Effective Leadership: It’s Also About Knowing What Not to Do

Rail Paths Diverge.jpg

It happens all the time. Something comes up: some new opportunity -- technology, sales lead, possible partner, sales channel, way to automate or systematize some aspect of the business, etc. It is not in the plan nor central to the mission. You ask one of your lieutenants to do it or to look into it and report back. After all, the cost is only several hours or days of his/her time. If that is what you think, you are wrong.

Keeping the team focused is one of the most important jobs of the leader. Great leaders make certain that everyone understands the mission, what is important, what is in the plan and their role in it. The sense of focus, clarity around the plan and belief that everyone is pulling together toward the goal are highly motivating for their team. Their lieutenants feel empowered to make decisions, because they understand the mission. The shared understanding of the importance of the difficult timelines in the plan creates a sense of urgency for everyone.

So every time that you ask for something that is not in the plan or central to the mission you lose a bit of that clarity. Your credibility about what is really important and that sense of urgency are damaged. If it was so important that the team accomplish some objective in a nearly impossible time frame, then why would they have time to take on this additional task? The damage to the focus, clarity and sense of urgency are the real cost. If you sense your team pushing back on your request, you should understand why.

It is easy to ask for things. What takes discipline is NOT to ask for them. Great leaders are defined by what they do NOT ask for as much as what they do.

So how do you ask for something that is not in the plan or central to the mission? The best answer is don’t. But if that answer is not good enough, the next question to ask is “Is it strategic?” If reducing cost of goods is a strategic imperative for the company, then a new opportunity to reduce cost of goods could be strategic even if not in the plan. But if COG’s are acceptable and sales are your problem, then move on. The next question is, if it is strategic, is this the right time to do it? If you will be double your size next year, then you will have twice the resources to spend on this matter. Does it make sense to do it this year? Do the costs of not doing it scale faster than the revenues, or slower? Finally, is the ROI reasonable? For example, venture capital investors are looking for 45% per year or better returns on capital. Does this investment in time and monies achieve that?

If in the end this opportunity is strategic, it makes sense to do it now and the ROI is reasonable, then consult with your team. Point out that it is not in the plan and ask their advice about whether to do it. Accept that adding something new means that you will certainly have to give something up. Asking for their counsel at this point is the only way to retain your credibility and leadership.

If you do this, they will respect you for all the things you did not ask for.

Jeff Arnold

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