Simply Effective

business woman standing with her staff in background at modern bThe hard truth is, a large number of people in positions of leadership really aren’t all that effective. Of course, “effectiveness” is hard to quantify. A quick internet search provides a dizzying number of articles on characteristics needed for effective leadership. I know many people in positions of leadership who have worked to embody such characteristics. They are, for example, smart, personable, have a positive attitude and are deeply committed to their organizations. Shouldn’t these things make them effective? Perhaps it is not so much individual characteristics as a simple set of behaviors that draw on those traits that lead to effectiveness.

A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted the 10-year CEO Genome Project, which identified four behaviors demonstrated by high performing leaders: deciding with speed and conviction, engaging for impact, adapting proactively, and delivering reliably.

In terms of decisiveness, the study did not say that effective leaders’ decisions were always the right ones. Missteps are often easier to recover from  than making no decision, or a half-hearted one where one is merely trying to hedge his or her bets. Thus, rather than waiting for all the information, the simple act of making a decision can be a core attribute in leadership success.

Understanding who needs to be engaged, and how best to gain buy-in, is another core factor in effective leadership. Different stakeholders may have different motivations. Effective leaders understand this and seek out ways to align multiple “wins” for greatest impact. More than a matter of strong communication skills, engaging for impact is about first developing a strategic roadmap to know what to communicate to whom to find the fastest route to the ultimate destination.

When a leader moves into uncharted territory, the ability to adapt and respond proactively is a core trait that will separate high performing leaders from the also-rans. That sometimes means taking two steps forward and one step back. Success is rarely a linear process. Effective leaders know this, and expect that at times they will have to adjust their efforts to reach the final destination.

Setting realistic expectations, and then reliably delivering wins, might seem like an obvious attribute for effective leaders. In fact, all four of the behaviors identified in the study seem pretty self-evident. Leaders sometimes get so mired down in long lists of desirable leadership characteristics, that we miss the forest for the trees.

Maybe instead, we need to focus on four simple behaviors, which research has shown are key factors in overall leadership effectiveness. Simply effective . . . sounds like a winning plan!

Questioning Leadership

Question MarkOne of the great myths of leadership is that a leader has to have all the answers. In reality, if people in positions of leadership were required to provide all the answers, a lot less would get accomplished in this world. The real trick of leadership is asking the right questions.

Then why are so many leaders more prone to answering rather than asking?

  • It is quicker just to provide the answers. It seems everyone is running faster and the to-do lists just keep getting longer. Given that, if the leader already knows of a good solution, why not just provide it and save everyone time and energy, right?
  • Sharing their opinion has served them well. Most leaders didn’t move up through the ranks by keeping their thoughts to themselves. If voicing their perspective — giving an answer — has been rewarded up to this point, why would leaders want to change their approach?
  • Leaders are supposed to have things figured out. At least that is what everyone is telling them, and they have invested a large amount of time and energy into trying to do just that, so why would they not want to share what they have learned?

True? Maybe technically . . . however . . . to quote Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t get you there.” It is a myth to think that the behaviors that enabled you to a position of leadership are the same skills that will make you a successful leader.

  • That whole teach a man to fish thing . . . it really is true. We’ve all been in those meetings where someone is continually pulled out to answer a question or take a call simply because their people haven’t been asked, or allowed, to come up with an answer on their own. Sure, it may take longer at first to ask rather than tell, but in the long run you’ll get farther faster.
  • Why hire smart people if you aren’t going to listen to them? The best leaders seek out the slices of genius just waiting to be tapped throughout their organization. When you genuinely seek input before forming your opinion, your people feel valued for their expertise and you get to make better decisions.
  • Asking questions is how you . . . and your people . . . gain new insight! Think about the wisest leaders you know. Do they spend their time telling you how much they know, or do they ask probing questions that result in you identifying new solutions? In my experience, the most effective leaders use a few well-placed questions to steer you in the right direction and then encourage you to find the path forward.

Maybe, just maybe, the key to effective leadership is not imparting immediate answers but in asking the right questions. What do you think?