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Drive Results Without Being The Taskmaster – The 7th Leadership Principle

November 24, 2008 7 Comments

The TaskmasterLeadership without action is nothing more than cheerleading. It’s a rah rah speech. Stuff has to happen. Results count. The seventh Leadership Principle is “ensure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished.”

I know some of you are conjuring up visions of taskmaster bosses when you hear those words (hopefully none of those bosses have been as bad as The Taskmaster comic book villain pictured here – although it would be very cool to work for him because that would mean you’re a cartoon which carries all sorts of possibilities along with it…). I’m not advocating that. This principle is all about mission definition, articulation, and accomplishment. There’s a lot loaded into that very short statement of principle so let’s break it down.

Ensure the task is understood

Seems simple, right? Make sure people know what you’re asking them to do. And exactly how many times have you or your boss skipped that critical step this week alone? We assume. You know what happens then (bad things). I screwed this up this very morning:

Me (to pre-teen son): “Clean your room.”

Him: “Okay.”

Result: two empty Gatorade bottles and a plate brought down to the kitchen. Laundry remained on the floor, bed went unmade and playing xBox resumed. Clearly I failed as a leader because I didn’t ensure the task as I understood it was understood by him. The better answer would have been “clean your room. When you’re done I want no plates or bottles in here, laundry in the laundry room and/or put away and your bed made. After that you can play xBox again.”

This portion of the principle simply requires you to articulate your vision of the endstate then have your team say it back to you as they understand it. Doing so prevents misunderstanding and tasks not being accomplished properly.

Supervised

I’m not talking about micromanaging here. I’m advocating knowing the milestones in your own mind and checking in occasionally to see if things are progressing according to your expectations. If they are, step off. Get out of your team’s way.

If they’re not progressing as expected, understand why, problem solve to figure out how to get things back on track and reset your milestones. If they need resources, get them resources. If they need others to stop meddling, protect your team so they can get things done (be the project version of the human crapshield). Supervision doesn’t mean being the Taskmaster (although it is a basic hero power. Get it? “Super Vision?” Nevermind…).

And Accomplished

As a leader, it’s not done until you say it’s done. One of your jobs in the organization is setting standards. If something’s not accomplished to your satisfaction, you have an obligation to send your team back to correct it. If it is completed (according to the standards you articulated in the “understood” phase), let your team know they’ve completed the task (don’t just expect them to know they’ve gotten over the bar – tell them they have and praise them for it).

Execution doesn’t just “happen.” It requires active (but not over-active) participation from you (especially in the opening phases of the work). Point your team in the right direction, ensure they’re staying on track, and let them know when they’ve crossed the finish. As a leader, that’s your job.

What challenges do you face as a leader with respect to task execution? What prevents or hinders you and your team from successfully accomplishing your missions? What do you do to mitigate these issues? Tell us what you think!

- Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

7 Responses to “Drive Results Without Being The Taskmaster – The 7th Leadership Principle”

  1. admiyo says:

    Mike,

    You really just touch the top of the topic with this one. I think that striking the balance between under and over supervising is the hardest part of Leadership.

    The problem with the pre-teen son not cleaning the room is a lack of motivation as much as a lack of goal setting.

    I’d love to see more details on the techniques that you use in the real world to figure out where the balance is. It really depends on the people that you have working for you.

    I’ve found that the challenges come from the high energy people. THese are people that you don’t have to motivate, but require a lot of guidance to keep on track. You don’t want to kill their enthusiasm, but they often head off in their own directions, not contributing to the organizational goals.

    It can also be tricky when you are just one link in the hierarchy, a middle manager. The goals of the overall enterprise might not mean that your organization gets the sexy work, or might get underfunded, or something else that kills enthusiasm. How do you set up a project plan, and track it, when you realize that you are really just and “economy of force” effort.

  2. Mike Figliuolo says:

    @Admiyo Thanks for the thoughts. You're covering off on a lot of good subjects and issues here. Here are a few thoughts – would love the readership's reaction so please chime in!

    - on the pre-teen son: sure, motivation is absolutely an issue/challenge here. I offer the example as a simple anecdote to help ground the concept of being clear of the desired outcome. If you as a leader can't clearly articulate the vision of an acceptable endstate, you've almost guaranteed your team will fail.
    - On the balance of getting involved as a leader (vs. stepping back): sure it's situationally dependent. I love the skill/will matrix as a tool. It's a 2×2 that assesses the skill and will of team members and lays out some strategies for working effectively with folks in each of the quadrants. I'll cover it in a future post – it's a great topic.
    - Your "high energy" people are in the high will/moderate skill box in my mind. They want to do well but don't have the skills to focus, stay on strategy, or self-monitor/self-correct. As a leader the best tool I've used in those situations is simply stating & asking "that's a great idea – help me understand where it fits into the broader goals and how it helps drive them." It's the Socratic method at its best – they'll realize their energy is misdirected or you simply don't understand how they see their work fitting into the broader picture.
    - On the goals of the enterprise vs. the non-sexy goals of your team: the best story I ever heard on this was during the '60's, someone asked a NASA janitor what he was doing emptying trash cans in the control room so late at night (he was working after hours). His response? "I'm helping put a man on the moon." Many of us would view his work about as unsexy as it comes yet he had a great leader somewhere who helped him see how his work fit into the broader goal. That leader motivated him by demonstrating how his work was valuable and important in a broader effort rather than simply focusing on the menial task of trash collection.

    I hope these ideas spark a few thoughts and additional comments. The thing I love about this blog is it's a constantly evolving and ongoing conversation. I'll be sure to pick up on some of these points in future posts and encourage you and others to find some of the answers/perspectives on these topics in older posts. Geez – you asked such great questions that this comment is the equivalent of a whole new blog post! Thanks again for the thoughts.

  3. Mike says:

    Isn’t it inherent that the leader actually trust their staff?

    I’ve found that taskmasters revert to that practice when they are scared that they don’t understand what their staff/project team is doing or needs to do. They have been unable to communicate with them properly, which leads to a lack of trust.

    Without the trust, the only way they feel confident that the job is being done (and done correctly) is to micromanage the entire process.

    I believe it’s incumbent upon all parties involved to take the time to communicate information in such a way that it is understood what is needed and why it is needed. One of the worst things a high energy person can feel is that their energy is being wasted doing a task that is not suited to their talents, and hence, wasted energy/time/cycles that could be spend delivering product.

  4. Mike Figliuolo says:

    @Mike I think your points on trust are spot on. The leader needs to trust their team (both in terms of intent and capabilities) and the team needs to trust that the leader is taking them somewhere worthwhile. If these conditions aren’t met, the whole thing devolves into micromanagement.

    I think another reason things devolve isn’t necessarily trust related – it’s a function of the leader being comfortable doing their “real” job rather than reverting to tasks they’re more comfortable with. Think of it this way – if someone was a stellar analyst and they move up to a management role, they might be uncomfortable with delegation, occasional supervision, and the provision of direction/guidance. Since they’re uncomfortable with these tasks, they might revert to doing things they’re more familiar and comfortable with (i.e., going back to doing analyst tasks which by default puts them in a micromanaging role of telling people how to do their job). There’s a lot of psychology involved in this dynamic. Essentially it boils down to an inherent need people have to feel competent in what they do so they feel like they control their environment. The only way this gets resolved is that manager understands the negative effects of this dynamic and they commit to doing their new job (leading) versus their old one (analyzing).

    Thanks for your thoughts. Reactions?

  5. [...] because they like getting paid. But when they go home at night, they spill their bile about their taskmaster of a boss who does nothing but drive them crazy (isn’t that what you do [...]

  6. [...] because they like getting paid. But when they go home at night, they spill their bile about their taskmaster of a boss who does nothing but drive them crazy (isn't that what you do too?).If you don't start fixing some [...]

  7. [...] because they like getting paid. But when they go home at night, they spill their bile about their taskmaster of a boss who does nothing but drive them crazy (isn’t that what you do [...]

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