In some recent conversations I’ve had, the idea of leadership has come up numerous times. From my own leadership philosophy to the leadership (or lack thereof) of those in positions of influence, I’ve had the chance to analyze leadership from several angles. This has led me to reflect on my own views of leadership, and how I’ve implemented those principles.
I wrote about the importance of establishing a leadership philosophy in my article 6 Questions for Determining Your Leadership Philosophy. As part of that process, I spent some serious time determining my own leadership philosophy and its core underlying principles. I wanted to dive deeper into it here, as a way of articulating my ideas and hopefully as a useful reference for others as they establish their own leadership philosophy.
My Leadership Philosophy
Get the right people working on the right thing in the right way — and get everything else out of their way.
The above statement is what I distilled from the principles below. It summarizes what I consider to be my key beliefs and how I view leadership, incorporating my core principles.
Leadership for me really is about getting the right people, creating a vision for what we’re doing and helping establish the criteria and roadmap for success. And then getting things (and often yourself) out of the way.
I didn’t start out with this summary though. I actually went through the process I outlined in my other article and began establishing principles that I believed were core to leadership, and my views on leadership. After several iterations, I refined my thinking to the principles below.
My Leadership Principles
Get the right people
When it comes to companies, teams, or even projects, having the right people is the first key. It’s even more important than having a vision, because without the right people, you aren’t going to reach your vision regardless of how compelling it is.
In the essential book, Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about how successful leaders (Level 5 leaders as they are referred to in the book) get the right people on the bus before doing anything else.
“The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.”
This isn’t just for executives of large companies. It is for every team and group. The right people will make or break a product. You could have the greatest idea for a world-changing product. But without the right group, you simply won’t get there. That’s why as a leader, I think it’s crucial to find and keep the best people. I added the idea of keeping them because the best people will have lots of opportunities elsewhere. So you have to actively work to keep them within your organization. Unsurprisingly, teams that stay together longer perform better.
So how do you get the right people? While this isn’t an exhaustive list, I’ve found at least a few key ideas to be critical:
- Create the right environment. This includes the culture of the team or organization, but it obviously goes beyond snacks and ping-pong. It is an environment of continuity and psychological safety, where people can take risks without risking themselves.
- Listen to and understand your people. They are the most important resource you have. So you need to get to know them. As a leader, you should really know and care about those in your group. It goes beyond regular “one-on-ones” or formal meetings. It needs to be at a more personal level.
- Develop your people. You should help to develop those in your group or organization in such a way that they have the skills to leave for any job they could want. This not only enhances your current employees, but also creates a culture that other people want to be a part of.
- Treat them right. Obviously, you don’t want to lose your best talent, so you need to treat people well enough that, even after you’ve helped them develop, they don’t want to leave because of the opportunities they have with you.
People truly are the key to success, so this principle really can’t be overemphasized.
Establish Principles & Live Them
“When values are clear, decisions are easy” — Walt Disney
As a leader, I believe it is critical to establish personal and leadership principles, and to live by them.
Leadership principles. Part of this is the exercise here — creating a leadership philosophy. Without the right principles, you won’t fully understand the actions your taking.
Team principles. As a leader, it is also important to establish the principles of the team or organization. This helps guide the overall culture mentioned above, and sets the tone for autonomy. If groups can understand the overall guiding principles, they can make decisions for themselves based on those principles.
Personal principles. Finally, a leader should have personal principles that they live by. This may seem like somewhat of a dated notion, but it’s something that teams, organizations, and the world need — leaders who have good fundamental principles, such as honesty and integrity, that they live by.
Set The Vision
“ If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
That above quote by Antoine de Saint Exupéry (though it has a variety of different translations) really captures the essence of setting a vision. A leader shouldn’t be set on divvying up work and creating silos where each group is “optimized” for their task. Rather, a leader should inspire everyone towards a common goal. The vision is the driver, the inspiration that everyone is working towards.
Jeff Bezos has put it well when he says that we should be stubborn on the vision, flexible on the details. All too often we see managers being stubborn on the details (from how we use story points to how teams run meetings) while disregarding the vision. That’s the opposite of what a leader needs to do.
Define The Framework
Of course, it’s not necessarily enough to paint an amazing picture of the future that we want to create. As leaders, we do need to help establish the framework for success. While a vision may be years away, we obviously need to do work now that will move us in that direction.
I’ve long been a fan of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) for this exact purpose. If you’re looking for some good books on this subject, I’d highly suggest Measure What Matters and Radical Focus, which are great reads.
Creating OKRs allows you and your teams to establish what matters most (objectives) and how you're going to measure whether you’ve achieved your objectives (the key results). This allows flexibility in how the objectives are achieved, but ensures that the most important things are getting the right attention.
By defining the framework, you can unleash the creativity of your teams to find the best solutions. This helps guide work toward the vision, but allows groups to be much more autonomous in how they work.
Give Continuous Feedback & Recognition
It is critical to give ongoing feedback to teams and team members. There is simply no other way for people to improve than to understand real-time what is working and what isn’t, so they can adjust accordingly.
The idea of an annual or semi-annual performance review is probably one of the most antiquated notions at this point. And the sooner it dies, the better off we’ll all be.
It amazes me that over 10 years ago, as a manager at the computer labs at BYU, my fellow managers and I had implemented a feedback system that is far superior to what many companies still use today. We actually had a mechanism for all employees to give real-time feedback to each other. That feedback could then be conveyed via managers or supervisors on a weekly basis. We were also doing a more formal review quarterly. But little of that information was new since it was being delivered continuously. Improvement was an ongoing thing.
In Measure What Matters, this is the type of system advocated along with OKRs. It is called Continuous Performance Management.
“To power positive business results, implement ongoing CFRs (conversations, feedback, and recognition) in concert with structured goal setting. Transparent OKRs make coaching more concrete and useful. Continuous CFRs keep day-to-day work on point and genuinely collaborative.”
It’s also critical to give recognition as well. Different people will appreciate this in different ways, so it’s important to understand individuals. But everyone needs recognition. And leaders need to find ways to give that recognition.
Get Everything Else Out Of The Way
Finally, the last key principle is to get everything else out of the way. That often includes managers and leaders. Once you’ve got the right people on the bus, have set the vision and framework, you really need to allow them to do their thing.
In Powerful, Patty McCord’s excellent book about Netflix culture (that I actually started and finished after writing most of my thoughts here), she describes one of the keys of their success as eliminating as much process and overhead as possible. Policies and structures can’t anticipate needs and opportunities.
That’s why I included the quote at the beginning from Steve Jobs. It’s critical to get obstacles out of the way of great employees. And often that includes getting leaders and managers out of the way. Fundamentally, each layer of management should be in place to support those folks on the ground doing the work — not the other way around. If we find ourselves adding work because someone needs an additional report (or something to that effect), we’re doing it wrong. Leadership needs to be in support of the vision and the work, not a barrier to it.
As I’ve had the chance to really think through my own philosophy and the underlying principles, it has helped me clarify my own leadership ideas as well as better understand how I expect my own leaders and managers to function. I expect that this will be subject to update as I continue to add experiences, but these underlying principles form a solid foundation from which to build, at least for me.