Why do some leaders seem to effortlessly make big things happen while others are constantly struggling to put out fires? How do those ultra-effective leaders manage their time and focus to make big things happen?
This article is the first in a series focused on the habits and priorities that help high-performing managers and executives create momentum, advance their key metrics, and lead projects across the finish line again and again.
It’s Not Just About Me Anymore
If you are a leader at any level in your organization, you face the dual challenge of managing your own productivity as well as your team’s performance and results. In many cases, especially for those in executive roles, you are also responsible for leading change, driving bottom-line outcomes, and steering toward a strategic vision. Our work goes beyond simple supervision and making sure nothing burns down on a given shift: we are accountable for making the big things happen. In most cases, we do that while simultaneously handling numerous tasks or projects that need our personal attention.
As an individual contributor earlier in my career, I was a rock star of productivity. I got a lot done and consistently enjoyed positive feedback and recognition for strong performance. I had built a great work ethic, and didn’t usually have too much trouble always saying “Yes!” to additional tasks or projects. “Throw it in the mix” was a frequent phrase I used, and I really enjoyed the challenge of squeezing the most out of my agenda and planner to deliver one great win after another.
As I started taking on leadership roles over time however, the projects and operations became more complex and more people were involved. Different members of the team brought different strengths and strides to the work, and my hard-headed “just work harder” approach to getting lots of things done found its limit. I even started to struggle with managing my own focus and energy as the varied nuances of management work started to pull me in different directions.
I discovered in a deep way that being the leader is not a mere matter of being the hardest worker and simply expecting your employees to follow along. Instead, I found a whole new set of questions I needed to consider to lead my teams effectively: What’s the best way to handle it all? How do you keep up momentum when it’s not only your personal productivity that counts anymore? What are the skills and habits great managers have that make their teams top-performing groups while others with similar resources and constraints struggle?
Making the Management Transition
In her book, Becoming the Boss; New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders, Lindsey Pollack explains that being a great individual contributor doesn’t necessarily make someone a great leader. In her exploration of the management transition, the author outlines practical steps for becoming a credible leader such as emulating leadership role models, creating a “we” mentality on the team, and teaching your team members the secrets to your success so that they can follow in suit.
Similarly, leadership expert Bruce Tulgan outlines practical steps supervisors can follow in building a highly proactive style of management in It’s OK to Be the Boss; The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need. Tulgan recommends leaders approach management as an intentional, daily process of communication, evaluation, feedback, and problem-solving. Most notably, he tackles “the undermanagement epidemic,” challenging managers to quit hands-off leadership approaches and start delivering essential expectations and frequent feedback.
In addition to grounded, practical works like these, books, op-eds, commentaries, lectures, and scholarly works on management and leadership provide a vast array of tips and theories on what leadership should look like. There are any number of labels for different management styles: servant leadership, transformational leadership, democratic leadership, charismatic leadership, ethical leadership, and so on. The management transition involves an adaptive shift in how we approach our work to encompass leading, teaching, assessing, communicating, thinking, guiding, and influencing. That blend of responsibilities is far less formulaic and much more contextual than a single theory of management can address.
Instead of searching for The Theory of how to make things happen, we have to approach our responsibilities with practical reflection, and a ever-developing understanding of how to balance work, leadership, strategy, projects, people, and vision.
Making things happen
Over the next twelve articles, we will explore leadership practices that help advance team learning and productivity, streamline processes, or create stronger momentum. These are strategies I’ve found or developed over years of managing teams and consulting with dozens of other leaders, and then honed through a hard look at the available reading and research on the topic.
- Make the most of your personal productivity tools.
- Prioritize unlocking work.
- Stay out of the weeds.
- Build essential relationships.
- Remember conversations are your work.
- Intentionally manage guardrails and time-sinks.
- Create a focus on finishing.
- Know your business.
- Bring order to chaos.
- Study top performers.
- Expand the team’s horizons.
- Invest in capacity building and team health.
As I post each of these in the coming months, you’ll find good reading recommendations, a glimpse at what the academic research on the topic says, and some of my own reflections on these practices in action.
Leave a comment below and tell me what questions you have, and what else you hope to see!
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