Author’s Note — this is the third installment in a serialization of Active Leadership: A Blueprint for Succeeding and Making a Difference.
Michael is considered smart and visionary. He can see a variety of attractive futures clearly, and usually selects a good path towards their achievement. He enjoys many ideas and explores them in depth. He has the ability to keep his audience spellbound when he describes his various visions and creative solutions. It was no surprise to anyone that he was selected for an operational leadership role in a unit that was stuck in the mud. He approached this turnaround opportunity with a great deal of enthusiasm. Six months later, he’s also stuck in the mud. The unit’s performance has barely budged, and in some cases even grown worse. This shouldn’t have been the case. He came in with a strategy that impressed his bosses and he had many meetings with his own subordinates and several all-hands sessions, to communicate his vision. People seemed to get it and to be on board. However, he is now frustrated by an increasing number of blank stares. Why can they not see his vision? Why can’t they just do their jobs and move along the path toward success he has laid out for them? His battle cry was “Together we’ll transform this division into the shining star. We can help each other to succeed beyond our dreams.” He knows they were excited about it but now it seems they’re floundering. Things were so clear at the start. He’s beginning to question if his vision for the unit is achievable.
Skills of influence facilitate a successful leadership journey. Some other basics are to be considered, however, not the least of which are those of managing people. This all falls under the heading of “common sense.” As a mentor of mine was fond of saying, “There’s nothing common about common sense.” This is simple and obvious stuff that’s easy to overlook when fighting daily skirmishes and obstacles to success in business. Welcome to Management 101.
Succeeding as a leader depends on your ability to select the right kinds of people. We’ll talk more about that a bit later. But assuming you’ve selected or inherited good people, what should you do to lead and manage them effectively? It should be easier than influencing those over whom you have no direct control, but that’s not necessarily the case. However, if you pay attention to the following ideas, you can make life a little smoother for both you and your people.
Task, People and Self-Management
Ralph Stogdill, one of the earliest leadership researchers, began the first comprehensive studies on leadership effectiveness in the middle of the last century. His work at Ohio State, and that of others later at the University of Michigan, focused on the behavior of the leader, rather than the traits necessary for success. Stogdill classified leader behaviors into two broad domains: initiation of structure, and consideration.
MIT professor Douglas McGregor’s Theory X (the authoritarian production oriented style), and Theory Y (the supportive people oriented style) models were direct reflections of this work. Successful leaders were seen to pay attention to factors related to task success as well as to the needs of the people who must accomplish those tasks. In the 1970’s, these factors – task focus balanced by people focus – were popularized by management consultants in successful books and training programs. Robert Blake and Jane Mouton with The Managerial Grid, and Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard with Situational Leadership, were the two best known of these.
Some of the key actions and behaviors associated with successful task management (initiation of structure) include setting clear goals, planning, defining metrics, monitoring progress, organizing, delegating, and solving technical problems. Actions associated with success in the people management (consideration) domain include communicating effectively, listening, providing support and encouragement, recognizing and rewarding success, and building and maintaining trust.
In addition to task management and people management, there is a third important dimension of successful leadership. This factor is self-management, the macro dimension that enables the proper focus on the other two domains. It enables you to strike the right balance between the two while making sure your personal characteristics and needs don’t sabotage things. Insight, and the ability to self-monitor and self-regulate, are crucial to successful self-management. A central component of self-management is self-knowledge. We’re all, in reality, three people – the person we believe ourselves to be; the person others believe us to be; and the person we really are. You need as much congruence between these three people as possible. Good, accurate sources of feedback are necessary to narrow the gaps and enable appropriate self-management strategies.
Achievement – the fundamental process
My first exposure to work flow analysis was a university class in industrial engineering. The text defined the tasks of the leader as planning, organizing, and controlling. Well, that’s generally true, but as anyone who has tried to manage people knows, it’s not exactly that crisp. Most of the time, leaders are just trying to hold things together and solve the last unanticipated problem. They usually have little chance to reflect on the process beyond getting through the crisis du jour. However, there is a certain flow of events, which characterizes the accomplishment of work in organizations. This was described by psychologist and leadership behavior researcher Clark Wilson, in his presentation of Task Cycle Theory, where work is envisioned as following a generally well-structured cycle of events, from goal setting to celebration of results. Similarly to my original college text, this is a good way to encapsulate and define activities, but doesn’t anticipate some of the real world sloppiness and ambiguity people encounter day-to-day. Nevertheless, it is helpful to illustrate key points about how work is accomplished.
Your success in getting things done in an organization hinges on one key component – the goal. This is the first step in the cycle and is the key to any accomplishment. The cliché that you must know where you’re going or you’ll end up somewhere else stems from this reality. As computer visionary Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Winston Churchill also weighed in with “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” You might invent futures and build empires in your head, but you’ll never bring them to reality without setting clear goals.
The most effective goals have several things in common. Consider the following examples.
“We intend to become a world-class provider of IT services.”
This is a clear declaration: lofty and perhaps inspiring. But how will you know when you’re there? And when do you intend to get there? It demonstrates only the first requirement of an effective goal – that of defining the end result. The lack of defined metrics and time frames, however, clouds the picture. Compare it with President Kennedy’s national goal for the space program, articulated in 1961:
“We intend to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and bring him back safely.”
This illustrates all the requirements of an effective organizational goal – it’s clear (nothing ambiguous about getting a man on the moon), inspiring (people got behind it and supported it – it was an article of national pride) and it provided a timeframe (end of the decade – it actually happened ahead of schedule). It also had a clear quality component (get the man back safely).
People want the world to make sense; and they need to know what is expected of them. Because of this, the effective leader communicates the overall goal, and the reasons for it, in the clearest and most compelling terms. Our perceptions of reality drive behavior, so be sure your people have good information about that reality. You must communicate the goal, more often than you realize.
After the appropriate goal has been defined, there are several, sometimes overlapping, steps that define the cycle of progress and accomplishment from that point.
It’s hard to achieve a goal if you don’t know how to go about it. A plan for achievement might be implicit and obvious in the case of basic and simple goals, or it could be more elaborate and complex, in the case of strategic organizational goals. But it needs to be there. This is often an iterative process. For instance, the basic strategic goal may be to double the size of the enterprise within three years. In this case, plans are developed for the overall goal, then sub-goals developed from those plans, to help move the company toward the big target. There can be considerable overlap between setting goals and planning for their accomplishment.
The plan must anticipate problems, define likely solutions, incorporate alternatives, define what is needed, and allocate resources. This process may be facilitated by elaborate tools or can be a general roadmap in your head. It offers a chance to explore options and alternatives for goal achievement.
Facilitation: support with measurement
Once a plan is in place, the leader must facilitate the efforts of the team to implement it and to measure progress. Here, the skills of encouragement and discipline are important. Some people experience internal angst about holding others accountable while also trying to support them. The most effective leaders realize that little will be accomplished if people don’t have a way to measure their progress, but also that people need more than just yardsticks.
They need to know what’s expected (clear goals and methods) and how they’re doing (good metrics); and they need the tools for success. These tools include support, coaching and encouragement, feedback and ongoing communication. Here’s where Robert Greenleaf’s concept of Servant Leadership is most readily apparent in observing effective leaders. They act as if they’re there to serve and help people get their work done, to make things better and to grow. One of the most effective questions a leader can ask is, “What can I do to help you succeed?”
There must be a balance between demanding and supportive leadership behavior. The overuse of either style leads to problems: too far in the demanding direction leads to a critical and autocratic style. Too much support leads to an overly permissive, laissez-faire leadership pattern.
Staying in control
Despite the importance of the plan noted here, you can’t act as if it’s etched in stone. Keep in mind President Eisenhower’s comment, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”
The plan is a roadmap for a changing countryside. It will have to be updated based on data collected as you progress. The better your feedback loops and controls, the better your decisions on processes, systems, and changes of plans will be. If you don’t monitor the process with good, data based, metrics, you won’t be able to tell if you’re off course, or what you should do about it. If you’ve anticipated the range of options that will be available, they should be incorporated into the system of metrics and controls so you know how you’re doing, and so you know what to do if things are not going well.
Of course, any leader must show support and encouragement, but you can’t relinquish control. Abdication isn’t an option. You have the ultimate responsibility for success, so you need to maintain the ability to make corrections and tweaks to stay on track. This sometimes means making tough decisions to replace team members who aren’t up to the task. But it more often means consistently holding people to the standards and expectations of behavior, performance, and progress dictated by the nature of the task, and by the organization. Sometimes the systems and processes just need to be tweaked, sometimes there needs to be a complete overhaul.
A good performance management process makes this easier. If you communicate the expectations and standards for performance on the front end, things go more smoothly. However, not everyone will share your motivation, knowledge, experience, or ability, so you must make sure everyone receives helpful corrective and productive feedback along the way. This is fundamental to managing – communicating what your people are supposed to be doing, giving feedback about how well they’re doing it, and providing suggestions for how they can do it better. Enforcing consequences if they consistently fail to meet standards and expectations is also necessary.
Once you’ve solved all the problems and achieved your current goal, you need to turn around and set new ones. A few important items require attention, however, in the final stage of successful goal attainment.
First, celebrate it. This is a chance to reinforce good performance and recognize the efforts of the team. People need to feel that their work is important and appreciated. There’s no better way to do this than by public and private pats on the back from the boss. This is a great opportunity to strengthen the bonds of the team and to prime them for more successes. Don’t squander it.
A second important part of the finishing process is to reflect on what everyone has learned. There should be a process of critique. This helps you to understand what you did right, as well as to analyze what went wrong – or at least what could have gone more smoothly. Make it positive. Avoid the “Yes you made an A, but you could have made an A+ if you’d tried just a little harder” syndrome. A “plus-delta” wrap-up often employed by meeting facilitators is helpful: “What went well? What could have gone better?” This final task is often overlooked in the heat of new demands and pressures, but it’s a chance for true learning. Don’t miss it.
Since you usually don’t have the luxury of having everybody undergo a thorough personality assessment on the front end, it’s likely to take a while before you fully get to know the differences and subtleties of the individuals upon whom you must depend. Because of this, it’s important to spend time with each individual, and observe them in team activities, to fully develop and flesh out your deeper insights about them and their motivations and abilities. First impressions are sometimes accurate, but it’s usually a mistake to judge quickly. It’s also a mistake to take too long to figure out who you can depend upon. As with so many issues, the leader must walk a fine line and keep a delicate balance here.
Of course, we all know that one size doesn’t fit all and that people are driven by an unending variety of needs, motivations and dreams. And they’re enabled by unique combinations of aptitudes, personality traits, and experiences. Some are comfortable being told what to do in a stepwise fashion, while others need to figure things out on their own. Some need constant social interaction, while others prefer to work in isolation. Some will slack off as soon as the boss walks around the corner, while some are tougher on themselves than any boss could ever be. You get the picture – people are different and you can’t manage everyone the same way. Some things, however, do need to be consistent across the board.
Communication of the goal and plan, helpful feedback and coaching for better performance, holding people accountable and reinforcing the right behavior: these things are inviolable. The leader must be seen as consistent, regardless of the makeup of the troops. Douglas McGregor’s hot stove analogy is a good metaphor for consistent discipline. A hot stove glows red (everybody knows it’s hot and will burn if you touch it). If you do touch it, the consequences are immediate (it burns you as soon as you touch it). And it is universal (it applies to everybody who touches it in the same way).
This kind of consistency must be balanced with flexibility. That is, the most effective leaders also make allowances for individual differences in personality, motivation, ability, and background. This is not to say that some people should get special treatment. Leaders are always judged on perceived fairness. However, they are also judged by the efficacy with which they manage and motivate widely varying personalities of individuals in their teams. This is where coaching skills and insights help you achieve the right balance.
Without clear and meaningful goals, nothing happens, no matter how interesting the vision may be. People-, task-, and self-management skills are essential to effective leadership. They come into play in all phases of the cycle of results – goal definition, planning, facilitation, measurement, maintaining control, and celebrating success. Not only must you balance these dimensions, though: you must also balance consistency with flexibility.
Hodges L. Golson