“Bachelor of Science in Business, Major – Management”
… That’s what my diploma said. But in 1983 we were in another “Great Recession” and entry-level management jobs were almost impossible to find. With a little help, I found a role as a programmer for a textile company in my home town and began my years as an individual contributor. Over the next 14 years I went through 3 industries, 4 companies and 8 managers. Though they didn’t know it, during this entire time I was studying those managers. I analyzed their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. I was determined that when my turn came to lead, I would have mastered the techniques and be more than ready.
When I finally got that first opportunity as a manager, I had sixteen direct reports. 16! A bit daunting, but I knew I could handle it. I knew how the perfect manager should behave. How they should treat their staff. How they should communicate. I began to apply all that I had learned.
It was a disaster.
My staff hated me. The team was in an uproar. Goals and deadlines were vague memories. And I was completely at a loss as to what I was doing wrong. Thanks to two great mentors and some serious introspection, I began to see the issue. The problem was not the implementation. You see, I was treating my staff exactly the way I wanted to be treated. I was the perfect manager – for me. The problem was the in the assumption. The way I wanted to be treated was not the way they wanted, or needed, to be treated. Thus began the first of my seven principles of leadership – Attune. Attune yourself to the needs of the team and its members.
Over the years, I continued to learn and refine my style. I became a good leader – or so I’m told – and others began to ask advice. My best advice is to understand that a manager’s job has many aspects, but the most important one is leadership. To be a good leader, I believe you must be ALIGNED – aligned with your team, your mission, your peers, your management and your own values. Below are seven principles that I believe can help you focus on your effectiveness as a leader:
Attune your leadership behaviors to the situation, the needs of your individual staff members and the culture of the organization.
Recognize that the people working for you are just that – people. Each one is different and each has differing needs. Do not make the mistake of thinking you can develop one style of leadership and carbon-copy that to each of your staff. Likewise, don’t assume you can use the same style of leadership for diverse situations. Day-to-day operations requires a certain style, but a crisis or, say, an impending merger dictates a far different approach. Constantly assess your environment, your situation and the person you are working with and ensure you are properly attuned.
Liberate your staff members from unnecessary constraints. Free them to be their best.
Your staff is held under a the bondage of bureaucracy, process, policy and politics. While generally well intended and often mandatory, in many cases they are not specific to your situation and may be open to interpretation. My mantra is “do what makes sense”. Assess risk AND reward and then help your staff members navigate. Wherever you create efficiencies, establish them as best practice for your team. When you bend the rules, manage audit challenges by documenting the process and how/why it was developed.
Remember that some rules, no matter how onerous, should not be broken. Regulatory Compliance, Legal, Safety and similar topics should be carefully considered. Be careful not to overstep your bounds!
Inspire your staff through frequent reminders of their mission and vision. Help them recognize their value.
Studies show that most people are interested in more than just a paycheck. They want to feel they are contributing to something that is important – that they are making a difference. Sometimes this is obvious – a research team at an alternative energy company for example – but more often it is difficult to find enthusiasm in the day-to-day activities of our jobs.
A good leader finds meaningful ways to communicate how the team’s mission contributes to the larger vision of the enterprise. Each member of the team needs to understand why their role is important. Repetition is essential. Find different ways to make your point but say it often. Ask provocative questions like “what would happen if this team didn’t exist”.
Despite your best efforts, the “big picture” vision may feel too remote. Generate enthusiasm through purposes that are closer to the team. Create contests, stretch goals, innovation challenges and other techniques to inspire the team.
Be Genuine. Treat your staff members with honesty and respect. Actively listen and, as appropriate, be open about your thoughts and feelings.
Your staff sees right through you. We think we are artfully avoiding tough conversations using artifices like “management-speak”, “just following orders”, “company policy”, etc. When we do this, they know and we lose their respect. Take the time to sort out your own feelings about difficult messages before you talk to your staff. Use your own words to explain the rationale behind the message. Encourage your staff to ask questions without fear of retribution. Ask for their thoughts on the matter.
Then listen. Active listening requires that you ask clarifying questions and even repeat the question in your own words to be sure you understand. Answer honestly even if the answer is “I don’t know”.
The annual performance review process required by HR is necessary, but insufficient. Your HR representative will agree, as will your staff. But more process and paperwork is not the answer. Instead you must take a minute to talk to each person on your team at least once a week. It should be casual rather than formal, authentic rather than artificial, and constructive rather than judgmental. Updates on a current project, an “attaboy” (or “attagirl”) for a minor success or some upbeat coaching to help resolve a problem are all opportunities for nurturing. This doesn’t excuse you from planned, periodic conversations for more formal status reviews, career discussions, etc.
Coaching, correction or disciplinary discussions are challenging. Handle these promptly and directly. There are different techniques for conducting these. Learn the different approaches and figure out which method works best for a particular individual before you start the conversation. Get help from HR or a mentor if you are uncertain. I’ve seen remarkable improvements as a result of proper coaching. The more time you spend talking to your team about the positive things they are doing, the easier it will be to discuss the negatives.
Empower your staff to achieve their best by giving them the tools, training, technology and authority that is appropriate for their role, experience and needs.
The term “empowerment” was trendy a few years ago. Essentially, it was about pushing decision-making as far down into an organization as possible. I view it a bit more broadly. Empower your employees by helping them develop their skills, experience, resources AND authority to excel in their role.
How do you do this?
- Make the case to your management for training budget. Then require your staff to select and attend appropriate classes or seminars.
- Assess technology needs and get creative if necessary. Sometimes there is “salvaged” equipment available for the asking (bartering is another interesting technique).
- Create a “safe place” where your staff can practice their skills. The best performing teams (sports, public safety, military) all do one thing that corporations rarely do – Practice!
- Give them authority. Don’t make them come to you for every minor decision. That’s a win-win.
Provide Direction to ensure everyone understands the team’s mission, goals and culture plus the individual’s role in achieving them.
Establish a culture for the team. Without direction the culture evolves organically and doesn’t necessarily reflect your values. Make sure you include a tolerance for and acceptance of a certain degree of risk. Encourage your team to innovate. Let them know that failure, in some circumstances, IS an option.
The primary mission for your team is often passed down to you by your management. How this mission is accomplished, who is responsible for what, and how the team interacts internally and externally is paramount in your success as a leader. You must gather input from your staff but in the end, they need for you make the tough decisions and set the course for the team.
Hopefully this list is not complete. Even though I’m now focused in more of an individual contributor role, I still have plenty of opportunities to lead in informal ways and certainly hope to learn more over time. Please comment with your thoughts and ideas. I’d love to hear your stories. Keep them constructive and change the names to protect the innocent!