As I spoke to the CEO of a small technology firm (let’s call him James) about his past leadership struggles, he was having a difficult time understanding how his former employees just couldn’t grasp what was important to him. James hired me to coach him because he did not want to repeat the same mistakes with his young company that he had as a manager at his past jobs. This display of courage, humility, and discipline was a great start. James desperately wanted to get better so there was no doubt in my mind he would. We just had to decide what exactly he needed to get better at.
James was a hands-off type of leader. He trusted that his employees would complete tasks without smothering oversite. It was his opinion that this is how tech people worked best. James wanted to give his people the freedom to do their work and be creative. In my mind, all good qualities. The problem, however, was James’ former employees were not completing the tasks he thought were most important. Two areas James thought were important in which he found very little progress were “fanatical support” to the customer and “pushing out project updates daily” to the customer. In fact, these two areas were not only not getting done in the manner James wanted, they were not getting done at all. Project updates were getting pushed out to customers not daily, but weekly or monthly. And James further discovered that his employees would sometimes go weeks without speaking directly to a client.
Given the scenario James described, the follow up questions to him were obvious; did you set clear guidelines of behavior for your people and did you hold them accountable to those guidelines? James replied with an emphatic “Yes!”. But when pushed as to how he set guidelines and held people accountable he regurgitated tired platitudes about leadership, none of which made much sense in his situation and none of which he could provide applicable details to support. We eventually got a laugh when James proclaimed, “Ok, well, I thought I provided guidelines and accountability.” The laughter quickly turned to concern when James realized my idea for his improvement was going to be setting guidelines of behavior and holding people accountable for their actions and work. As a young CEO, James felt like this would turn off his employees because it appeared to be a dictatorial and micro-managing style of leadership, two attributes he detested and did not want to be a part of. “Tech people don’t work well in that environment,” were James’ words. When I told James I agreed with him, that a dictatorial and micro-managing style of leadership would lead to disaster, there was further confusion on his part.
I offered to James that every leader has some things that he or she believes are important to the success of a team or organization. James agreed. We had already discussed this; daily project updates pushed out to clients and fanatical customer support. I told James that when I lead teams, a couple of things I believe are important are even more simple; be on time and don’t lie. James and I agreed that everybody on a team needs to be lead a little differently. Some people need more oversight than others and some people need more explanation than others. That’s ok. As leaders, we need to adjust to these needs of the people we lead. But there are some things that are non-negotiable. For me, everybody would be held to the no lying and no habitual lateness guidelines. It did not matter what kind of performer someone was. In my mind, performance of the collective team would eventually disintegrate if lying and habitual lateness were tolerated. James relayed that my guidelines were more common sense than anything else. I agreed. But then I challenged him. Did he ever have an employee be less than honest or habitually late? James conceded that, yes, often. Did James think that if people were on time and honest the team would generally be better? Again, yes. Did James ever tell his people not to be late or not be less than honest? No, it had not occurred to him. Suddenly, setting a few clear guidelines of behavior seemed much more reasonable…even desirable.
Fanatical customer support and pushing out daily project updates are now a part of James’ guidelines for the employees of his company. He lets everybody know these are important to him and if someone believes they cannot accommodate these requirements perhaps this is not the best place for them to work. To his surprise, there was no pushback and two of James’ most important requirements are now part of the fabric of his company. It was simple, James set clear guidelines and people followed them, knowing the consequences of not following them. And, he held people accountable. But getting to the accountability stage required a little more work.
James was concerned about how to hold people accountable without micro-managing or taking away their freedom or creativity. A few questions cleared this up. Did James ever have to address a work-related problem with an employee? Of course, he did. Did James have to ask several questions to get a feel for the problem? Well, yes, he did. Were these questions out of the ordinary or basic questions as to the general situation? Generally basic questions, but then they would get more detailed. Were the work-related problems time sensitive? For some reason, yes, a lot of the problems ended up being time sensitive. Did James believe he generally made a fully informed decision on the time sensitive problems? Not really, admitted James. Sometimes he would handle it himself, especially if it was a technical problem. Otherwise, he just made the best decision he could with the information and time available. Which generally turned out to be not enough information and little time resulting is a rushed, ill-thought out decision. Whether it was the right decision turned out to be more of a product of luck or chance than solid leadership.
Poor leaders generally couch the decision-making process described by James as “decisive” leadership and wear their quick decision-making abilities as a badge of honor. I contend that these “expedient” and “decisive” actions are nothing more than a result of not being fully informed of what is happening on your team or your company. Dare I say, laziness. In other words, you can only make a good decision if you are fully informed of the situation. Additionally, the necessity to make “time sensitive” decisions will also be drastically mitigated if you are aware of potential problems well before they become time sensitive. In other words, if a leader is “micro-KNOWLEDGING”, they will always be able to make a well informed, and time sensitive, decision.
Knowing what is going on with your team is not micro-managing, it’s your responsibility, I explained to James. Telling people how to do what you ask them to do is micro-managing. Or doing their work for them because there is no time to fully work on the “time sensitive” problem together could be considered micro-managing. Again, a few simple questions cleared things up for James. Is there anything more important than the final product for a client? Of course not, James responded. Do your employees always get the product exactly right, the first time on time? Unfortunately, no. Does this make the customer happy? Definitely not. Do you think you would have a better idea of potential problems that may be forming if you communicated with your employees say, 2–3 times per week on the status of their project? Probably, James conceded. If you knew about a problem two weeks before the project was due do you think you would handle the issue more calmly than if you found out about it a day before, or on, the project’s due date? Of course, James responded. Would you have time to talk through the problem with your employee? Yes. Would you perhaps let your employee come to the solution on their own or simply offer some constructive advice or guidance? Yes, again. And would this constructive dialogue make your employee more comfortable coming to you in the future with problems? Does any of this sound like you are taking away freedom or creative license? OK, James responded, stop piling on.
It’s true, some employees will accuse you of micro-managing when you are micro-knowledging. As I reminded James, knowing what is happening in his company is not just his job, it’s his responsibility. The employees that resist updating you on the status of a project are likely the employees that need just a bit more of your guidance, expertise, and attention. It’s not hard math…or technology.
The good news is that micro-knowledging to hold people accountable worked for James in many ways he did not expect. James is now the leader that gets ahead of problems, because he knows what the problems are in advance and can address them while they are still small and manageable. James now knows more about his employees; what they are good at and what they struggle with, because he communicates with them regularly. James’ employees have been more creative and have been getting tasks done well in advance of deadlines because they now talk through issues and situations with James’ in a calm, not hair-on-fire, setting. James now leads a team that takes initiative, takes chances, acts creatively, and excels at fanatical customer support and getting the client to best product possible on time. James has excelled at holding people accountable simply by knowing what was happening in his company by engaging his employees.
The importance of proper guidelines and accountability cannot be overstated. As leaders, we cannot simply assume people know what is important to us and how to act. Take the guess work out and tell them. They will appreciate knowing what is expected of them.
As far as accountability, the only way to hold people accountable is to know what is going on. It is hard work to know what is going on and staying ahead of potential problems. Welcome to leadership. We are not limiting freedom or creativity by knowing what is going on, we’re leading and giving our employees, teams, and companies the best chance for success. As attributed to Sir Francis Bacon in 1597, “Ipsa scientia potestas est”, knowledge itself is power. It is also the responsibility of leaders to those being lead.
Errol Doebler is the founder of Ice Cold Leader, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Ice Cold Leader to realize his passion of empowering great leaders and better human beings. Errol provides executive coaching, keynote speaking, and corporate retreats to individuals and teams across the world.
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