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Hacking Leadership: 3 Tips to Lead Effectively

Jeff Shuck
March 30, 2017

If ever there was a year that exposed the need for leadership development, 2016 was it. Time and time again, we saw that the "What's in it for me?" attitude was no longer cutting it. Organizations want more — the commonly held hero leadership model built around power, deadlines, quotas, and elite perspective is now being openly questioned. In a populated and closely connected world, this kind of strategy is unsustainable and perhaps even destabilizing. The community has spoken: we want proactive, prudent strategy grounded in authentic, honest leadership.

So why is good leadership so necessary to an organization's success?

Leadership is the fuel for the engine, the encouragement that keeps us going and the critique that keeps us on track. Leadership provides perspective when we’ve lost it all and can’t remember why we’re doing it in the first place. Leadership provides congratulations when we’ve achieved something groundbreaking that sometimes we are too close to recognize. Leadership is the reality-check that helps us realize we aren’t done yet.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on leadership by any stretch of the imagination. For some reason, it is easier to criticize the leadership failings of others than it is to build the leadership strengths in ourselves. Like all leaders – and I believe we are all leaders – I’m on a leadership journey too. I’m learning how it works mainly by observing my own mistakes. 

close-up-meeting.jpgAnd from that perspective, here are the three leadership hacks I find are most needed in the organizations I work with.

Hack #1: Align, Align, Align

People often have trouble articulating what alignment looks like. They use phrases like we’re in the flow, we’re working together well, things seem effortless. But when alignment’s missing, you can really hear it very clearly:

  • “It takes a long time to come to a decision, and then we don’t really decide.”
  • “Meetings seem to be heavy and take twice as long as they should.”
  • “We can’t seem to get initiatives off the ground.”

Without alignment, there’s a drastic decrease in self-initiative, self-empowerment, and team responsibility for getting things done. And this only adds to an organization’s inefficiency. 

Good leaders clarify the goals of an organization, repeat them endlessly, and help their teams understand how each component serves the larger goals. The solution here begins with simplification and repetition. As far as goals are concerned, I subscribe to the “one hand” rule: you shouldn’t have more goals than fingers on one hand. Otherwise it is too hard to remember them. If you are the leader and you have to look at a piece of paper to remember your goals, how can you expect your team to remember them, let alone act in accordance with them?

Leaders pick a few goals and explain how each part of the organization helps achieve them. This means being willing to sometimes say, “this is more important than that.” We can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything.

Hack #2: Agree on the current reality

In some ways, lack of a common vision is the easiest leadership challenge to address. Usually a daylong retreat and open conversation can get everyone on the same page regarding the organization’s goals.

A much thornier issue, and one that is often unaddressed, is when people don’t agree about the current reality. This lack of agreement can create deep-seated, entrenched conflict and can turn problems into crisis.

Why is it hard to agree on where things stand? Shouldn’t that be easy? Think about most meetings and communications: we have been brought up to avoid conflict, to take disagreements “off-line,” to find the good in everything. These are all good habits with friends and family but can be dangerous for teams. When we work with organizations, we often sit in on internal meetings characterized by soft language, overhyped praise, and veiled criticism. It is much harder to find rigorous procedures of self-inspection.

Given that most of our environments tend to avoid honest talk, it is no wonder that oftentimes not everyone agrees on the current state of affairs. Have you ever been in a meeting where someone reports on results being down 5% and everyone else compliments the creative? Or a wrap-up where the income goal was missed and yet the conversation turns to the good things that were achieved?

Leaders are good at kind and honest truth. This doesn’t need to be blunt or personal. However, someone needs to say, “We’re down another 5% this year. What we are doing isn’t working.”

A common vision for the future is critical. At the same time, we can’t achieve the vision if we don’t agree on where we are starting. Leaders create clarity and alignment around the current state. 

Hack #3: Understand roles and responsibilities

Another problem we often see is that people on a team don’t fully understand who is supposed to do what. In fact, in an era of matrix organizations and cross-functional teams, we find this problem in a high majority of our clients. It’s not that staff members don’t want to work hard, or aren’t bought into the goals – it’s that they aren’t sure who is in charge of what.

Think about how often meetings end with vague group assignments: “Joe and Martha, take a look at that and tell us more next week.” Okay – is Joe responsible? Is Martha? Or how many times have you heard this: “We have dotted-line reporting between marketing and fundraising. Marketing creates the messages and fundraising does the stewardship.” Okay, so when we don’t hit our constituent goals, who is responsible?

I’ll admit I’ve created this problem more than a few times as a leader. It is tempting to email everyone who is involved on an issue – instead of the one person who you are expecting to take action. It is hard to single someone out during a meeting, sometimes because you don’t want to put them on the spot, and sometimes because you want to let everyone have a say in the decision.

But behind closed doors, this usually drives people crazy. People actually want responsibility. They want to know the expectations others have of them, and they truly want to achieve those expectations. Great leaders declare war on ambiguity. They are willing to assign one person as accountable for each operational area, and great leaders make sure the rest of the team understands the assignments.

So the quick leadership guide for successful fundraising is:
  • Align your team around a short set of goals, and regularly discuss them;
  • Plainly discuss the current reality, and create consensus around it; and
  • Relentlessly clarify who is in charge of what and openly discuss any confusion.

It’s all easier said than done, really, but the good news is that these are skills available to all of us. No special education or experience is needed to discuss reality, align around goals, and create clarity. And this is a good thing too – because regardless of title or position, to accomplish the change we want to create in the world, we all need to be leaders.

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