The Leadership Secret to Getting More Done


One of the things I notice as I work with new leaders is a tendency to accept work practices and processes as fixed entities. In some cases, company procedures, processes and work practices are mandated from a level far removed from the front-line supervisor, and they are relatively fixed. In most cases, front-line supervisors have more flexibility and freedom to adjust and improve work processes than they realize upon first taking the new position.

When I attempt to make the point that they might have more freedom and flexibility than they realize, I often get resistance from new supervisors. They say things like, “supervisors don’t have any flexibility in my company” or “you don’t understand my boss, she won’t let me do anything that isn’t strictly by the book.”

While the statements may accurately reflect how much freedom new supervisors feel that they have, neither statement is completely true. Very few supervisors have no flexibility in how they assign tasks and instruct their team members. Almost all supervisors have at least some flexibility.

As an engineering officer on a submarine, I used to start, run, and shutdown nuclear reactors.  Frankly, the nuclear navy is a pretty rigid environment. As a junior officer, I did not get much leeway in how I did things. I was expected to follow the rules, regulations, and procedures as defined by people senior to me.

And, even in that environment, I had some flexibility. In addition to following procedures, I was expected to observe work practices, read procedures, and notice bottlenecks in processes to look for ways to make them better and more efficient. I could not always act on my observations without approval. I was expected to make well reasoned recommendations.

With rare exceptions, supervisors in the business world have more flexibility and freedom than I had as an engineering officer. Realizing this freedom and flexibility is the basis for what I would call “The Secret” to getting more done…

Identify and remove barriers to successful task completion that are imposed by work processes.

Barriers can show up in many ways, and I cannot begin to adequately address them all in this brief article. I can offer three actions you can take to help in the identification and removal process…

Ask your team members what slows them down. Do they need a form to streamline communications and requests? Are they required to use a form that no longer works?

Observe their work flow. Is a piece of equipment installed so that they have to take ten extra steps 15 times each day? Do they have to handle the same piece of paper multiple times?

Listen to their frustrations. Do they consistently joke about how ridiculous a certain process step seems to them? Do they talk about things they have to do to work around broken or slow equipment?

When you invest your time and energy into finding and removing barriers to task completion – especially the ones that impact several people – you multiply your efforts and you get more done.

Your Now Steps: Plan thirty minutes within the next 48 hours to consider the work processes used by your team. When you consider the work processes, focus on identifying barriers, duplicated effort, and outdated practices that hinder efficient task completion. Then initiate a change to remove that barrier to task completion.

New Supervisor Skills – People Must Feel Empowered to Act Empowered


Empowerment is a great thing.

Empowered employees show greater commitment, stay more engaged, and create better results. Empowered employees take more initiative and get more done than employees who work in a fear-based, command-and-control environment.

As a new supervisor, you hear and read about these organizational performance results, and you decide that you want to empower your employees. So, you go tell them that they are empowered. You watch and wait for them to act empowered. And you wonder why you don’t get the results you expected.

What went wrong?

Before I offer the solution, I’ll ask a question:

Is a person empowered when you tell them they are empowered or when they feel empowered?

The full answer is that both must be true to get the results mentioned above. You must give people the authority and freedom to act – you must empower them. And, people must feel empowered before they will act on that empowerment.

Most leaders get the first part.  Telling people that they have authority and that they can act on their own initiative is a pretty obvious first step towards creating an empowered work force.

The second part is a bit more difficult to quantify. It is more difficult to put into specific action steps. In fact, the second part is outside your direct control. It is, however, something that you can influence. There are things you can do or say that undermine your efforts to empower the members of your team. Likewise there are things you can do or say that will support your efforts.

If people live in fear that you will criticize them, condemn them, or complain about them, they will not feel empowered. They will feel controlled. If they feel controlled, they will not deliver the results of an empowered workplace that I mentioned above.

To create a feeling of empowerment, do everything in your power to foster a positive workplace with little or no fear as the motivating factor in people’s actions. Here are two ideas to consider as you work to achieve a fear-free environment that supports and encourages empowerment:

Compliment more than you condemn.

Seeing what people do wrong is easy. Looking past it to see what they did well can take some effort – especially when you are under tight time and budget constraints.

Remember that any negative comments you make will have a much stronger impact on people than your positive ones. Look for and comment on anything that people are doing well. This simple act will do more to create a feeling of empowerment than any spoken or written assignment of responsibility you will ever make.

Coach more than you critique.

When you trust people to do things, they will make mistakes. That is just a fact of life as a leader. How you respond to the mistakes people make has a big impact on the feelings people have about you, their work, and how much you trust them.

When a person on your team makes a mistake, you need to correct it. When you do, remember to use more positive feed forward – what you do want to see in the future – than any comments about what you do not want to see.

Your Now Steps: Identify someone on your team who you want to behave in a more “empowered” way. Before the end of the day, find an opportunity to praise something he did well – even if it is a very small thing. Over the next week, hold a coaching conversation with him where you focus primarily on his behaviors that you want to see more of in the future.

Six Questions to Ask for Successful Collaboration

Collaboration Word Cloud

The biggest problem with collaborative problem solving is the collaborative part.

Many new leaders became leaders because they know how to get things done. This individual ability to solve problems, applied in a team environment, can become a weakness as the new leader pushes strongly for a solution that others resist.

I have been that new leader who pushed too strongly too early in the process. That approach rarely worked for me.

As I began working to develop better collaborative problem solving skills, I read How to Make Collaboration Work by David Straus, and I learned an approach for reaching better group decisions. Straus’ basic premise is that collaboration follows six predictable steps or stages.

Personally, I apply what Straus teaches by asking six questions of both myself and others as we work to solve problems together. Over time, I have found that the approach works well.

If possible, I suggest using the questions in the order listed here. If you are already engaged in a collaborative effort that has gotten stuck, you can use these questions to identify where you got off track and to get the discussion moving forward again.

Is there a problem?

I might see a problem. Others might not. Before we can reach an agreement on the best solution for the problem, we have to agree that a problem exists.

How do you define the problem?

How you solve a problem hinges on how you define the problem. If you define it one way and I define it a different way, we will never agree on the solution.

What are some possible causes for the problem?

Once we agree that there is a problem and that we both define it the same way, we can analyze the causes. If we assign different causes to the problem, we will not be able to agree on how to solve it.

What are some different ways we could solve the problem?

This is the brainstorming and creative stage. We want to identify as many possible solutions as possible so that we can pick the best one rather than the first one that we identify.

What would a successful solution look like?

Most of the problems we solve using this process could be solved in many different ways and every solution will have its own set of benefits and drawbacks. At this stage of the process, we agree on the criteria we will use to evaluate the possible solutions. For example, if we must trade quality or time in order to save costs, how much quality or time are we prepared to sacrifice to save money?

Which of the possible solutions best fits the solution criteria?

Finally, we can wrestle with deciding which solution best fits our agreed upon criteria.

This series of questions helps people to identify hidden assumptions or conclusions they might bring to the table that would hinder reaching a conclusion that everyone can accept. The process can sometimes get messy, and it can take some time. The benefit in sticking with it is that the time you invest in the process will pay you back in faster and better implementation due to better buy-in, commitment, and enthusiasm.

Use the Right Style at the Right Time


Every stage of team development has different characteristics. These different characteristics mean that every stage calls for leaders to behave in different ways to support team growth.

In From Bud to Boss, Kevin Eikenberry and I reference the Tuckman Model of team development as a useful tool for understanding what is happening in your team at each stage of development as it moves from a group of individuals working in the same location to a high-performing team working towards a common goal.  The four stages of team development – in order – are Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing

We also reference the DISC model as a useful tool for understanding both yourself and others so that you can adjust your communication style for maximum effectiveness. The DISC model is based on recognizing and adapting to both pace (faster or slower) and priority (tasks or relationships) differences between people. The four DISC styles are Dominant (faster pace and task priority), Inspiring (faster pace and relationship priority), Supportive (slower pace and relationship priority), and Cautious (slower pace and task priority).

By combining the models you can gain insights for how to best lead your team through each of the four stages. You will use many different leadership behaviors at all stages of team development. And, based on where your team is at a given time, you can focus your efforts for maximum effectiveness.

In the Forming stage, your team will likely exhibit polite, cautious behaviors and look to you for strong guidance and direction. Team members do not yet know exactly what is expected of them as they work together. While many of the concerns at this stage are related to relationship development, you can often help them best by giving clarity about what needs to get done. You can use Dominant behaviors – directing activities, setting goals, and solving problems – to help your team gain the clarity and direction they need to grow from a group of individuals to a high-performing team.

In the Storming stage, your team might experience conflicts and struggles. This is a very dangerous phase of team development because relationships can be irreparably harmed by conflicts, relationship struggles, and wrestling with organizational issues. To navigate these rough waters, you can use Cautious behaviors – asking thoughtful questions, carefully evaluating information, and developing processes – to guide your team on to the next stage of development.

As your team enters the Norming stage, they will focus more on task accomplishment and less on interpersonal issues. There might still be a few left-over relationship issues to resolve and some gentle guidance to offer to keep them growing. You can use Supportive behaviors – offering reassurance, encouraging, and listening – to solidify the team growth gains you made in the previous two stages.

Finally, your team moves into the Performing stage. They are pretty self-sufficient. They know what needs to be done and how to do it. They are almost totally focused on goal achievement. Now, you can use Inspiring behaviors – enthusiasm, cheerleading, and celebrating – to keep your team’s energy up for the long haul.

The suggestions I offer here are targeted at maximizing your leadership effectiveness based on the stage of team development by tying your leadership behaviors to an objective model. Use these suggestions to identify what your team needs from you at each stage.

With individuals, you need to adjust to their particular style without regard to the team’s stage of development.

photo credit: gfpeck via photopin cc

Dealing with Creative Block

See through the barrier

Two big ideas that have huge implications for you as a leader are swirling in my head. I am struggling valiantly (at least in my mind) to align the ideas in a way that briefly and meaningfully conveys them. In attempting to write a coherent post blending these two ideas, I find myself in a creative block. Okay, here goes…

Idea Number One:

Leadership teacher and author John Maxwell says:  Everything rises and falls on leadership.  It seems to me that the level of creativity a team exhibits falls fully within the confines of everything.

Idea Number Two:

In Brain Rules, John Medina states twelve rules about our brains. Rule eight is: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.

People under stress do not learn information, develop new skills, create ideas, or find solutions to problems as well as people who are not under stress. Situations that people view as averse to their well being and that they feel no control to change cause this type of stress. For example, people held accountable for results that are not totally within their control would be in this situation.

Many people reading this post could easily say: “That’s me. I am held accountable for results that are not totally within my control. No wonder I’m stressed!”

Which brings me back to Idea Number One: You are responsible for the level of creativity in your team, and it is not totally within your control.

When you focus on “I can’t control this” thinking, you will feel stress that limit’s your creativity and your ability to inspire creativity in others. This lack of creativity will hinder your ability to find a solution. The lack of a clear solution will inhibit your desire to take action. Not taking action will make the time line seem more out of control. The growing sense of loss of control will create more stress. You find yourself facing the paralyzing cycle of creative block.

That is precisely the cycle I found myself in as I attempted to write this post. To break through the block I did two things. First, I addressed the stress by taking a brief walk and playing my guitar for five minutes.  Second, I took action by writing something. I had a vague idea of where I was going, and I had no clear idea of how to get there. I just started.

To deal with creative block, you can do the same thing:

First, do something to address the stress. Go for a walk, re-frame your thinking to focus on the elements of the situation that you can control, get counsel from someone who has successfully faced your situation, do push-ups, etc. In a team setting, you could throw Koosh balls around the room, take the meeting outside for fifteen minutes, take ten minutes to talk about vacation plans, etc. The big idea is to do something to break the stress. Continuing to push generally makes the situation worse.

Second, focus on the first action. Get moving in the right direction, and the way will often become clearer. A mentor of mine once told me, “It’s a good idea to know where you’re going before you start, but you don’t need to know every step to take the first one.”

Your Now Steps: Think of a project where you or your team are creatively stuck. Do something to deal with the stress for both you and your team. Then, identify the general direction you want to go and what first action could move you that direction. Take the action.