Seth Godin on leadership, responsibility, authority

Leadership isn’t something that people hand to you. You don’t do followership for years and then someone anoints you and says, “here.” In fact, it’s a gradual process, one where you take responsibility years before you are given authority.

Seth GodinStop Stealing Dreams (81)

Raising the average (2)

The basic principle is that when you’re recruiting, you should be seeking to raise the average of your team, bringing in people who increase the level of energy, skill, and possibilities available – and who raise the bar in terms of commitment to your aims and values.

This is a helpful rule of thumb, but there are two problems with it:

  1. The more successful you are at raising your average, the harder it’s going to be to keep doing it.
  2. As you get better at what you do and grow as a team, it’s also going to get harder to find people who raise the average in what are presumably key areas.

So it’s inevitable that you’re going to lower some averages, some of the time, if you want your team to grow. It’s doubly inevitable if you’re seeking to build an organisation that increases the average, both internally (as individuals learn and grow and as the team works better together) and in the workforce (as people move on and take what they’ve learned to make a contribution elsewhere).

I think the answer is to make sure that you’re clear about which averages are non-negotiable, and which of the others are most important at a given time:

  • Values and integrity
  • Enthusiasm / energy
  • Commitment to your vision
  • Maturity – consideration and care for others
  • Skill in a key area. This could be something you deliver, like training or a technical service you provide for your clients – or a support function like accounting or managing infrastructure.
  • Readiness (and ability) to learn and grow

It’s worth being clear first about the non-negotiables of values and attitude (that is, character) – and the energy that you need a new team-member to bring to the team.

You also need to know which missing skills you’re seeking to add to your team from the outset, and whether you expect these to arrive fully formed (how will you tell?) or are going to help your new teammate acquire them (you need a training plan, and you need to make sure that you carry it out).

Beyond that, a lot depends on the stage of development of your team, and whether your priorities are growth into new areas (finding people to create possibilities and help you do things that you can’t already do), increasing capacity (adding people to help you do more of what you already do) or consolidation (adding people who will help you do what you already do better). It’s worth bearing in mind though, that the two types of growth create a need for consolidation, and consolidation creates the potential for growth.

More about that monkey

This is a brilliant illustration from William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass about avoiding taking responsibility for other people’s problems.

Where Is the Monkey?

Let us imagine that a manager is walking down the hall and that he notices one of his subordinates, Jones, coming his way. When the two meet, Jones greets the manager with, “Good morning. By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Jones continues, the manager recognizes in this problem the two characteristics common to all the problems his subordinates gratuitously bring to his attention. Namely, the manager knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of him. Eventually, the manager says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Then he and Jones part company.

Let us analyze what just happened. Before the two of them met, on whose back was the “monkey”? The subordinate’s. After they parted, on whose back was it? The manager’s. Subordinate-imposed time begins the moment a monkey successfully leaps from the back of a subordinate to the back of his or her superior and does not end until the monkey is returned to its proper owner for care and feeding. In accepting the monkey, the manager has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his subordinate. That is, he has allowed Jones to make him her subordinate by doing two things a subordinate is generally expected to do for a boss—the manager has accepted a responsibility from his subordinate, and the manager has promised her a progress report.

The subordinate, to make sure the manager does not miss this point, will later stick her head in the manager’s office and cheerily query, “How’s it coming?” (This is called supervision.)


William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass – Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? in the Harvard Business Review

Spec-ulation

If you’re asking someone to do something for you, an appropriate spec goes a long way.

A good spec saves everyone time and effort* and demonstrates that you value the work and other people’s time and energy.

You might include answers to the following questions:

  • Big picture, what needs to happen?
  • Why is it important – what will doing this thing achieve?
  • What are the details that you need to specify? (Mainly focused on the outcome. This will vary depending on the task, the skills of the person doing the job and your relationship to them – i.e. what can you take on trust – but must include anything that would cause you to reject the product.)
  • What are the details you don’t care much about? (Probably about the process.)
  • What suggestions or resources can you provide?
  • When should it finished by?
  • Who is responsible for getting this thing done?

The last question is critical – it’s really easy to hand over a task and still have it be your responsibility. In which case you will be the one filling in the holes and chasing up last details, which defeated the point of getting help in the first place.

*Perhaps that should read “a good spec given to a competent person, where competence includes knowing how to read, follow and question the spec where needed.”

The hard part: other people

Your work probably has several hard parts, and one of them is almost certainly other people.

If only they would…

… do their jobs properly / be vaguely professional / relate to each other as grown-ups / take responsibility / have a little consideration / not bring home issues to the office / leave you alone …

… you life would be much easier.

But if you didn’t have to work on any of these these things…

… they’d probably be bored / you’d have a too-exclusive team / they wouldn’t be people / they wouldn’t need you.

If you’re a manager or leader, these things are at the centre of your contribution:

  • Helping people do their best work
  • Creating a culture and ways of working that enables your colleagues to manage themselves and each other
  • Knowing them well and supporting them personally
  • Taking time to help them with the abstract and emotional and with the nitty-gritty of their work
  • Finding training, tools, relationships that will help them to thrive
  • Having uncomfortable and very specific conversations about what needs to be done and by when and what is and isn’t working …. and dealing with the fact that people don’t always like being told
  • Doing it regularly – being accountable to yourself for your responsibility

If you’re not having fairly regular “Why do I have to deal with this crap?” moments, you might be very lucky, but it might be a sign that you’re not doing something very hard.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

This is a great cut-the-crap book about management and building a company. It’s most relevant to the the tech world, but there are plenty of gems here that are relevant to anyone – he’s especially good on shaping your culture (hint: yoga at work is not your organisational culture).

Here’s the introduction:

Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.”

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.

The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things.

The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed.

The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in he middle of the night in a cold sweat when your dream turns into a nightmare.

The problem with these books is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making hit songs; there’s no recipe for running for president … and there’s no recipe for motivating people when your business has turned to crap.

That’s the hard thing about hard things: there is no formula for dealing with them.

Nonetheless, there are many bits of advice and experience that can help with the hard things.

I do not attempt to present a formula in this book. Instead, I present my story and the difficulties that I have faced.

I share my experiences in the hope of providing clues and inspiration for others who find themselves in the struggle to build something out of nothing.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Highly recommend.

Five Questions: John Greenall

Introduce yourself: who are you, what do you do, and why is it important?

I’m John and I’m the National Field Director at the Christian Medical Fellowship (www.cmf.org.uk) in the UK. I’m a paediatrician by training and combine that with my work with CMF. I head up our fieldwork with students, nurses and doctors to unite and equip them to live and speak for Jesus Christ in healthcare. My passion is leadership development in areas such as parenting and children, apologetics, global healthcare, advocacy and the day in day out work in healthcare. Medicine is at the interface of questions such as ‘what does it mean to be human’ and seeing Christians discipled in this area is key as we compassionately care for others and share the gospel with them.

What’s your most valuable skill?

I’m a starter and talent spotter. Starting programmes, training cohorts and inspiring people with the big picture vision is my passion. A bit like a number 10 on the football pitch, I get a kick out of helping others understand why they are on this planet.

Describe a tool, technique or practice that makes a difference to your work.

What we call High Impact volunteering. It’s harnessing a set of principles that govern how we recruit, select, equip and lead volunteer leaders. I truly believe that when you look after your leaders, when you envision and equip them, then the work looks after itself.

What advice do you most need to hear?

You try and do too much too fast and you’re on your way to burnout…again.

Suggest an endearing and humorous question for question number five – and answer it.

“What musical genre would you enjoy performing if you were a global superstar?”  I have to admit, whatever Michael Bublé sings.

One last thing – suggest one or two people you know whose answers you’d like to read, and who you think would enjoy answering.

Tim Cross
Steve Smith

Leadership: don’t say it

You may have a very good point.

You may be entirely in the right.

It may be that you’ve understood their (bad) motivation perfectly, that they are wrongheaded, inconsiderate and rude to boot.

It may be that there’s a values-conflict that’s going to take a lot of deep and difficult work to address.

Some of the above is probably true. All of it may be true*… But saying it to them now – saying it how you’d most like to say it, maybe throwing in a few of the things that you’ve been carrying for a while – saying it now, in the heat of the moment, won’t help.

Grit your teeth. Breath deeply. Don’t say it. Instead do the harder work of fixing the deeper issues and slowly, slowly getting the boat moving in the right direction.

 

P.S. Of course, I said it. 

*And of course, it’s just possible that many of them are not true, or that you need kick in the empathy to know how to respond properly

Peter Drucker on Freedom

Freedom … is not the same as individual happiness, nor is it security or peace and progress. It is not the state in which the arts and sciences flourish. It is not good, clean government or the greatest welfare of the greatest number.

This is not to say that freedom is inherently incompatible with all or any of these values, though it may be and sometimes will be. But the essence of freedom lies elsewhere. It is responsible choice. Freedom is not so much a right as a duty. Real freedom is not freedom from something ; that would be license. It is freedom to choose between doing or not doing something, to act one way or another, to hold one belief or the opposite. It is never a release and always a responsibility. It is not “fun” but the heaviest burden laid on man: to decide his own individual conduct as well as the conduct of society and to be responsible for both decisions.

Peter Drucker – The Freedom of Industrial Man

You won’t agree with all of the above – I’m still mulling it over – but Drucker’s emphasis on choice and responsibility is spot on.

Most aspects of our lives, both personal and public, are products of choice. This isn’t the same as them being directly under our control (many of the choices belong to others), but we still have choice in how we act: what to accept, what to maintain and what to seek to change.

Homework:

Look for choices that you’ve been blind to up to now. Which parts of your life – including big, permanent looking things – could do with a review?

Maintenance of the status quo is a choice that we sometimes fail to notice. What are you maintaining as if you have no choice in the matter, when perhaps you should stop? What are you ignoring that you should choose to put more energy into maintaining?

What choices are you in denial about? What have you been choosing to accept that you could – should – choose to change? Small improvements that actually happen are better than giant overhauls that don’t.

How tools spread

How do tools – ideas and understandings, practices, and real physical tools – get to the people who need them?

Some tools may only need to be seen to by copied and spread. A tool will spread if it is:

  • Visible – people need to see it (or hear, or read about it)
  • Beneficial – people need to see that the tool brings benefits too
  • Acceptable – isn’t in some way taboo*
  • Doable – simple enough to understand and apply
  • Accessible – people can get hold of what they need to start using it
  • Affordable – in terms of the physical, mental and emotional resources** and time needed to learn or use the tool

Further reading:

*Taboos may prevent one or both of the first two from happening
**”Can I afford the social or emotional costs of using this tool? Is it worth it?”
***The copyright section of which reads as follows:

You have permission to post this, email this, print this and pass it along for free to anyone you like, as long as you make no changes or edits to its contents or digital format. In fact, I’d love it if you’d make lots and lots of copies. The right to bind this and sell it as a book, however, is strictly reserved.