from specific team members which I managed. It not only created a stressful situation among the team, it also damaged my credibility as a leader. Great leaders don’t allow prima donnas to operate under different rules or to create a caste system on the team. Once the team sees the leader showing preferential treatment on the team then his or her trust and credibility with the team is eroded. Prima donna behavior must not be tolerated under any circumstances.
- They inspire teams to perform better each day – As a leader, I loved seeing a team gel and take pride in being a team. When my teams performed at that level there was this wonderful “can do” attitude which the team possessed. This attitude translated into exceptional performance where the team lived and died as one unit. Great leaders inspire teams to achieve the “can-do” level of performance and can foster outstanding performance. This inspiration starts with the team believing in the leader, in her capabilities, and in her desire to do the right thing. It all starts with the leader; for the team to be inspired, the leader needs to be inspiring.
- Planning - Great leaders simply don’t commit to goals without knowing how the team will get there. Great leaders lay the tracks so that the team just has to follow along, gliding smoothly along the guidelines set out for them.
- Process - Great leaders not only need to be focused on structured, repeatable processes, they need to know when the rules need to be bent. A structured process infrastructure needs to exist, but leaders need to apply sound practical judgment to ensure they are doing the right thing, not just doing things right.
- People – Great leaders recognize that far more can be accomplished when a team works together than when any individual member works alone. They also recognize that individual performance and skill cultivation forms the foundation which great teams are built and know that poor performance by any individual can spell doom for a team if gone unchecked.
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