Focus So You Can Manage to Manage Better

Over the 20 or so years I have been explicitly reading, writing and thinking about leadership, I have tried to see it in simpler and simpler ways. Originally, I was captivated by vision. Whether you lead from “above,” or, from below-where-the-action-is, you can generate power by helping people to focus on just what we are trying to accomplish, our end state, our destination, a great picture of us-as-successful.

At the other end of THE spectrum from vision is NOW, our current reality.  Great leaders keep looking at the current problems and opportunities. They see reality through others’ lenses – their customers’, employees’, competitors’, always trying to tell the full truth about what’s happening. So, they end up with a clear picture of the future, and a rich picture of the present.

Over time, I have come to appreciate more and more, the domain of management: managing the steps that get us from NOW to our future vision.  Fifteen years ago I was enthralled when my friend Brad Zimmerman spoke about management as a system of promises, and I now teach that the heart of great management:  is personally making and in turn inviting credible promises.  It’s awesome when “people of their word,” repeatedly say what they will do and deliver on what they say. They feel great and the organization moves decidedly toward its future.  Each person says: I will get X (a mini-vision) done by Y (a specific future moment). This ties into the core of “leadership credibility” that authors Kouzes and Posner put at the heart of “modeling the way.” We’re credible when we DWWSWWD or Do What We Say We Will Do.  “The” leader can only deliver on her organizational promises when the members of the organization all DWISIWD, Do What I Say I Will Do.

So, then, we can simply lay out the steps:

  1. Vision is always the starting point,
  2. Looking at our current reality, we then
  3. Set goals that move us clearly in the direction of achieving the vision, and then as managers:
  4. We invite our people to set personal goalsor make promises that aggregated together mean we will reach our collective goals.

So, do YOU do it? Do all your people commit to meet goals and to meet the milestones they set along the way?  Each of us, in my view, faces predictable yet different habitual obstacles to managing promises. I invite you to peruse the list below and identify your challenge(s). I offer this list, not so you’ll point an accusing finger at yourself, but to see the likely place where you can get better at generating promises to achieve the goals that are key to your organization.  As always, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Do you see your typical, habitual challenge(s), so you can help others to make and fulfill their promises?  Do you:

  • tell people their goals, so they feel compelled rather than feel like THEY have willingly made a promise.
  • fail to focus on the detail enough to insist on specific measurable goals.
  • invite people to “try,” but not get them to commit to specifics.
  • micromanage people and end up telling them how to meet their promises, whether they want that “help” or not.
  • hate to micromanage people, so you kind of just set a direction and trust they’ll do their best.
  • let people off the hook when they don’t meet promises (e.g., by doing it for them, or telling them “not to worry”) rather than helping them to really figure out why they didn’t meet their promises, so that they’ll do better next time.
  • help you team set clear and timebound goals, but then not perform disciplined follow up at the specific times you have set for performance.

I hope this list might help you find some of the ways that your management gets too loose — or too tight — and keeps you from

Leading with your best self?!

  • Sounds good, Dan. And of course, you are right on the money. But when it comes to current reality, at least for the Republicans these days, distortions of reality make it difficult if not impossible to create a real vision. Without knowing what reality is, it is hard for a musician to play it tune, a painter to represent reality accurately, and for leaders to lead others. As Robert Frost said, “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” All the best, Robert…

  • Dan, having moved from an organizational leadership position, I now have the advantage of seeing this topic from the staff member’s vantage point. My supervisors rarely are explicit about goals or deadlines, so my take-away is that we all need to be explicit in asking our supervisors, What goal-oriented task should I focus on, and by when should it be completed? This information helps me understand what’s important and what’s urgent, and therefore enables me to schedule my work I am compulsive about using my Outlook calendar to schedule my work (in addition to my appointments and meetings), as well as to remind me when I’m expecting something from someone else. Building a culture of goal-oriented “promises” and timelines is essential to both moving toward the organizational vision as well as providing people with a feeling of accomplishment.

    • David,
      I agree completely! I think that some of the greatest wisdom from Jack Welch is on bringing this focus and clarity of expectations. People used to criticize him for cutting the bottom 10% of his workforce. I’m not crazy about that practice (without good coaching to support it, and without ensuring that the manager is doing their job). But what they miss is that in his system the manager HAS to be clear about expectations in order to hold people accountable. I have to believe that is why they were so successful during his tenure.
      And finally I would add: This is the hard work for which one gets paid to manage: to decide what IS important, to help articulate it clearly, and then to support people to get there!
      Thanks, as always,

  • Thanks Dan, It is very useful and very good organizational leadership position, I hope, these information can help our work place achievement.

  • You packed a lot in that list at the end. One comment on measuring outcomes. I have seen organizations get far to caught up in numbers and statistics of measurement. Measuring an outcome needs to be more than looking at numbers.

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