How to create better leaders — as opposed to lip-servicing the idea

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Effective leadership skills should be a focus in terms of something organizations try to develop in their people who become managers/leaders — but, if you’ve ever had a job, you know often this isn’t the case. What matters to most people at most jobs are tasks, deliverables, ROI, KPIs, revenue metrics, CAGR, and the like. No one really cares about effective leadership skills so long as the bottom line is healthy and the execs’ (i.e. the decision-makers) bonuses are coming in fat and sweet. Not every place is like this, but many are. Phrased another way: if effective leadership skills actually mattered to people who made decisions in organizations, do you think we would have an average 12-year gap between the first time a person becomes a manager and the first time they receive any type of managerial training? Probably not.

Part of the problem with all this, of course, is that no one is truly clear on what makes effective leadership skills. See, if every person is different, then it would stand to reason that every team (a collection of people) is different. As a result of that, every leader of every team needs to be different — and if you lead six-10 teams in a year on different projects, you need to be shifting your approach each time out, right? So in this whole mess of things, what actually constitutes effective leadership skills? Let’s try to get at this.

Effective Leadership Skills: The Google Way

Google is a little bit over-hyped as the greatest company of all-time to work for, but it seems like a place that “gets it” in terms of people mattering and what people want out of a job. Their head of People (i.e. HR) once taught me an amazing lesson about management, so I’m into them overall.

I came across this new-ish post on Wharton’s website called “Effective Teams and Managers: What Google Has Learned.” Figured it might be interesting, and mostly ’tis. Here’s the first part I noted:

We were getting some signals that managers on the whole were not performing or at least not providing the experience to the people on their teams you would want to have when you come to work. We did research on what differentiates the best managers from the not-so-great managers and came up with eight attributes of success — everything ranging from having consideration for people as people to providing coaching and career development advice. We codified that set of eight, and we give every Google employee the chance to rate their manager on those eight attributes, and we provide them with the feedback. That is an example of a set of eight rules that is empirically based. We know it drives good outcomes, and if you can prove that a set of rules is leading to better outcomes, people will listen to that. It just needs to be based on data and evidence.

OK, so eight effective leadership skills. What are they? For that, let’s move to this post — and here are the eight:

  • Be a good coach
  • Empower your team and don’t micro-manage
  • Express interest in your team’s success and personal well-being
  • Be productive and results-oriented
  • Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  • Help your employees with career development
  • Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  • Have key technical skills where you can help advise this team

By the way, the majority of this Google eight effective leadership skills stuff came out in May 2011 … so if you’ve heard it before, I apologize for any rehash. But maybe I can bring some new perspective to it.

Effective Leadership Skills: The pros and cons

All the eight effective leadership skills mentioned in those bullets above are good, and make a lot of sense. The problem is … Google is a different type of place that attracts different types of people, and maybe the most effective aspect of its branding is how people want to be there. Most places are not like Google. I think we all realize that by now. Google, for example, is classified in this Wharton article linked above as being almost “anti-rules.” How many places have you worked that are truly anti-rules? Most places are choked to the hilt by process.

If you take all eight one-by-one, you can find a couple of research-backed flaws on each one:

Be a good coach: Indeed, effective leadership skills are all about coaching. You can learn from John Wooden on that one, baby! Unfortunately, however, many managers in companies are target-chasers with no connection back to the priority of the organization. How can a person ‘coach’ others when they themselves are unclear on what’s supposed to be happening?

Empower your team, don’t micro-manage: Amen! But alas, micromanagement isn’t going anywhere. That’s as rooted in psychology as men thinking they don’t get laid enough.

Express interest in your team’s success, personal well-being: Most bosses are horrified at the concept of being ‘friends’ with their direct reports. In some research done by Harvard a few years back, 60 percent of managers said they “simply had no time” to respect their employees, as if “respect” is a concept you schedule in Outlook. 6 in 10 managers can’t respect employees. Hard to ‘express interest’ off that, eh?

Be productive and results-oriented: This is how most managers construe their job. “I’m a target-hitter! I deliver results for the brass!” Go eff yourself, Johnny. You digitally push papers around because the brass isn’t entirely sure what you do since the core business model has shifted six times since 2005. Productivity comes from alignment and self-awareness, not from chasing around a bunch of tasks all day like a Black Lab with a beat-up tennis ball.

Be a good communicator and listen to your team: If you were to find a way to poll every single human being with an office job and ask them their least favorite thing, I bet over 70 percent would list “communication.” There are legitimate approaches to boss-employee communication, but most managers tend to view this as a “soft skill” they don’t need to focus on — or they think that because their spouse and them communicate OK, they must be doing fine at work too! Classic bullshit paradigm confusion; work isn’t the same thing as family. At all.

Help your employees with career development: We force people to collaborate at most jobs — i.e. work in teams — and then we promote individuals. What do you think that does to notions of helping with career development? If 5 of every 10 people are out for №1 (i.e. themselves), ain’t no one shepherding you through the storm that is a career arc in the modern era.

Have a clear vision and strategy for your team: From here:

When asked, only a third of senior managers could correctly identify what the CEO had identified as the firm’s top three priorities. “When you drop one or two levels below the CEO, your ability to form a holistic picture is simply lost,” she says. In this vacuum, “you’re leaving managers across the organization to prioritize by themselves.”

That’s about all you need to know on that one.

Have key technical skills: This ideally would work the most of these eight effective leadership skills, because traditionally we promote people within silos based on expertise in that functional area. Then — cue ominous music — digital tools started emerging. I’ve worked in mostly digital content and digital marketing my whole life, and I’ve never had a boss who remotely understood what I did. My last boss was a magazine editor who somehow was in charge of digital strategy for a B2B consortium company. She regularly told me to work with UX to make the fonts and colors on the website prettier. UX could give three shits — they had another boss and different targets — and so the whole thing was a giant cluster dong for the 18 months I worked there, then I got canned. Perhaps a blessing in disguise. I dunno.

The final rub on effective leadership skills

We want work to be logical, but it can’t be — work is about people, and people are emotional. Dale Carnegie said that, I believe.

As a result, most effective leadership skills are ultimately ‘soft’ skills — they’re about communication, investing in others, having some expertise but being willing to learn, etc.

The problem is, most managers approach the idea of ‘effective leadership skills’ in a very target-hitting, make-your-numbers, please-your-own-boss kinda way. Because of that, most managers aren’t great. They’re focusing on Target A — “I gotta keep the top dogs happy!” — when in reality they should be focusing on a mix of Target A and Target B, with B being “I gotta understand what my team does, how they interact with that work, and how I can help them along.” The second target is oft-ignored as we rush to our 12:10pm stand-up on Q2 power branding plays, but it shouldn’t be.

What else would you add?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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