Exceptional is a state of mind and a discipline. To be truly exceptional does not require talent or gifts. In the same way, an exceptional leader doesn’t have to look like the stereotype. “Harry Truman did not have one ounce of charisma, for example, yet he was among the more effective chief executives in U.S. History.” Peter Drucker describes what he knew it took to be effective. The characteristics of effective leadership delivers exceptional performance. If you are effective, you will be exceptional.
Today, it’s safe to say that all of us are in some form of organization. Regardless of your role, you must enact change and work within the rules of your organization. Success is directly dependent on your ability to be effective within the rules of the game. Bureaucracy is not just at your job, it’s at Google, Amazon, and any other company you admire or is changing the world. So don’t use that as an excuse not to pursue your goals. Effectiveness is not a gift of the natural born leader, it is a learned behavior. Derived from The Effective Executive, there are eight practices that will set you apart, cut through the noise, and allow you to be exceptional at what you do every day.
The Characteristics of Effective Leadership
Ask “What needs to be done?”
What needs to be done and what you want to do, are two different things. What needs to be done and what you think needs to be done, are two different things. Collecting data points and insights to answer this question is imperative. Do not ask this question in isolation because you do not know the answer. Knowledge gathering helps you understand the true picture of what the organization needs. For balance, you must search for the right information within your scope of influence.
A junior strategist on my team was frustrated. We designed enterprise software to support a product launch and were about to deliver it. She thought the software should have been global to include any product the customer could want. Her strategy included best in class tech deployment and cross functional product integration. Her plan may sound right but that strategy will never find success. It’s impossible to execute. Isolated thought is the fundamental issue. That is not what needs to be done as defined by the organization and the context in which we work.
The best approach for understanding this model is to meet cross functionally while researching your industry. Know what is on the horizon while also what is actionable within the organization. Things that matter to leadership and your peers in other areas will start to paint a picture of what needs to be done. Define what your scope of influence is and what change you can enact. Once you’ve gathered this information, you must prioritize and focus on the initiative that’s most important.
Ask “What is right for the enterprise?”
What is right for the enterprise is not the same as what is right for the owners, shareholders, stock price, or even the employees. Those are a means, not an end. If you start to make decisions based on leadership, the employees, or profitability as the end and not a means to make the organization thrive, it will divert you from success. This question is less about forgetting about profitability and more about seeing the organization as a living, breathing, entity. If the organization is healthy, all the positives of profitability, management success, and employee engagement will happen. It’s the natural order. Failing to address the organization and what is best for the whole, will not produce the effectiveness you seek to produce.
Develop Action Plans
As Sun Tzu says “weigh the situation, then move.” Action plans balances your fast brain from your slow brain. Your fast brain, as described by Daniel Kahneman, “Operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” It is using the information it has to make a quick decision; the best decision with the least amount of effort. In contrast, system 2, or your slow brain, “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” You must develop action plans as a way of balancing out your bias and addressing the situation. If you find yourself immediately going to action, creating meetings or sending emails, as a way of moving quickly, it’s time to plan.
Functionally, this is a simple excessive. The only constant is change so creating a plan that is inflexible is useless. What is important to define is the purpose of the plan in the first place, this is your true north. Once that is defined, what are the very next actions you need to take to get started. You can lay out the key milestones along the way you need to hit to get to the purpose of the effort. Once this is defined, start with the very first step and be prepared to continue to come back and change your plan as you being to execute. This should be your practice for anything that takes 2 or more steps.
Take responsibility for decisions
There are 4 key aspects of decision making in an organization. A decision has not been made until:
- One owner is defined
- A deadline is established
- The list of names of people who need to know, understand, and/or approve is defined
- Names of people to inform is created
Decisions are going to be wrong. What’s more important is how you react. “He who can handle the quickest rate of change survives.” Lt. Colonel John Boyd was a United States Air Force fighter pilot and Pentagon consultant who served from 1945-1975. He designed a system for fighter pilots that enabled them to make mistakes and react faster than the enemy could make their first decision. The loop is Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. Once you have made a decision and acted, you immediately restart the loop. Making the right decision is not the goal. The goal is to give yourself the best options to make that decision from, then put yourself in the position to run through the loop again. As a side note, remember that deciding sometimes means delegating. Don’t be afraid to push decisions to those best suited to make them as a leader.
Take responsibility for communicating
“The natural tendency of organizations is to optimize locally — within a business unit or department, rather than optimizing for the global customer experience or the enterprise. Too often, the sum of the parts doesn’t make for a high-performing whole. Getting people to improve processes across boundaries typically requires a crisis or constant pushing from a senior leader.” Brad Power, a consultant to large organizations, describes the reason why this is so important. Taking responsibility of the communication means thinking through every constituent and their needs. The first tendency and reaction of communicating with your boss and direct reports is not enough. You must share plans and ask for comments and contributions from everyone affected.
Focus on opportunities, not problems
Large software builds and deployment are complicated. Agile development identifies issues mid-stream without overall impact to the timeline or budget. As the build continues and moves towards the end of the development timeline, testing becomes critical. It is the last step before delivery and ultimately finalizes the project to be ready for production.
There is a stark difference between the approach of agile development and standard testing. The quality team responsible for testing are not accountable for the product or the success of the software. They are responsible for hitting timelines, identifying defects, and documenting the process. It’s a world of problems without any solutions. I’ve never lead a software delivery in a large organization that has tested well. When we lead with problems, the only solution is a a retroactive look at who to blame. Armed with only reasons to explain failure, there is no success possible.
Focus on opportunities and solutions are what provides a path forward. Our brains are hardwired to focus and address fear first. It’s the natural state we start with. It is impossible to get in the habit of driving toward solutions or opportunities from this state. The state of mind you are in drives the story you tell yourself. The story you tell yourself sets the foundation of your strategy. If you are fearful because of a call you just received about an issue, the story will be one that requires your protection from ramifications. Your strategy will be to tell your boss about the problem and how it’s not your fault. If you shift that state to positive and optimistic, your story is excitement about the problem you can solve. The strategy will be to collaborate and bring options to the table.
Run productive meetings
Making meetings productive requires high standards. Jeff Bezos describes high standards this way.
Building a culture of high standards is well worth the effort, and there are many benefits. Naturally and most obviously, you’re going to build better products and services for customers – this would be reason enough! Perhaps a little less obvious: people are drawn to high standards – they help with recruiting and retention. More subtle: a culture of high standards is protective of all the “invisible” but crucial work that goes on in every company. I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward – it’s part of what it means to be a professional.
Productive meetings require high standards for yourself and the meeting participants. It must start with clear intent and purpose for the meeting and continue with accountability for the participants. The more productive meetings you run, the less you will have and the more people will attend. Meetings can be either a high leverage activity or a waste of time. It all depends on your standards.
Think and say “we” rather than “I”
Remember, when you are leading anything you are responsible and accountable for it. This can not be a shared role. Also remember, in an organization you only have authority because you have the trust of the organization. You can only get things done with the trust of the people who make up that organization.
Early in my career, I thought I needed direct reports to have power. I believed that I needed a team to give work to and tell what to do. I’ve come to realize that was foolish thinking. It’s about building a team that wants to do the work, not who have to do the work. Influence without direct authority starts with saying we rather than I. The best practice is to start today, with the emails you write. Even if you did something all by yourself, with no inputs from anyone else, use “we” rather than “I”. Then keep doing that until it is your default to say we and include the team. Team building doesn’t start with hiring, it starts with your mentality.