Great Leaders Think Simply

Those of us who are privileged to be leaders understand how difficult it is to lead people.

Not assets, not resources. People.

Early in my career, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant to be a leader. I talked to more seasoned leaders, I read books on management theory, and – most importantly – I asked the people reporting to me. I quickly realized there was no cookie-cutter approach to leadership. Each person has unique aspirations, skills, and deficiencies. And my success was contingent on their success.

Over time I developed my own leadership mantra, manage by walking around, which is also the name of my personal website. The phrase comes from a management style at HP in the 1970’s; though some believe the first person to truly manage by walking around was Abraham Lincoln.

In 2009, in an attempt to simplify the views on leadership that I developed during my three tenures as a CEO, I finally wrote down My Management Guidelines: focus on outcomes, reward people for results, and let people do their jobs.

Re-reading these five years later, I’m struck that my guidelines still hold true. But I think they are missing something; a unifying theme.

Great leaders are able to find the signal from within the noise. Great leaders concentrate on the important not just the urgent. Great leaders think simply.

Let me illustrate what thinking simply looks like, and how it can help you become a better leader. As they say, show, don’t tell.

Leadership principle 1: Focus on outcomes, not activities

What this means
Tracking an activity is akin to measuring what I call an ‘ego metric:’ website page views, Twitter followers, Facebook likes, etc. When we focus on the outcome, we remind ourselves the point of the activity in the first place. And if a specific activity isn’t contributing to the desired outcome, we should course correct to something that will.

Think Simply illustration
Which is a more meaningful metric: the number of people who attended a company event, or the number of people who attended the event and later purchased your product? As a CMO, I believe in running a marketing organization as a business which means the outcome is more important than the activity.

Great leaders think simply about focusing on meaningful outcomes. And they know how to ask the right questions to figure out which outcomes are meaningful.

Leadership principle 2: Reward people for a focus on results

What this means
As naturally follows from a focus on the right outcomes, I don’t like to reward people for trying hard if they were working on the wrong things. I prefer to catch people doing the right things and provide them with instantaneous feedback.

Think Simply illustration
At my last job, I handed out ‘Becher bucks’ to reinforce behavior (better exchange rate than Schrute bucks), but there are many ways to reward employees that aren’t financial. Motivated people are likely to replicate the behavior (in this case, focusing on the outcome and not the activity). This can scale beyond real-time feedback to building KPIs that promote the right set of behaviors and create the right results.

Great leaders think simply about rewards as a way to align their peoples’ goals with that of the company.

Leadership principle 3: Hire good people and let them do their jobs

What this means
I want my employees to be able to do their job better than I can do it myself. If I think and act like I can do it better than they can, I don’t really need them around.

Think Simply illustration
Remember why you hired someone in the first place. In the midst of an important deadline or project, we sometimes forget what our team’s strengths and weaknesses are. As a leader, you must be confident in your ability to evaluate your people. And if you aren’t, then don’t worry, this comes with practice and experience. Parlay the confidence in yourself into confidence in your team – if you were impressed enough to bring him or her aboard, then you should be confident in their ability to excel.

Great leaders think simply about their peoples’ abilities to do their jobs.

Leaders – has simple thinking ever helped your career?

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn on September 15, 2014.

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2 Responses to Great Leaders Think Simply

  1. jbeisty September 22, 2014 at 9:19 am #

    Great post. It is very easy to get lost in the “noise” and to become distracted from what is important. As a leader, I often work to help my teams work through this problem and one thing that strikes me is how often they already know what should be done. If you give them time to think through it, almost always comes out. I find it critical to make time for reflection – first thing every day and at regular intervals during down time. If you are constantly on the treadmill and don’t poke your head up to really consider the bigger picture, it is all too easy to stay lost in complexity. Thanks for the reminder JB!

  2. jaimefarinos October 17, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

    When hiring people: hiring happy people
    During performance reviews, focusing on highlights and challenges, and not on the laundry list.
    When helping others through development: focusing on strengths and values

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