Leadership is a verb, and productive leadership is an art. The art part is when you use your experience and judgment to apply proven practices to the situation you are in to produce effective results.
While you can always wing it, or luck into success, you can use patterns and practices to find the shortcuts and make your success more repeatable.
As a Principal Program Manager at Microsoft I’ve lead distributed teams around the world for more than ten years. I like to think of the Program Manager role as a technical Entrepreneur with an interesting blend of customer, business, and technical perspective.
As a Program Manager, my job is to take on big challenges, build a team of smart people, and drive projects from cradle to grave. That includes everything from creating the Vision and Scope to leading the project through the initiating, planning, controlling, and closing phases.
It also means creating work breakdown structures, project plans, resource plans, risk plans, project schedules, managing budgets, dealing with and responding to changes, reporting status, and managing stakeholder expectations. One of my favorite metaphors is that the Program Manager is “the oil and the glue.”
It’s one of the toughest jobs, you’ll ever love.
I’d like to share with you ten proven practices for more productive leadership. I’ve learned these from leading teams and shipping stuff in some of the most competitive, fast-paced, and toughest arenas:
- Know what problem you are trying to solve. This sounds simple and it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people can run around, working on something, but have actually lost sight of the problem they set out to solve.
If you keep the problem front and center, you exponentially increase your effectiveness. It helps you prioritize. It helps you focus. It helps you bring in the right help. It helps you ask the right questions.
If you lack clarity in the problem you are solving, then you are most likely wasting a lot of time and effort. It’s tough to hit a target when you don’t know what it is. On the flip side, you can save a lot of time and energy when you know exactly what the problem is that you are trying to solve.
- Get smart people on a cadence. It’s a lot easier to build your execution muscle if you decide on a simple cadence. For example, on my teams, I like to focus on shipping weekly.
I use a pattern I call, Monday Vision, Daily Outcomes, Friday Reflection. On Mondays, as a team, we identify three wins for the week. Each day, we identify three wins for the day.
On Fridays, we reflect on our results by asking, “What are three things going well?” and “What are three things to improve?” The goal is to take what we learn and carry the good forward. So every week we are getting better and better.
This very simple cadence creates an efficient and effective learning loop. As individuals, and as a team, we very quickly surface the bottlenecks and opportunities to improve our results.
- Set boundaries and buffers. The best solution for burnout is to avoid it in the first place. This is knowledge work, and as one of my mentors puts it, “Brains work best when they are rested and relaxed.” The way to set the boundary is to first decide the maximum number of hours you expect to work for the week.
For example, one of my best managers forced me to set a limit of forty hours. This meant I had to ruthlessly prioritize and focus throughout the week to flow the most value. I could no longer throw hours at the problem. Instead, I had to get clear on the priorities, choose the best things to work on, and spend my time more wisely.
At the same time, I had to make sure I was creating space and allowing for things to go wrong. I’ve never seen a project where everything goes exactly as planned, and nothing changes. With that in mind, it’s better to embrace the reality and design for it, and create space so you can deal with unexpected surprises.
One of my colleagues enforces his forty hour work week boundary with “dinner on the table at 5:30.” It’s a rule he lives by and it’s served him well both for his family and at work. At work, he is known for working on the most valuable things and setting a great example of focus and priorities.
- Lead with your why. The key to great results is passion plus purpose. Start asking yourself, “Why do you do what you do?” Find the meaning and make the connection between the work you choose to bite off, and how it lights up your life.
If you live for adventure, then make every project an epic adventure. If you love to learn, then by-golly make every expedition a chance to learn a new skill, conquer a new challenge, and add a new tool to your toolbox.
Share your “why” with others. It’s contagious. The most unproductive teams I know have no purpose. They have no juice. They have no joy. They do work, and every bit of work is a chore. Ironically, it’s not the nature of the work, but our mental models that make work meaningful.
- Give your best where you have your best to give. One question I get asked often is, what’s the biggest game changer I’ve ever seen when it comes to execution excellence. I have to say, it’s always the same thing. Have people on the team spend more time in their strengths.
That includes you. If you want more out of you, then do more of what you love. Do more of what you are great at. Do more of what you can uniquely do.
The most ineffective teams I ever see are when people are all “out of position.” People are constantly working on things they aren’t good at or things that they hate. It kills their energy. In knowledge work, this is the “kiss of death.”
- Focus on outcomes, not activities. I can’t stress this enough. When you focus on outcomes, you find the critical paths and the short-cuts. When you focus on activities, you throw time at things, but don’t necessarily achieve meaningful results.
As soon as you start asking yourself, “What’s the goal?” or “What’s the outcome?” you will quickly find yourself getting clarity on the problem. It will refocus your effort and energy in a more meaningful way. You can shave away needless activities once you identify what you want to accomplish.
- Pick a theme or focus for the month. A lot can happen throughout the month. One way to see the forest for the trees and rise above the noise is to set a theme or focus for the month.
Every day, you can do a little something towards the theme. Personally, I use “30-Day Improvement Sprints,” but the ideas is to simply pick a theme for the month.
For example, you might pick a theme of “simplicity” and for the entire month, you will be focused on simplifying everything you do. Simplicity is one of my favorite themes, and I like to find ways to simplify products and processes. Finding ways to simplify your process is actually one of the secrets to innovation and staying in the game.
When you find ways to innovate in your process, you can do things better, faster, and cheaper. And that’s how you keep from getting priced out of the market or losing your job to somebody else who is better, faster, cheaper.
- Ask better questions. I heard a colleague remark the other day that too many people still operate under an old leadership model. The leadership model of the 70s was command-and-control. That made sense for industrial type work or in the military. It doesn’t work well when it comes to knowledge work.
The people in the trenches are the closest to the problems and they are also closest to the solutions. In today’s world, the key to effective leaders is asking the right questions. Inquiry is your friend.
One of my mentors uses a small set of questions to guide investments:
- Who’s the customer?
- What’s the problem?
- What’s the competition doing?
- What does success look like?
It’s simple but highly effective. One of my favorite questions to ask is, “What are you optimizing for?”
- Get their finger prints on it. If you go it alone, then it’s an uphill battle. It can feel like pushing rocks uphill!
The best way to get folks on board is to get their fingerprints on it. This means co-creating the vision with them. This means being inclusive on key decisions. This means having people participate in the process so they feel empowered and want to play the game.
If you build products for customers, the short-cut to success is to have customer participate up front and throughout the process. They’ll tell you what they want if you ask them. You don’t have to throw it over the wall and hope for the best.
The sooner you get folks involved and the sooner they get bought in, the sooner they have a sense of ownership. Also, the sooner you will have a tribe of raving fans that will help you move the ball forward and champion the cause.
- Focus on “good enough for now.” This is how you get over “analysis-paralysis” and perfectionism. What’s the simplest solution for the problem at hand? What’s the minimum you could do to make it work, and then make it right?
If you get in the habit of thinking in terms of version, then you can enjoy the benefits of incremental progress. The power of incremental progress is that you finish what you start. You actually get to deliver something of value and get feedback on it.
You can then use the feedback to tune it and improve it. You can then play around with your release cycles to find the best rhythm for results.
For this to work well, you have to have a culture of continuous improvement, so that you actually get a chance to revisit things that need to be improved. This is a much faster path than trying to get everything figured out and get everything right up front.
The reality is you don’t know what will surprise you, and you are better off putting something out there so that you can see how it holds up under actual usage. You will gain clarity and insight if you look for it, and you will ultimately learn the lessons that help you improve next time.
These are all powerful practices when you apply them. As it’s been said, the trick isn’t knowing what to do, it’s doing what you know.
I will share with you one more practice that helps you turn your insight into action. This is a practice from the software world.
Create a personal checklist of the practices that you want to do more of. Add this as a reminder in your calendar and have it pop up daily or weekly, depending on how often you need the reminder. You can then continue to adjust your personal checklist as you go along, so that it serves you and it helps bring out your best.
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