I write about leadership all the time. Honestly, I probably write about it way too much. I think I have elements of “strong leadership” in my personality, but day-to-day I’m a rank-and-file employee at a mid-size company … so I mean, no one is confusing me with any type of “thought leader” space, even if some of the stuff I say is relevant or interesting (which it is, from time to time). Here’s all my leadership posts. Scroll through if intrigued, baby!
There’s six million and 19 different theories about leadership, and all of it is a little bit of a farce: people are different, organizations are different, and industries are different. Cash flows are different. Every situation requires a little bit of a different touch to make sure the people are on point, the bottom line is healthy, and everything else you need to be/should be concerned about.
Yet, we still fly people all over the world every day to talk to other groups of people about leadership. It’s a big industry, and oftentimes it can feel like the blind leading the blind. People can go sit in leadership seminars for weeks, but then they get back to the office and their boss wants to know “the status of Project A,” and everything about “leading from a place of empathy” is out the window faster than the morale of the place in question.
What if we tried to simplify it, though?
Good article here on leadership at Wharton’s website. It’s an interview with the guys behind ghSmart. Here’s the broader context, from the Wharton interview:
Over the course of the last 20 years, we’ve interviewed more than 15,000 people, and it occurred to us that there is probably something to learn from that in terms of, what do successful leaders really do? And over the last five years, we’ve been digging deep into that data to understand it. What we have found is there are, in fact, three factors that drive success and leadership. Physicists have been looking to figure out a Grand Unified Theory that describes how the universe works. We figured if they can describe the universe, surely we can describe leadership. In fact, we have three factors that describe what success looks like.
So … 15,000 people. CEOs and senior leaders, etc. Most of these are five-hour interviews. (That’s good and bad, because at the end of a five-hour interview, a CEO is probably racing to get out of there and not thinking about these questions so much anymore.) Still, it’s a good base to operate from. Very few companies have interviewed 15K CEOs. There’s gotta be some nuggets here. (The last time we found a survey that had interviewed a lot of CEOs, we found that mostly senior leaders view being seen as incompetent.)
They came to a thing called “PWR Score,” or “Power Score,” which stands for:
These are the three things that leaders need to focus on in order to be better leaders — at least according to this specific methodology.
On face, this makes sense: it’s hard for an organization to go anywhere unless it has a clear idea of its priorities; you need to know “who” your people are (and what they’re capable of); and you need to establish strong relationships. If a leader is terrible at those three things — meaning unclear priorities, no idea of the people under them, and hated by most/weak relationships — they’re probably going to have a hard time hitting margins and deliverables and all that.
Here’s where we get to an issue, though: a lot of people in leadership roles see words like “priorities,” and think it means one thing … but it really means something very different. To wit:
We had one client, and I said to the chief operating officer, “To what extent do you have the right priorities?” And he said, “Absolutely we do. We set goals.” And I said, “Well, how many do you have?” And he said, “I have 164.” And I said, “That must keep you quite busy.” He goes, “Yes, we have a very inclusive culture, we are very bottom up, we like people to set their own goals.”
It was a high-achieving environment, but they had no focus at all. We find the best leaders are very good at setting priorities, which actually means saying no to things. It’s looking at all your potential goals and saying, “Which are the three, four or five that really matter?”
If you have 164 priorities, you might as well have zero. That’s a complete joke. No human brain can hold 164 elements together concurrently. That second paragraph says a lot, too: there’s a big difference between “high-achieving organizations” (of which there are many) and “organizations with focus” (of which there are few). Just because you have a bunch of Type-A goal-chasers in house doesn’t mean your organization has priorities. In fact, oftentimes it doesn’t.
They go on to discuss the checklist model and Atul Gawande — see more below:
— and then they move into the “Who” section of their acronym. I think “who” should be more highly valued, but unfortunately, many “leaders” view the idea of talent strategy as a farce. Here’s what the ghSmart guys say:
Assuming you have thought about your priorities, the next question should not be, “How do we accomplish these priorities?” but rather, “Who should accomplish these priorities?” — which is where the next big mistake comes. Most leaders don’t think that. They think about the “what” questions and the “how” questions — “What do we need to do? How do we need to do it?” — rather than “Who do we need on the team to do it?” So question two is all about that “who.” Once you understand the priority, who do we need on the team to accomplish it? From there, it’s about following a structured process. Most leaders don’t, because they’re not asking the right questions in the first place, and because they’re distracted with all the noise and the meetings and the conference calls and the 200 emails a day, and all the other things coming along. They don’t put the actual energy into hiring the right people, thinking about mapping their team to the right priorities.
Couldn’t agree more, but I’d even go a step further. Most managers rush to hire because they’re always in “hair on fire” mode, but that makes no sense. Rather than bringing in headcount, think about who is already on your team. I know we live in this busy-busy-busy can’t-take-on-anything-else culture, but … oftentimes people are only saying that because that’s how you fit in, and they’re actually pretty bored and disengaged at work. Maybe if you gave them work that challenged them or “stretched” them, they’d be happier and more productive. Most leaders don’t think like this — they think “Headcount’s available, we gotta back-fill!” — but more should.
And now for the “R” — relationships. Here’s a good one:
Foster: I don’t know about your calendar, but mine is full of meetings, and it always has been, and they seem to be getting more frequent and longer. We find that this is true across America and around the world. What we’re finding is, often, the wrong people are coming together at the wrong time to talk about the wrong things in an unstructured way. And meetings lack healthy conflict, they lack any sense of coordination and forward progress. So one of the No. 1 things that we do is explain that having good relationships isn’t about just liking one another, it’s about — how do we get coordinated here? How do we bring the right people together at the right time? Probably, half your meetings should be 30 minutes shorter, and some of them should be much longer. Most of our calendars look kind of the same as they did two years ago. We don’t update who we are talking to, and when, and why.
Meetings are a terrible scourge and I think we all know this, but there’s very much a “That’s the way it’s always been!” approach in American business, and so people keep calling meetings even when meetings aren’t necessary. (I’d estimate that in the last five years, 60-70 percent of meetings I’ve sat in could have been solved by 2-3 e-mails.)
I think the deeper point on relationships is that we don’t teach people the right skills when they’re in our organization. If you know your organization is relationship-driven and you think someone has value, stop teaching them processes and supposed skill sets. Start teaching them relationship skills, and start introducing them to people they need to know, both internally and externally. We focus a lot of “leadership development” and “people management” around transactional, basic items; we need to focus it around transformative, relational items. That will help people go further and connect to more people and spread the mission and the purpose of what’s trying to be accomplished. Hey, that goes back to priorities!
A lot of how we think about leadership is miserable and makes no sense and is rooted in a 1940s way of thinking, but if we started with these three small ideas, it might make a bit of difference.