I think I’ve grown as a manager since starting my new job this time last year, but I’ve grown in ways I didn’t expect. I thought my new role would be mostly strategic, like I thought I would be able to sit back and practice high-minded strategy while leaving the day-to-day operations to others. Picture Winston Churchill in a room filled with mahogany furniture, cigar in one hand, brandy snifter in the other, pensively ruminating over a map with tokens representing his armies. That’s what I thought I’d be doing. That’s kinda what I tried to do.
What I’ve (re)learned is that there is a time and place for strategy, but strategy without a relentless focus on execution is meaningless. I have also (re)learned that the best laid strategies rarely survive first contact, and that in the heat of operations, people at all levels in the organization fall back on principles, values, and their training. And I think I have learned that purely strategic positions don’t exist, at least at the heights of the corporate ladder that I’ve been able to see.
In his book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin (the chess prodigy whom the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer was based on) talks about the learning concept he calls making smaller circles. He says if you practice a basic fundamental skill to its smallest level of detail imaginable, you can find the secret to mastering an entire competency buried in the DNA of that single basics skill. An example Waitzkin uses is throwing a straight right hand punch over and over and over and over again until the secrets of mastering Tai Chi are slowly revealed.
This principle didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at first (as I imagine it doesn’t to you after I just explained it so poorly). But recently I went back and read through my archived files of projects and writings from my first 10 years as a manager. I studied which punches I’ve thrown over the years that landed successfully and which were misses. I’ve also recently finished a series of excellent books (you can check me out on Goodreads here if you want to find the books) that reminded me that basic principles don’t go away as I climb the corporate ladder, they just become even more important.
In martial arts, they say the difference between a white belt and a black belt is not the use of elaborate techniques. The difference between the master and the novice lies in the degree to which the master can execute the basic fundamentals of the practice. I think that’s true in business too.
Here are those fundamental principles that lead to sound business management: Demma’s 4 P’s. And while there’s nothing super behaviorally specific, ground breaking, or original in here, I think there is a meaningful framework for doing the job of management effectively. And maybe I’ll drill into each principle with some behaviorally specific guidance in future posts.
1. People – If you’ve ever read anything about management or leadership, you know that the first bit of advice everyone gives is to get the right people on your team, and get them in the right spots on the team. And if you’ve ever led a team before, or even been part of a team, you’ll know just how true this is. Nothing is more important.
When I think about my most productive periods as a manager, I always had great people working with me. When I think about my worst years, I was always too slow to address people who were holding the team back.
What are great people like? That’s a whole book on its own, but I seem to remember winning with hungry, ambitious, competitive, thoughtful, and emotionally intelligent people. I remember losing with complacent managers who shied away from accountability and standards, and didn’t focus on results.
Do I have the right people on my team? Are they learning and growing? Do I have the people I will need in order to win tomorrow? Am I creating teamwork, cooperation, and progress towards team goals? These are questions leaders have to go back to monthly.
2. Process – Processes are the “how” that great people use to create results.
What are the key processes for your role as the leader? For me, the key processes include communications processes like staff meetings, coaching processes like one on ones, development processes fostering a pipeline, collaboration processes like my visits to corporate HQ, and selection processes interviewing and hiring.
Perhaps the most important process happen where the real value is created in a company – the intersection between the front line employees and the customers. I work in a sales organization, and we have a sales process every associate is responsible for.
Over the years my results have been directly tied to the level of consistent execution from myself as a leader, from the supervisors that report to me, and from the front line associates. I always try to remember that a culture of execution starts with leading by example, and I hold myself accountable for executing my key processes.
3. Practice – Practice means performing a process with the intention of getting better at it. Managers in my company create a culture of practicing by forcing role plays and training sessions or hosting learning summits. Most employees groan about practice, but thank you it for when its over.
Learning happens in live situations too. For me, that means providing feedback when I observe one of my managers executing a process like coaching a sales rep. For supervisors, managers must give constructive feedback every time they observe a front line associate execute a customer facing process.
A potential related 5th “P” could be preparation, which I might define as being ready with the knowledge and facts needed to refine process execution through practice. Are leaders studying the business, the competition, and performance trends to know where process improvement is needed to move the business forward?
4. Performance – Great performance is the result of great people executing their processes effectively, with a little bit of luck sprinkled on top.
It’s not enough to execute a process for the process’s sake. Managers must create results, and must get everyone in the organization focused on creating results. For my company, that means constant attention to scorecards, candid conversations about individual contributions, rewards and career progression for excellence, and accountability for everyone for their actions and results.
Managers must seek effectiveness, not just efficiency, because positive, quantifiable, financially significant results are necessary for prolonging the survival of the company.
That sounds a bit dramatic, but as I’ve written before, your company will surely go out of business sometime between tomorrow and two billion years from now when the sun burns out, probably much closer to the former. The only thing prolonging this is the effective application of energy that employees of all levels pump into the business. Whenever I find my energy drifting from my 4 P’s to some high-minded pursuits that probably creeped into my head in business school, I always bring my attention back to the fundamentals. And then things get better.