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Don't Manage. Lead

Don't Manage. Lead

Manager is a misleading job title in many ways. It sounds like it should come with a sigh. “How are you doing?”.  “Well, I’m managing.” <BIG SIGH> 

Managing things sounds very reactive, like a bunch of stuff happens out of your control, and you need to chase around clearing it up. The job can certainly feel like that sometimes. And even when you get your house in order, there’s always new things and demands appearing to create chaos.

To make this situation sane, the first thing to do is to put aside “managing” and figure out how to start leading. Be proactive, not reactive. Now, it’s quite likely you’ve heard this before. It might be that just reading that sentence made your cynical eyes roll back in your head. So let’s break “leading” down into something more tangible.

01 It’s all about you

Don't Manage. Lead

First thing is the A word, Authenticity. This gets thrown around a lot: a million LinkedIn posts will demand that you be your authentic self. Agree?

Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Perhaps there’s some paragon of leadership you once knew who was great and you want to emulate. Perhaps you read a book about the Ten Habits That Make The Best Leaders and you’re determined to follow them all. By all means learn from those things, but work out how to make them your own. If you can’t, then discard them.

The very best way to lead is always through your own beliefs and behaviors, not other people’s. Anything fake will be inconsistent and most likely get discarded, and that inconsistency makes people trust you less.

The simple truth is that teams of all sizes come to resemble their leaders, assuming the leader is able to actually lead. This is because those leaders will reward behaviors they like, and punish (or at least not reward) behaviors that they don’t.

Over time, the whole will come to behave like the person in charge, because they are incentivized to do so. The best leaders convey what they like and don’t like, are consistent in their beliefs and behaviors, and take every opportunity to demonstrate them.

At C-team level you’ll see this written up in a million pamphlets on Company Culture and Leadership Principles and all the rest. These codify “good” behavior so you can run big companies without needing to micromanage. But these are the most general guidelines: the application is done at the team level, and this is where you have agency.

02 Delegate to accumulate

Where authenticity really works for you at the team level is to minimize how often your personal input is required to make decisions.

Other parts of this guide will talk about how to delegate and why making yourself obsolete is actually a good thing, but in this part we’ll talk about how to use directional feedback to get people making good decisions more quickly: aka improve speed, improve productivity.

First make it very clear that this is something you want. A good technique for this is to ask for a basic change in how people ask questions: rather than just “what should we do?”, ask them to change the phrasing. “Here’s the problem, and here’s what I think we should do. What do you think?”.

Getting people to commit to a course of action gives you a means to agree (and compliment their decision making), to course correct, or to ask more questions. All of these are preferable to just telling people what to do. Compliments reinforce behaviors and make them happen more frequently; course corrections and questions should be teaching moments, not criticism.

You will need to be consistent and remind people about this. It might feel weird how often you need to remind people. Remember from their point of view it’s scary to venture opinions when you don’t feel qualified. There might even be frustration, “isn’t making these decisions your job?”.

The trick is to be consistent and not just fall back into giving instructions (even though that’s often the fastest thing to do). As a general rule: you want it to be their course of action, not your course of action. This teaches decision making and also instils ownership - people care more when it's their decision, rather than just following someone else.

The second part is how to course-correct when you need to. The best way is to add whatever context they’ve overlooked. Basically, tighten up the problem space and let them work out the solution with the new information. This depends on the situation - it can be time consuming and would be awkward to get deep into stuff in a group setting. If you’re in a meeting it’s probably best to get into the details later in private. But not too much later.

So to recap, what you’re looking for is a) people suggest a course of action when asking what to do; b) those recommendations get more on-the-money over time due to you coaching them by framing the problems better.

As a result these check-ins get shorter, and over time you’ll start to find you don’t need them at all - you only need to get involved with the really tricky things, and your team finds their own way with everything else.

03 A tale of dysfunction

Don't Manage. Lead

I said previously that this only works if we assume that leaders are able to actually lead. If you see this breaking down, it could come down to a person's shortcomings, but it could just as likely be a structural issue. People with senior job titles still get micromanaged. It can also be both those things. But what happens in these cases?

So, story time. A company I worked for once did an annual staff survey. It was quite a big deal - basically mandatory involvement - and to be fair, they took the results seriously. I was working in a remote office. A fairly large one, but remote nevertheless. The survey highlighted that R&D staff at a particular level (senior IC / line manager level) in this particular region were not happy at all, far below the company average.

A meeting was called with a group from that cohort to discuss why that might be. One inquisitive soul noticed that the data from all the different job functions was being rolled together, and asked if we could look specifically by job title. Lo and behold, the senior ICs were mostly fine. It was the engineering managers who were particularly unhappy. And with the IC data removed, it transpired they were incredibly unhappy, even more than previously. The person running the survey program was visibly shocked. So what was going on?

There are various answers to this question. A broad answer was, it was a tough working environment. The company was renowned for being a very hard data-driven, results-focused place, and this particular department had a particular reputation even by overall company standards. But that didn’t explain the regional nature of the problem.

The "process" answer was, remote reporting lines combined with the org culture meant that all strategic decisions (and a lot of week-to-week execution things) had to be run by head office. Weekly video calls for line managers to report status and get shouted at by highly-caffeinated VPs were the norm. It was an exemplar of maximum responsibility, minimum autonomy and a tailor made unhappy working environment for middle managers. The fact these managers' teams remained motivated in these circumstances is exemplary, but was also the bullshit umbrella in full effect.

And finally the individual answer was that it highlighted an absence of local leadership. Senior people would operate as transparent proxies, currying messages from line managers up to head office and currying decisions back down again. Local leadership were not able to demonstrate any authenticity or consistency in behavior because they had no authority or autonomy. This was toxic for their direct reports.

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