“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority” – Kenneth Blanchard
I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I am well-read in the aspects of leadership and agile principles, consuming as much as I can to fill not only ways to do my job better but as a personal fulfillment of exploring ideas. One thing on my mind lately has been surrounding where leadership lies and what it should be focused on as opposed to those people in which you have doing the work or helping management the work.
In my opinion, the cornerstones of leadership, agile or otherwise, is to create that compelling end goal and vision for the unit/group/organization, make it transparent, effectively communicate the needs from others that you have within your role, hold them accountable to the work being done, coach and guide as needed and get out of their way to accomplish what needs to be done. I believe this. It is core to who I am.
But as leaders, we often cannot get out of our own way. Many of us have come to our role through amazingly successful careers within the technical industry and are still deeply attached to that. The idea of solving people’s problems through smart solutions probably lit a spark for each and every one of us. However, even as much as we shed this past, I observe so much of it being held onto for various reasons. Organizational pressure, people issues, want to “be involved” or a perception of ultimate responsibility.
Lyft or Uber?
In the area in which I work, these crowd sourced car services are very popular and people use them for short trips for errands to leaving work and returning from an appointment or for safe rides after the bar crawl they undertook with their friends.
But when you secure one of these services, do you feel the need to take the wheel? Guide the trip? Watch out for every pothole, distraction or provide constant directional guidance to get to your destination? I doubt it. I imagine (as I will admit I have never used these services) that you provide a destination and you trust in the exchange of service for money that the driver will get you to that destination. If you are doing all of things I mentioned above, I have to ask; why didn’t you just drive yourself?
But as leaders, we can often find ourselves being that “jerk” of a passenger that distrusts the person we have hired and we have to lay hands to the wheel ourselves.
Do you trust the people you hired?
Have you hired well? Do you have the skills you need today with the capacity to think about where you are going tomorrow? Maybe you have people in place to manage daily operations, are these people that understand what you needs are and coach and hold accountable the people doing the work meet the clarified end goals and needs? If not, are you directly involved as a result? Do you distrust the people you hired to actually do the work? Then, my agile friends, you have a people problem. If you hired the right people, provide them coaching, guidance and freedom to meet the goals with accountability; they just might amaze you.
And on a side note, stop carrying dead weight if they are not the right people. If you have people that are not meeting the expectations (that are being clearly communicated) you have two options, coach them up or coach them out. Putting your head in the sand or allowing higher performing to make up for the lack of effort or skill in others breeds nothing more than resentment to your leadership and a unhealthy culture.
If as a leader, you communicate the things you need to support your role clearly, are available for any refinement or feedback and hold accountable those people you hire to achieve these goals, haven’t you done what you need to do? Are you supporting them when they hit unknowns by coaching them through ways to solve s problem when they hit an impediment and empowering them to try and find solutions? You’re off to a good start here in my humble opinion.
But if you cannot trust the people you hire to design the mechanisms to do the work or managers of daily operations context to ensure that the work is being addressed, why did you hire them? If you have to be personally involved in the deep woods of solving the how of every need, perhaps you need a role in doing, not leading.
Assuming this posture is hard
Being a leader who steps back and empowers the lowest reasonable level to design how the work gets accomplished and holding accountability to this being done is difficult. The pang of fear of “ultimate responsibility” creeps into your head. But guess what? If you are clear on expectations and accountability for that work, the team will design the system in which to meet that need without you and you can hold them accountable to do so and also accountable to provide the information in a transparent manner so that you can provide it upwardly or maybe just get out of the way and make it transparent to everyone and gain deeper insight into areas that you see as problematic based on the things you feel are important to keep a pulse on.
It’s easy to say “yeah I trust my people” or “they’re smart and they can figure this out” and then your actions demonstrate the contrary. Things like “I need to be in that meeting” or “I will do this small thing that actually another role should be doing” are examples of you saying the words but not demonstrating your stance to let people use the power they have in the role you hired them to do (as empowering people is a myth; they already have power) sends a poor overall message.
But what if they screw it all up?
Let me answer that question with a question to consider … “do you want a sustainable organization that knows how to take in problem, organize the work and act to deliver end solutions”? If you do, how will they ever learn to do that if they never start doing that? Yep, they may screw up. And it could be bad and you could get your ass handed to you by leadership above you as a result. But you can take that beating, pull them together, make them aware of the issue and ask them to solve the problem then hold them accountable for that solution. Because, if you have not learned this in business yet, you can believe 3 truths:
- Things will sometimes screw-up. You try and mitigate that or have a plan of restoration for those things you know about.
- People will screw-up. People are fallible. Utilize these situations to recover and learn. Keep things transparent and visible and hopefully you’ll see them coming more easily.
- You will get you backside chewed for something you are not responsible for sometime in your business career. If it’s a routine thing, you might think about a new organization But when you are responsible, you are responsible. You take the hit and do not pass the beating forward. Communicate effectively the issue and work to get people to solve the problem and set accountability. Do not take it personally or become embarrassed and mettle as a result. Shoulder the burden of being a leader.
I have worked places where there have been more than one screw-up within the company doing the work (see coach up or out statement above) . I have never seen these people so invisible nor so powerful to bankrupt a company or close it’s doors alone.
If people screw-up, allow the operations level folks to address the problem once you communicate the problem effectively. Don’t just solve it for them.
Demonstrate and hand over ownership
If as a leader you have a young or growing organization that need something more than being provided a direction and vision at first, this is ok as well.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with you creating an initial guidance or starting a process and modeling it. But you have to turn it over ultimately to the people who need to own that process. Once you get the ball rolling, let them begin pushing and if necessary change direction or change the game altogether.
What you should spend the time doing is clearly articulating the need being met, the end goal being accomplished and the expectations you have of the effort. Don’t let the pride of being the initial creator get into the way of how the work is done. Once they get the understanding of the process you champion, the underlying goals and the expectations, they will either continue as you modeled or may even take it to an even greater level you never though of. Your continued method of involvement is expectation and accountability at that point, not direct involvement.
Let you managers manage how things get done
The last advice I will explore starts with a reiteration of what a leader needs to do in their role:
- Set vision and direction
- Set expectations for the things from the organization to meet your goals
- Trust your people to do what you hired them to do and get out of the way
In closing, if you have an operational manager level, please allow them to do the job for which you hired them to do, manage the work. Part of managing the work (and the people as there is administration that occurs with people management) is organizing the work and often designing the workflow of effort. Let them learn to to do that with the people in which they need to get the work done. Hold them accountable that a consistent, visible, clear method that can be communicated exists and hold them accountable to how they say the work will get done through actual value deliverable and continuous improvement (as any organization should focus on both).
Let them solve problem with the people that they have to work with to ensure that the work is getting done so that the work and the pipeline of work is more sustaining at that level than the leadership defining it. Those things tend to have a destructive effect when leadership leaves as a) people are often unclear “why” the work was done this way and b) the ownership of the how of work is completed is lessened by the lack of direct ownership.
Hire managers that can shape this work with team members and peers, getting the right people in the room and that focus on the growth or the organization to meet the pipeline of work, Give them the space to execute on the large ideas that you feel are important for guidance and work to refine them into tangible things. Trust, support, mentor and coach them. These may be the future leaders in the very organization that you lead today. Prepare them for that should they take on that responsibility.
I hope this helps you really think about the difference between leading and managing in a broad sense. I have to remind myself of this a lot and constantly remind myself to stand where I need to be in terms of being an effective leader. It’s a hard thing not to get pulled into those conversations in which I get to be in the weeds or abandon these ideals. I just have to remind myself of all of this and why it is so important,
Until next time, stay agile!