The Three Jobs of Any Leader

If you are a senior person in an organization, you have, at most, three jobs.

  1. Make decisions
  2. Make the people around you better
  3. Do stuff

Make Decisions

Seth argues that this is our most important job, and I agree with him.

In an information economy, decision-making happens constantly: the decision about what to do with the next hour of our time; about whether we’ll serve this customer or that one; about whether our product needs this new feature or that one.

The act choosing of whether we’re doing A or B, whether we’re going here or there, creates forward momentum.

And yet, most people, regardless of their role, avoid making decisions. Making decisions means being willing to take a position, to put ourselves on the line, to have a point of view. Terrifying indeed. Because of this fear, decision-makers are few and far between.

This means that no matter our organizational structure, anyone who regularly chooses to make decisions is a positive outlier with outsized influence on our direction of travel.

Making decisions quickly, and often with less information than we feel like we need, defines a culture that doesn’t have time to waste, because the work is both important and urgent.

And, like all things, the more often we – individually or collectively – make decisions, the better we’ll get at it.

Make the people around you better

Whether defining culture, cheering people on, removing roadblocks, coaching, or empowering others, the highest-leverage job we have is to find great people, bring them into our organization, and do everything we can to help them succeed.

The ability to attract the best people is a superpower. Talent attracts talent, and great attitude is the ultimate multiplier.

If we’re lucky enough to have great people, our main daily obsession, beyond making decisions, is to create an environment in which they can do their best work.

This starts with tons of communication: describing, over and over again, our ‘why;’ articulating where we are heading; making it as easy as possible for people to connect the dots between what they are doing and the big picture.

It requires individualized coaching and mentorship: skillfully deploying situational leadership so that our team has the right balance between supportive and directive oversight, so that their skills and autonomy develop over time.

And, ultimately, it is about standing side-by-side with people as they chart their path and, in so doing, move your whole organization forward.

Doing Things

This comes last on the list, and it may even fall off the list over time.

This might be counter-intuitive. How could “doing things” not be important, especially for your most senior people?

It’s true that most senior people became senior people because of their exceptional ability to do stuff: analyzing, building, visioning, strategizing, organizing, selling, and executing are the foundational skills that got us where we are today.

And yet, deploying these skills is often a low-leverage activity.

At worst, a leader who only ‘does stuff’ might be hiding from her two more important jobs of deciding things and making others better.

And, hiding aside, the act of “doing” too much runs the risk of creating dependency on this leader to do these important tasks.

Our success as leaders in organization, then, requires three things of us:

  1. Making decisions, as well and we can and as quickly as we can
  2. Helping others thrive, and diving into this work every day
  3. Leaving a small space for the jobs that we are uniquely suited to do….and then consistently, actively, giving those jobs to others over time.

Many Doors

Part of the experience of getting older is physical change. Whether injury or illness, our bodies react differently than they used to, often showing less resilience. Often, these changes present new, frustrating limitations.

These setbacks are challenging. They require us to give things up, to change our routines, sometimes to recast our self-image.

And it is natural to experience many of these changes as one-way doors: “I used to be able to do this, now I can only do this.”

If we’re lucky, and if we commit to rest and recovery, they are, in fact, two-way doors: “right now, I can no longer do this, but I will be able to come back through this door in a few months’ time.”

We can have the same experience when we learn something about ourselves. Imagine a colleague says something that really hits home—a new truth about how she experiences you. Have you just walked through:

  • A one-way door. “I am (or am not) the type of person who is good at _______. End of story.”
  • A door that swings both ways. “I have learned that I am (or am not) not currently the kind of person who is good at _____, and I’m going to use that information to do _____ so that this will change over time.
  • Two doors: “I have learned that this is (is not) my strength, and I’m worse at (better at) this other thing. So I’m going to choose to do more of this and less of that.”
  • Multiple doors: “I have learned this new thing about myself, so I’m going to walk through this other door for a while, and maybe come back here later. And, lo and behold, at the other side of this door there’s a whole new series of doors, and…”

The analogies, and the opportunities, begin to multiply.

While this is easy to embrace analytically, feeling it in our gut sometimes takes a bit more work.

Whether a physical change we don’t like, or a hard truth we didn’t want to hear, the biggest risk is that we mistake something that is true now for something that is simply true.

That incorrect conclusion will shape our actions, turning something temporary into something permanent.

“True” almost always means “true right now.” And “now” is different from “later” because of how we respond to the new information.

Ideal Conditions

The experience is familiar: we’re interacting with a piece of software, and it’s clear that the developed didn’t contemplate a wide-enough set of use cases. The result is that the thing we’re trying to get done is hard/impossible to do, and we end up frustrated.

This same thing happens to us as we try to develop new skills and responses: when these new approaches and aptitudes are nascent, we can, at best, deploy them only under ideal conditions.

For example, we may be working on listening harder and responding more slowly and less defensively in the face of criticism.

At the outset, we’ll succeed in doing this only with our coach or our most sensitive and constructive colleague. When someone shows up with too little care, or even aggressively,  we’ll revert to our old behaviors

This example help us to add an axis to how we think about skill development.

The more obvious axis describes our overall skillfulness, and it ranges from:

  • (Self) awareness: we can clearly see the gap between our current behavior / skill and our desired behavior / skill
  • Nascent: we show the first signs of being able to deploy the skill
  • Strong
  • Expert

The additional axis contemplates the situations in which we can deploy the skill, which is a window into our skill resilience:

  • None: we can never deploy the skill
  • Highly curated: we can only deploy the skill in ideal circumstances
  • Most: we can often deploy the skill
  • All: we can always deploy the skill

The first axis is the axis of skill development, and the second is of skill resilience.

While they are naturally correlated, they are not one and the same thing. Most important, it is easy to confuse lack of skill resilience with lack of skill development: for example, we might have strong skills that but not be adept yet at deploying them in varied contexts, and we might mistakenly use this data to mis-diagnose ourselves as having made too-little progress.

Often, the resilience axis has roots in the things that trigger us — a trigger is something that gets us off our game. Exploring our triggers for any set of skills/situations often leads to more universal insights, and is the first step towards moving us from Ideal Conditions to All Conditions across the board.

Some Days

Many days, when you’re convinced that you just can’t get it done, that’s not the case.

Instead of debating with yourself, push past the resistance, sit down in your chair, and begin. Then see what happens.

And some days, you just can’t.

Something happens, internally or externally, that is outside the bounds of normal and outside of your ability to stretch. It’s just not happening.

On these days, you give yourself a pass. You forgive yourself generously. You recognize that discipline is one thing, but that you’re still human.

Go and get some rest, give yourself a chance to recover, and start again tomorrow.

The Expert is Not In

There is definitely someone out there who knows better.

Someone with more expertise.

More experience.

More know-how.

More perspective and wisdom.

Sadly, she’s not available right now, and won’t be for some time.

We don’t need her, we need you, today.

Your best judgement.

Your informed opinion.

Your willingness to take a position.

Your stance that invites input, conversation, maybe even disagreement.

Your bravery that takes us forward.

Better Data Doesn’t Give You the Answers

I run a data company, and I’m often asked, when speaking to a new client, what our customers do differently because of the data.

The implication often seems to be:

Before they didn’t have the data, so they were doing one thing.

Now, they have the data, so presumably they’re doing another thing.

Of course, we have plenty of examples of concrete changes that clients have made when they get our data, as in:

A solar home system company learned that a huge proportion of customers were experiencing product defects and poor after-sales support…so the company reinvented after-sales support and addressed the issue, and saw massive improvements in both customer satisfaction and social impact metrics.

But the more nuanced answer is this: the immediate actions companies and funds take, when we get them new data, are largely focused on the biggest, most surprising, or most troubling findings—the headlines.

Beyond that, what the data allow them to do is to ask a new and better set of questions.

The Path from Ignorance to Clarity is Not Flat

Our misconception is that we think we can go directly from ignorance to clarity (the drawing on the left).

In reality, for any topic that matters, as we learn more we embark on a journey. Over time, we will climb a mountain of increased complexity—with new insight, new inquiry, new investigation—until ultimately, after a great deal of focused attention, we begin seeing the world more clearly and, ultimately, arrive at deeper understanding and the simplicity that we seek.

Social and Environmental Impact Measurement Isn’t Simple, Yet

I often hear the concern, in conversations about social impact measurement and ESG, that “this social and environmental stuff is all awfully complex, isn’t it?”

This effective defense mechanism communicates, “I’m all for measuring my social impact, it’s just that it’s too much right now. Once it’s simplified, I’ll get on board and take it seriously.”

And yet, the person finding social impact measurement or ESG too complex is the same person who undoubtedly manages tremendous complexity in other areas of their professional life. Why, even the most simplified presentation of an income statement, cashflow and balance sheet is mystifying to most folks. Just look at this:

So the question isn’t whether something is simple or complex. The question is whether a domain is important enough to merit sustained time, effort, and spirit of inquiry to scale the Peaks of Complexity.

Coming back to social and environmental impact, my take is that the trillions of dollars flowing into ESG, and the pressure on brands to differentiate themselves for their social and environmental stewardship, speak for themselves.

The question isn’t whether sophisticated data and a nuanced understanding are needed.

The question is who will start on this journey first, thereby establishing an insurmountable lead on those who are happy to dawdle at the base of the mountain, in search of a way around or through.

It also helps to remember that a desire for quick and easy answers is nothing new. If anything, it is a normal and natural outgrowth of the beginning of every journey. If we’ve never walked a path before, we’ve no idea what it’s going to be like: we don’t know how high the mountain goes, how much jungle we’ll have to hack through, whether bad weather will come our way.

But the unavoidable, optimistic truth is that, should we walk this path we will, inevitably, arrive at better questions, deeper insight and, ultimately, the simplicity we are seeking.

 

What Else is Like Touch Typing?

In sixth grade, I took a two-week, after-school typing class.

For some reason, it was held in our middle school computer room. We were surrounded by some old DOS terminals, seated a few feet away from a dot matrix printer with green and white lined paper.

Each of us was given a manual typewriter, the kind where you had to push the keys down three or four inches to get them to hit the ribbon. I sometimes wonder if the physical force we had to generate, and the ‘clack’ of the letter hitting the ink and the page, grooved the keyboard layout in our neuromuscular system more than a computer keyboard ever would.

Amazingly, that class alone (coupled, perhaps, with the fact that I played the piano) was enough for me to learn how to type. After the two weeks, I had my ‘ASDF JKL;” grooved, and soon after that I was typing without looking down and gradually increasing my speed and decreasing my error rate.

I can think of few things I’ve learned that have yielded more for my professional life: learning to type 80 words a minute, and not 20, saves me hundreds of hours each year.

Typing, unlike most skills, has a distinct before-and-after and an obvious path to mastery: before, I looked for each of 26 letters (plus punctuation) one at a time; after, my hands stay in the right place, the letters’ location have entered my muscle memory, and I’m 4x as fast.

But nearly everything we do has a slow/manual version and a fast/grooved version, even things that don’t look, at first glance, like concrete skills.

There’s the little stuff: how we get through our Inbox, create a chart, proofread.

But there’s also bigger stuff, which has similar multiplicative properties: the time it takes us to write a good email, to prepare for a 1-on-1 meeting, to think through and deliver feedback.

And there are things that don’t even look like skills, but are. Think, for example, about something that happens in most demanding jobs, having a surge in work and pushing for a deadline. This experience of pushing ourselves (or being pushed) requires us to develop the skills of: focused endurance; staying grounded while managing the stress of (self-imposed/external) deadlines; maintaining quality with constrained time; prioritization; overcoming procrastination; shipping.

Managing through, and eventually thriving amidst, things that are “hard” is just as much a skill as touch-typing, and it has just as much yield.

What it requires of us is the recognition that there’s something here for us to learn, and not just endure, and the patience to allow ourselves to grow, in time, from amateur to novice to expert.

 

Short-term brain, Wellness brain

“What do you do to preserve your sense of wellness?”

I was recently asked this question as the prompt to a breakout I was a part of, and I gave an answer that I found surprising:

“Ignore my short-term brain.”

Things my short-term brain regularly tells me:

  • I don’t want to walk the dog for 40 minutes each and every morning, no matter the weather;
  • 4 out of 5 days, I’m not ‘in the mood’ to work out, and I should skip it;
  • I have a bit more work to do, I probably don’t have time to sit down with my family for dinner tonight;
  • To really unwind, I need to watch a TV show after my kids go to bed;
  • I should eat dessert, or fried food, first.

And yet:

  • 9 out of 10 times I finish that morning walk feeling more grounded and clearer;
  • 4 out of 5 times the workout was a great idea;
  • Work will never end, and dinnertime is the fabric of family life;
  • I need a good nights’ sleep more than I need ‘down time,’ and for that I need to go to sleep earlier than feels right and to wind down slowly;
  • I should eat more colorful vegetables.

I don’t have a perfect definition of wellness, but I associate it with words like “groundedness,” “spaciousness,” “connection,” and “self-care,” and with time in nature, with family and friends, and asleep.

These last two years at home have given me more time, and my need to break up the endless expanse of the sameness of this time led me to impose structure on my days and weeks.

By ritualizing activities that refill my stores of wellness, my job, most days, is to keep to these structures. This, in turn, requires habitually ignoring what my short-term brain says it wants to do.

To be honest, this is harder than it sounds: it requires a certain amount of discipline, and a good degree of grooving of my habits.

Plus, occasionally I throw everything out the window to binge on a new TV show…even if I quickly regret that the next morning.

Marinating

A little while back, a dinner I made was a bust.

It was a steak taco that required marinating meat for “2 to 24 hours.” With only 2 hours of marinating, the meat barely had any flavor.

Fortunately, I learned my lesson, and marinated overnight the next time around.

You can see the punchline easily enough.

The harder question is: what parts of our work (and home) life are like marinating?

Where will doing the same activity sooner create 10 times the yield?

Things like:

  • First drafts
  • A half hour with a pen and a blank piece of paper jotting down first thoughts about a thorny problem
  • Reading together at bedtime
  • Feedback given right after something happened
  • Coaching
  • Problem-defining (versus problem-solving)

Often, we find ourselves stuck in a vain search for more time, when we don’t need more time at all.

We need time well spent, invested early, so that the seeds we plant have time to grow.

The Invisible Fence

We have an invisible fence set up around our yard for our dog. To mark it, we’ve put up little white flags and taught her not to cross them. Since we live on a busy street, it’s doubly important that my dog understands and respects these boundaries.

Of course, she needs to get out of the yard a few times a day for her walks. Any time I walk her, the first thing I do is take off her Invisible Fence collar. This means she could easily cross the line without our help.

But, because she’s a dog and I want to keep things simple for her, I never walk her across the line. Instead, for each and every walk, I carry her across the line.

It’s quite a sight, me or a family member lifting up our long-legged, muscly, 55-pound dog to cross a line that won’t shock her because she’s not wearing her Invisible Fence collar.

The message: it’s only safe to cross the line when in our arms.

Now, my elaborate charade exists because she’s a dog and I can’t explain the whole fence / safety / car situation in another way that she can understand.

But charades exist all around us: elaborate dances designed to reinforce boundaries and to create the mirage that we must rely on certain people to cross them.

I’m confident that my charade is keeping my dog safe. And other charades may be equally well-intentioned.

But, most of the time, these rituals get so grooved that everyone involved forgets where and why they began, and loses sight of whether they’re real or imagined.

Often, the first step to breaking through is seeing clearly: we’re being kept in by story told by others, one that we’ve repeated to ourselves enough times that it’s indistinguishable from reality.