Inspiring transformative change
Boise State’s famous Blue Turf.
Care about people. Focus on the mission.
If wrote a book on leadership it would be two words long: Speak last.
You can see why I haven’t written a book on leadership.
But people-centered, mission-driven leadership sometimes really is that simple. Surround yourself with people who understand and care about the values you and your customers, clients or students share — people who are better at what they do than you could ever be — and get out of the way of their expertise and their enthusiasm.
Here’s my read on the “Gospel of 10X.” It is already plenty hard to improve a product, an office culture, a brand perception, or whatever, by 10 percent. You’re going to invest time and personnel and money and brainpower. By the time you’re done, chances are you’re in need of improvement again already. Go for that 10X improvement. Do the hard things.
I believe you should hire for potential. Don’t look for those who “fit your culture” — along with prohibiting any kind of true diversity, it’s a sure step to stagnation. Look for those who can shape and evolve your culture. Don’t always hold out for someone who can “hit the ground running” — though that’s what your team will think they want because they are sick of doing both their job and this one. Look for that spark, for an attitude. They’ll get up to speed more quickly than you think and drive your team forward.
I think it is essential to understand and care about your people. Not just as individuals with families and responsibilities — that is a given. Care about what drives them at work. What barriers frustrate them. What goals excite them. Think about concentric circles. One is the unlimited number of things that need to be done for your team’s success. The other is the passion and the skills and the abilities of your people. Maximize the overlap and know that where they don’t match up — where you need training, buy-in and understanding — that’s where you come in.
Great teammates don’t chafe at work that is too hard or too demanding. They chafe at obstacles we put in the way of their achieving the goals we have laid out. These obstacles are always unintentional, so you have to constantly be looking for them.
I’m convinced you should over-communicate, especially at the start of any new idea or project. Bring your ideas to the table, and let your team bring theirs. But don’t leave the table without being in sync and ready for the next steps. (It’s OK if the next step is a new conversation after everyone has time to digest the last one — decision fatigue can throw off your game.)
I learned this lesson as a reporter and an editor in daily journalism. The more you walk through the expectations, the possibilities and the potential outcomes of any project, the smoother and more successful the project will be. This doesn’t stifle creativity — far from it. It encourages flourishes and new ideas, because you are building them off a firm base.
I think it helps to understand your own approach to decision-making. We are all analytical at times, directive at others. We look to majority rule when appropriate and use our gut instincts to be sensitive to the minority’s opinions, feelings and experience. You can take leadership inventories to gauge where you tend to fall on these scales. I am right in the middle — that was frustrating at first but helpful once I considered why I approach different problems in different ways.
In times of crisis or emergency, you are the leader. People expect you to lead. Be directive.
Most decisions can be made in a true consensus — if you and your well-hired and well-skilled team all agree, you’ve headed a pretty good direction. It’s when they don’t agree that things can be tricky.
Whether you go with the majority or the minority, be clear about what you are doing. They will all understand that it is your job to make the right decision for the mission. I believe that at certain times, it is OK to make a decision that simply empowers and supports a member of your team.
This all brings me to my initial point: Introduce a challenge, but let your team address it. Share an idea, but let if float at the table for a while. The second you hint at where your head is at or what you think the solution is, the folks with other ideas will shut up and the folks who want to please you will jump on board before you have a chance to improve it. Let’s assume your gut is right on the money 90 percent of the time. That means that once every 10 meetings or discussions you will have a chance to check your assumptions and adjust your approach for the better. It’s a no-brainer. Speak last.