Have you ever heard someone say the words ‘running a business would be a lot easier without the people’? Even though this is generally conveyed as a joke, it wouldn’t be said unless there was an underlying frustration as a result of people not giving you what you would like, encourage or expect.
This is not without reason. Although we spend many years honing our capability as professionals, and developing the idea that is going to be our very own Facebook or Uber, we simply don’t pay enough attention to the people stuff.
Once you get your head around how powerful the people and culture side of business is, you will want to spend as much time developing your leadership skills as you do any other capability.
David Yoffie, the Harvard Business School strategy guru, found the most enduring competitive advantage (and the one most difficult to replicate) is an advantage in human resources: people, organisation and culture. Incidentally, the second most valuable advantage does not even come close!
So what are the fundamental elements of leading to get the most out of your people?
In my 15-plus years in C-level roles in major corporations, I have seen many executives who are incredibly intelligent, hard-working, experienced and capable — but I can count the number of great leaders I have met on one hand.
Great leadership is elusive. If you say it fast enough it sounds easy, but it takes many years of work, sacrifice, focus and discipline. It takes personal qualities of strength, resilience, and self-awareness. The good news is that all of these attributes can absolutely be developed over time.
Let’s just start with the basics. I have five things here that, as with most things in the leadership space, are incredibly simple but deceptively powerful.
1. Respect before popularity
We all like to be liked and, in fact, we love to be loved. But this will kill your effectiveness as a leader more certainly than anything else. Being universally liked simply cannot be a goal for a leader, because it is impossible to achieve.
Every day when I walked into the energy business that I ran as chief executive officer, I knew 5% of the people hated me for no apparent reason. Mind you, there were others who I’m sure hated me with good reason, but as you go up through an organisation one thing becomes clear: you can’t please everyone. So, you might as well just do the right thing, for the company, for your team, and for your customers. Every time, no exceptions.
When you do this, not everyone is going to be happy and, as a leader, you just have to be okay with that.
2. Build a high-performing team
I’d love a dollar for every time someone has told me they ‘built a high-performing team’. Mostly, this is just talk. If you really want to build a high-performing team, then be prepared to do some hard yards, and make some tough decisions.
This means only hiring the best, and challenging, coaching, and confronting to stretch them to top performance. Even the best people don’t usually operate at peak performance without the drive, guidance and support of a great leader.
Harder still, if you have employees that are clearly not going to deliver the results you need, you have to make a hard call and free them up to be successful in another organisation.
Of course, people need direction, clarity of purpose, and the autonomy to be masters of their own destiny — but even in this relatively utopian environment, many people will choose not to behave or perform to the standard you set.
Make no mistake, as a leader, you set the tone, the pace and the standard.
3. Don’t micromanage
As Jeffrey J Fox says: “You don’t buy a dog and then bark yourself.” Sure, I get it, you are certain that no one can do the job as well as you can, so you need to ‘give them a hand from time to time’. In reality, what you are doing is killing any chance of discretionary effort that might have been drawn on from your people.
Great leaders stay out of their people’s knitting. They trust them to get results, and make them accountable for the decisions and actions that they are being entrusted to take.
Stepping across someone’s accountability to usurp their decisions is a cancer for your organisation that will see value ‘trapped’. As Ronald Reagan said: “Trust, but verify.” Let your people do what they are payed to do, and monitor their results, not their daily work.
4. Excellence over perfection
Having a perfectionist mindset slows your organisation down, and sets unrealistic standards for your people. A culture of ‘excellence over perfection’ is the foundation of good execution that every leader should aspire to create.
My guidance to executives who have reported to me was always to keep moving, try things and get better as you go. If we wait for something to be perfect, we will be waiting a really long time (by which time our competitors may well have rendered us irrelevant).
Give people a sense of momentum, achievement, and iterative improvement, within clearly defined boundaries and tolerances.
5. Work on the right things
It amazes me how many organisations don’t ensure that their people work on the right things. Peter Drucker once said: “The greatest waste of organisational resources is doing perfectly those things that shouldn’t be done at all.”
So much of what we do amounts to nothing more than activity. Instead, great leaders focus on value — it is the only lens they look through.
Value is much more than purely financial value. There are many ways to create value — for example, providing a safer workplace for your people, reducing the risk profile of your business, or acquiring better customer and market intelligence.
Force your people to explain to you how value is going to be created, in very specific terms. Where and when will the value of this project or activity be delivered? How will we know if the investment has delivered the benefits that were promised in the business case?
Stopping activity can be extraordinarily difficult, because people become wed to their pet projects and activities, whether they create value or not. Clearing the decks of non-value adding work for your people will free up resources to do the things that truly deliver value.
It is abundantly clear to me that what many people call the ‘soft stuff’ is actually the ‘hard stuff’. But if you can get your head around it and learn to lead more effectively, it is guaranteed to supercharge your business.
You can help us (and help yourself)
Small and medium businesses and startups have never needed credible, independent journalism and information more than now.
That’s our job at SmartCompany: to keep you informed with the news, interviews and analysis you need to manage your way through this unprecedented crisis.
Now, there’s a way you can help us keep doing this: by becoming a SmartCompany supporter.
Even a small contribution will help us to keep doing the journalism that keeps Australia’s entrepreneurs informed.