The What and the How, Now

By the time a person reaches a position of leadership, he or she usually has a certain level of confidence. They have obviously succeeded, their ideas and approaches have been rewarded, and people have looked to them for guidance. When that happens, it is easy for a leader to think that others should follow their lead, to act in ways consistent with the leader’s style and priorities. And that is true . . . sort of. It is also true that with changes in the market, in generations, and a myriad of other variables, approaches that worked in the past may not necessarily work in the future. How does a leader find the right balance of setting standards and priorities while also allowing enough breathing room for a new generation of emerging leaders to bring their fresh ideas to the table?

  • Clearly articulate values and strategic priorities — the what.

Part of a leader’s job is to set the guard rails, to clearly articulate the end goal and the behaviors expected to be at the forefront in accomplishing those goals. When desired behavior is rewarded, it becomes part of the culture, and as noted by Peter Drucker, culture eats strategy for breakfast. When stated values are ignored, or not emphasized, everything else the leader says is likely to be seen as optional as well. It is the leader’s responsibility to set the context in which the work will be accomplished.

  • Remain flexible on the how.

This is where things can get tricky. It is so easy for a leader to want to weigh in on the how, because they know what has succeeded in the past. Except, it is no longer the past. Prime example . . . I started my career in marketing, and I was good at it. My organization accomplished a lot of positive things when I had a responsibility for positioning our agency. And while I have vivid recollections of that, I have not “done marketing” for a long time. The approach to marketing today is very different than it was 20+ years ago, and so I need to, in many respects, minimize my own feedback so those who are more attuned to effective strategies in the current environment can help us succeed. The “how” I used in the past wouldn’t be effective today.

  • Create opportunities to connect the what and the how.

Connecting the what and the how often means bringing different generations of leaders together, and making sure that the “what people” — often the senior most leaders — don’t cast such a large shadow that a new generation of “how people” feel like their voice isn’t heard. That doesn’t mean that a leader can’t push back against ideas, only that consideration of input should be carefully weighted. Just because one approach succeeded in the past doesn’t mean it should carry disproportionate sway on how to move forward in the future. 

It is obviously not an exact science, however when a leader makes a decision he or she needs to be careful not to overemphasize what worked in the past. Those who succeed consider the what and the how best suited for now.

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