Thursday, October 3, 2019

Great Leaders Focus on the Why and the What—Not the How


Guest post by Steve Coughran:

In my two decades of business experience, I have encountered many different flavors of leadership. Some leaders are strong-willed and autocratic, some are open-minded and democratic, some employ laissez-faire, employee-centric leadership styles, and most fall somewhere in the middle. While leadership style varies, in my experience, leaders across the board provide employees with a sincere depiction of the Why, an explicit description of the What, and freedom on the How.

Many of you reading are likely familiar with Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. His premise suggests that great leaders motivate with the “Why”, a deep-rooted purpose, before defining the “What”, the product or service, or the “How”, the process.  Expanding on Sinek’s thoughts, I believe that not only do great leaders deprioritize the “how,” but the most influential bosses leave the “how” to their employees to figure out.

Have you ever been in a work situation where your boss or manager is explaining in specific detail how to do your job? It’s frustrating when managers live in the weeds. Poor leaders provide specificity around how to complete a task but fail to share the big picture, the why, behind the request.  No one likes to be micromanaged. Unfortunately, many leaders result to meddling with the process in attempts to maintain a false sense of power. Micromanagers focus explicitly on the how, which often results in short-term success at the expense of the long-term strategy, overall scalability, and employee satisfaction.

Great leaders give little input on the how. Of course, this approach first requires leaders to equip employees with the tools and skills to solve for the how. They must invest heavily in training to ensure employees are prepared to think through the processes.

Training alone, however, isn’t enough to produce the desired results. After reinforcing the why and enabling employees, they get specific about the what. Great leaders share explicit expectations. When I first launched a high-end design build firm, I learned the hard way the importance of clearly communicating expectations. I was feeling on top of the world as my company flourished; customers were lining up for projects, and I had a diverse and talented staff to uphold my brand. To maintain this status, I was also working like a dog, putting in eighty-hour workweeks to keep up with demand. I jumped at my first opportunity to take a two-week vacation, leaving the company reins in the hands of one of my top managers. We were working on a high-end project, but I trusted my employees. I gave little instruction—my manager knew the business as well as I did—and was off to relax on a beach in Mexico and forget about work for a while.

I returned frustrated with the lack of progress. While I was away, the high-end project suffered from operational issues that led to cost overruns and schedule delays resulting in an upset client and some delayed payments. While I was upset with my team, I too was responsible for the situation. What did I count on my managers and employees to do while I was away? More importantly, how would I ensure they held up their end of the bargain? I failed to create an accountability structure. Through this experience, I learned a critical lesson: strong leaders follow up.

Great leaders build accountability structures that clearly define the desired results. Results are laid out specifically and comprehensively, often incorporating qualitative and quantitative data. By leaving little room for confusion, leaders establish fair expectations, which provide a foundation for equitable evaluation and constructive feedback. They create a “return and report” culture where employees are sent off with an understanding of the overarching strategy and the goals of the assignment. They present their findings after independently problem solving.

Giving employees freedom shows that you trust them (which according to research is critical for workplace engagement and productivity). Additionally, by encouraging employees to think, leaders boost their team’s development. Seeing how the employee problem solves allows his or her manager to clearly examine their comprehension of the task, the big picture, and detect any gaps in understanding or skills. They can then address these knowledge gaps with training and coaching, bringing the employees’ development full circle.

As we all continue along the journey to become the best leaders we can be, keep in mind Simon Sinek’s words of wisdom, “There is a difference between giving direction and giving directions.” Emphasize your purpose, explain your product or service, and leave the rest to your well-equipped team. 

About the author:  Author, CFO of an international billion-dollar company, and management consultant, Steve Coughran has over two decades of experience driving business excellence. His newest book is Outsizing: Strategies to Grow your Business, Profits, and Potential.  For more information visit www.SteveCoughran.com.

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