Strong leadership and management are more important than ever in today’s fast-paced business environment. A quick scan of the news reveals what seems like a never-ending stream of stories where leaders and managers are failing. Though some argue there is a distinct difference between the terms ‘leadership’ and ‘management’, the outcome they aim for is the same. Famed management scholar Peter Drucker was known to view the term “management” negatively, stating “[o]ne does not manage people…the task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.” Taking Drucker’s idea into account, I make no clear distinction between leadership and management in this article. The way I see it, the terms can be used synonymously because both leaders and managers should ultimately strive for the same thing: driving a team to successfully meeting the goals and objectives at hand.
So how does a leader guide her team to meet its necessary objectives? This question is asked on a daily basis. With so many resources available focusing on management and leadership strategies, it can be overwhelming to find a good place to start. Drawing on both my career as a consultant and as an athlete, I have found success in leadership by keeping things simple. To me, effective leadership and management come down to three things: (1) right fit, (2) clear expectations, and (3) regular feedback. I’ve honed this three-pronged system over the last decade and am confident it can help any manager or leader drive their team to success.
Simple Management Framework
It is no secret that some of the best organizations in the world go to great lengths to ensure that their employees are in the right place. Organizations like Google and McKinsey & Company are famous for ruthless hiring processes. Former Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg detailed Google’s strategy for attracting and evaluating talent in their book “How Google Works.” Both agree that hiring is the most important activity at Google, and even describe how they rewarded employees for getting involved with it. Google puts a microscope on candidates through difficult questioning, business cases, and riddles. While this can be a pain on the front end, it has proved helpful with ensuring they find the right fit.
While organizations like Google receive hundreds of thousands of applications each year, and consequently can be incredibly selective as to whom they hire, other organizations are not so lucky. As a result, managers are often required to “make due” with certain team members, even when the fit is less than ideal. Recipe for failure, right? Wrong.
Serial entrepreneur and investor Reid Hoffman believes “every weakness has an inverse strength, and every strength has an inverse weakness.” This is an important concept for all managers to understand. Just because somebody is an “average” software developer does not mean they are not useful to the organization. Maybe he or she is great at design or a rock star when it comes to giving client presentations. Maybe he or she excels at developing business processes or has excellent writing skills. The famous general manager of the Oakland Athletics and basis for Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball”, Billy Beane, understood this. He was dealt what others may have deemed a losing hand. However, he was able to look through obvious weaknesses to find not so obvious strengths in players. As a result, the Athletics have remained competitive for the past several years.
Throughout my career, I have encountered many problems that could have been easily resolved if the team leader had established clear expectations. Whether it was a breakdown in messaging or a fear on the part of subordinates to speak up, I’ve seen far too many leaders assume that they clearly explained a project’s requirements, when in fact, they did not. Such a breakdown invariably gets in the way of what needs to get done in order for the team to reach its goals.
So what can be done to avoid these breakdowns?
Managers at some of the most successful organizations go beyond just telling their teams what to do; they show them how to do it and allow them to innovate. This approach establishes “a way of being” within the organization that keeps folks on the same page. At a high level, this can be accomplished through circulating principles or basic guidelines of what is expected of teams across all environments. For example, legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh developed a “Standard of Performance”. Manager of the world’s largest Hedge Fund, Ray Dalio, developed “Principles”. Many leaders like Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos use their annual letters to shareholders to dictate their organization’s priorities, others like AirBNB’s CEO Brian Chesky sends weekly emails to the entire every employee in the company. Regardless of the method, these types of communications set high-level expectations that employees can reference during all of their day-to-day tasks. At the very least, such communications help to set clear expectations at a high-level, which in turn, allows the organization to drive towards strategic objectives and desired outcomes.
I know what you’re thinking… ‘strategy jargon is pointless. My company puts out that kind of crap all of the time and it doesn’t do or mean anything.’ I totally get it. I have been there and understand the frustration. This is a common thing. It usually occurs because the organization’s leadership does not “walk the talk.” For organizational expectations to be effective, the leader must buy in as well.
While organizational expectations are critical, sometimes they fall outside of the manager’s control. In such a case, there are tactical things that middle to low level managers can do to ensure their teams clearly understand what needs to be done. The first tactic is to set clear and consistent deadlines. It’s pretty easy to be clear when communicating a deadline, but are you consistent? Are you constantly changing due dates? Do you accept a late deliverable without penalty? Are you passive aggressive when you do not receive things early? I am not saying any of these strategies are wrong; I have seen all types of managers use different strategies to get things done. But, consistency is key. Don’t make your team waste time deciphering deadlines. Be clear and consistent.
Another problem for teams at a tactical level is a lack of clearly differentiated roles. Serial entrepreneur and CEO Peter Thiel argues that this is one of the biggest issues for early-stage startups. It seems to be a development in response to Silicon Valley’s anti-assembly line stance. While I agree that micro-managing team members to focus on isolated, niche activities can be pointless and inefficient, it is really important that, at a general level, each team member understands what he or she is responsible for. This creates accountability and ownership. Such an approach is critical to the development of self-actualization and is at the core of a popular concept in the military called “decentralized command”, which has been attributed to improving mission effectiveness and saving lives.
I think a lot of us understand the importance of feedback. Many companies have changed the way they conduct performance reviews in response to a growing body of research regarding a need for real-time feedback. While this sounds like a great idea on the surface, individuals often report that the feedback they receive is neither effective nor actionable. Giving useful feedback is hard. The “keep doing what you’re doing” advice often leaves team members confused as to how well they are actually doing.
The most useful feedback I have ever received was during my college football career; it came by way of watching film of past practices and games. I was lucky to have an outstanding position coach who truly understood what success looked like. Every morning for an hour he would critique the smallest details, provide real examples of great work and poor work, and follow up in practice and subsequent film sessions to ensure that each member of the the team was improving. Progress was usually seen and highlighted during games. Our key metric was winning on the scoreboard.
While I realize this level of time and commitment to reflect on past work may sound unreasonable to many of us, it does not reduce its importance. To get the most out of your team, you must provide consistent and clear feedback and constantly monitor actions towards improvement. One way to do this in a modern organization is by having a weekly 15 minute one-on-one meeting with each team member. Automattic CEO and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg believes this is a good strategy for even the busiest managers. If weekly meetings seem too burdensome, it may be worthwhile to adopt a strategy similar to Google called Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), which allows for people to meet less frequently. Providing good feedback aimed at achieving individual and organizational outcomes is the most important thing a manager can do. It helps to ensure that each team member is on track and constantly improving.
Wrapping Things Up
While there are surely some parts of management that are not covered in this framework, it has served me well in the past when managing teams. When you ensure a person is in the right place, provide he or she with clear expectations of what is required, and create individual accountability by providing clear and consistent feedback, I am confident you will see improved performance on your team. I am constantly building upon and evolving this system. I would love to hear any thoughts for updates or improvements!