By Wes Martin, MAIOP
When speaking to leaders I’ll often say, “Leadership is really simple in structure,” which is one of those things I know I shouldn’t say to a group of bleary-eyed, overworked, and stressed-out leaders who experience leadership as being anything but simple. And yet, I can’t help myself. After receiving a few angry stares for what feels like an eternity, I then continue the sentence with “but, incredibly difficult in practice because leadership is contextual and relational, and context is always changing, and relationships are messy.” This gets me back on the good side of some, but not all of those in the audience.
A blog post titled “3 Steps to Increasing Your Leadership Effectiveness” has the potential of being as isolating as a Leadership Trainer saying that leadership is simple, or an empty nester telling someone with two kids under the age of 4 (my current reality) that “these are the good years” and “you’re going to miss this time”. These statements may be true, but to someone in the arena, they can come across as detached and lacking in compassion for the daily struggle of the leader or parent.
So, while I am going to give you three steps, I also hope you’ll hear me when I say that leadership is highly contextual and it is highly relational. No list of steps, tips, tricks, or tidbits can change that fact or entirely alleviate the challenges that come with the immense responsibility of leadership. And yet, there are simple things that leaders can do to make life a bit easier for themselves and their followers, while also increasing the likelihood that the goals of the team and organization will be accomplished with efficiency and effectiveness – and perhaps there might even be a little fun to be had along the way.
Define the Win
Imagine taking someone who is completely unfamiliar with the game of basketball to a gymnasium to play a game of pick-up without first telling them anything about the objectives or rules of the game and then thrusting them onto the court to just figure it out. What a discombobulating and deflating experience that would be!
And yet, in many organizations, employees are placed into pre-determined roles and established teams without anyone ever taking the time to explain to them the rules or objectives of the business. Sure, over time, they may figure out basic principles like that sales are needed to pay the bills and their salary or that retaining existing customers is more advantageous to the organization’s long-term success than acquiring new customers. But, if asked, they would be unable to articulate the organization’s mission, vision, and values, current strategic plan, how their role contributes to the success of the organization, or how their role affects other roles within the organization.
Like the individual placed on the basketball court, this experience can be incredibly demoralizing – especially for high performers who crave achievement, love contributing to the team’s success and are accustomed to winning. If you want employee engagement, you must first give your employees something to be engaged in. And, unless you’ve defined what winning looks like, how can you expect them to show up with energy, initiative, or intent? In the same way that you would not expect someone whose never heard of basketball to contribute in a meaningful way on the court, you should not expect employees who don’t understand the mission or objectives of the organization to be inspired to contribute anything more to the organization than showing up, punching the clock, and completing the to-do list that’s been given to them.
To gauge how well you’re doing in Defining the Win, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does every member of my team understand the strategic objectives of the organization?
- Does every member of my team understand the key performance indicators (KPIs) by which their performance and the performance of our team is being measured?
Perhaps you’re reading those questions and wondering, “Do I even know that?” That would be a key signal that additional self-leadership is in order.
Clarify Individual Expectations
After defining the win for the team, or organization, the next step in the process is to clarify individual expectations. As valuable as it is to know the overall objectives for the team and organization, it is equally important that each member of your team knows how their role, behaviors, performance, tasks, etc., contribute to the scoreboard. This is particularly true for employees who are in highly specialized or support positions within the organization and don’t directly see the impact of their efforts often or at all.
Unfortunately, many employees show up to work week after week without a clear sense of what is being asked of them or how they are being evaluated by their supervisor. It is my experience that most people crave the feedback, acceptance, and approval of others – particularly from those in positions of authority who hold influence over the employee’s ability to succeed and advance at work. By not clarifying expectations, leaders deprive their employees of a sense of purpose or directionality and instead create a team of individuals who either inadvertently “row the boat” in different directions or wander aimlessly in hopes of contributing something meaningful.
Early in my career, a Vice President at an organization where I was employed pulled me aside following one of our weekly team meetings. During this conversation, he expressed his frustration over my lack of participation in those meetings. Unbeknownst to me, he explained that he saw me not just as an individual contributor, but as someone who could help him change the culture of our department, which was notorious for underperforming. Even though I was not in a leadership position, through that conversation he clarified that he saw me as a leader and had expectations that I would use my influence and my voice as a peer to most on the team to improve the effectiveness of our department. He specifically asked that I speak up to voice my support for initiatives he was pushing, which he knew I privately supported, but which also had met considerable resistance from other members of the team. Following that conversation, I began to see myself as my leader saw me, and I was able to meet the expectations that he had for me. Thanks to his leadership and commitment to clarifying expectations, our department completely transformed into one of the highest performing in the organization, and I was eventually promoted into a formal leadership role.
To gauge how well you’re doing in Clarifying Individual Expectations, ask yourself the following question:
- Does every member of my team have a clear understanding of how their role contributes to the overall success of our team and organization? In other words, can each member draw a clear line between the work they do and the profitability, missional impact, and client satisfaction of the organization?
Create a Cadence of Accountability
Let me let you in on a secret of success that undoubtedly applies to leadership but also applied to all areas of life. Excellence is more often the byproduct of consistently doing the same small things in the right way over time than doing one big thing right once. One of the frustrations that I have about the way that leadership is taught and talked about in books, popular business magazines, podcasts, etc., is that leadership is often mythicized and sensationalized in a way that simply doesn’t reflect actual leadership. This may seem harmless, but it has created for many leaders an insecurity that they aren’t leading well because of how mundane and monotonous the acts of their leadership often feel. As leaders, we cannot and should not get bored with or underestimate the power of doing basic things with excellence over a consistent period of time.
The most successful college basketball coach of all time, John Wooden, said, “The eight laws of learning are explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition.” In my opinion, if there is one thing that leaders can do that will have the greatest impact on their effectiveness as a leader, it is to hold regular, consistent, structured one-on-one meetings with each of their direct reports. Unfortunately, many overlook this simple practice because it isn’t mythical or sensational and can feel unduly repetitive and boring. However, it is in the repetition, cadence, and structure of this act that the power lies.
By having a dedicated time once a week, once every other week, or once a month in which both you and your direct report(s) know that you will sit down for a set period of time to discuss introduces a rhythm to the relationship that lets your employee know that you value them and your time together, builds the relationship the two of you share, gives them a space to share their accomplishments, questions, and concerns with their supervisor, and gives you an opportunity to regularly define the win and clarify individual expectations, providing support, accountability, and alignment along the way.
While your one-on-one meetings or structured coaching sessions should be set up in a way that best reflects your leadership style, the needs of your employees, and the distinctives of your organizational culture, there are three questions that I have found I like to ask in my one-on-one meetings with direct reports:
- What have you accomplished recently that we need to celebrate?
- This question sets a positive tone early in the meeting and communicates to the employee that I value their contributions and recognize that they are accomplishing good work, the full scope of which I may not even be aware of.
- What are you currently working on?
- The question allows the employee to share their current list of to-dos and gives me insight into their current priorities and the challenges that they are facing. If their priorities are not in alignment with what we’ve defined as the win or my expectations for them, then this is an opportunity to redirect them back towards the tasks and activities that better reflect what is needed from their role at this time.
- What support do you need from me?
- The last question ensures that I am setting myself up as a resource, advocate, and champion of my employee, and hopefully gives them assurance that if there is something I can do to better set them up for success, then the invitation and expectation is that they would use me in that way. My personal leadership style is to lead first with trust, creating high degrees of autonomy and personal ownership for each one of my employees. A downside of this style is that sometimes employees can feel that because I’m not routinely checking in or asking in-depth questions about their work that they would perceive me as unavailable or unwilling to assist. This question is one way I try to combat that inaccurate perception.
To gauge how well you’re doing in Creating a Cadence of Accountability, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I regularly meet with each one of my direct reports, or those that I supervise? And do I always hold this meeting, or do I often cancel?
- Do I use one-on-one meetings with my employees to continually Define the Win, and Clarify Individual Expectations?
Hopefully, in reading this, you now agree with me (at least in part) that effective leadership is simple in its structure and steps.
Ultimately, as leaders, our job is to assemble a group of competent individuals, define the win, mobilize by clarifying individual expectations, and then create a cadence of accountability in which we are regularly checking in to assess progress, provide realignment when needed, and celebrate milestones and accomplishments along the way.
Wes Martin is the Manager of Leadership Development Services for Strata Leadership. In addition to serving as an Executive Coach and Leadership Trainer himself, Wes oversees the team of Coaches, Trainers, and Consultants, empowering them to deliver world-class leadership solutions to Strata’s clientele. Connect with Wes on LinkedIn.