TTA Podcast – Leadership: Leading with Structure and Substance

🕑 6 minutes read | Jul 16 2021 | By Becky Gendron

For the second episode of the Bring Out the Talent podcast, TTA’s CEO and President Maria Melfa and Talent Recruitment Manager Jocelyn Allen spoke with Bruce Tulgan, Founder and CEO of Rainmaker Thinking. Here are the highlights of their conversation about leadership development, and how leaders can use structure and substance to be more effective.

What makes a great leader?

Any person in a leadership role should have the leadership training to follow the best practices for guiding, directing, supporting, and coaching. They should be able to spell out expectations, track performance, troubleshoot, solve problems, and plan how resources will be allocated and used. Finally, in addition to holding people responsible, they have to be able to recognize and reward people for the work that they do.

How can managers avoid being a micromanager?

I find that most leaders want to provide more guidance and coaching, but they don’t have time. They’re getting squeezed from every direction. They might be a boss, but they also have their own boss too. I think the biggest problem people are facing right now is over-commitment. This is true for all levels. Many managers also feel that they weren’t taught how to manage. They don’t know if they’re supposed to treat everybody the same or treat high performers better. They aren’t sure about whether they should empower people who are going in the wrong direction.

Most people, especially high performers or people who want to be high performers, want guidance and coaching. They want to be set up for success. They want help getting their hands on the resources they need or advice about the best ways to work around resource gaps. Some people need more support than others, and good leaders know how to calibrate for each person.

What is the under-management epidemic, and how do you prevent it?

Most leaders are trying to empower people. They want to be fair, they don’t want to be a jerk, and above all, they want to avoid confrontation. But in reality, most leaders don’t provide enough regular dialogue to make their expectations clear, and this has led to the undermanagement epidemic. Without structured communication, problems hide under the radar, and resources are squandered. Managers struggle to delegate, and high performers are frustrated and think about leaving.

A huge part of our mission involves trying to change the management culture, teaching managers how to put more structure and substance into their guidance and coaching. We teach anyone with a boss how to own more of the relationship by owning more of the dialogue. The best way to help your boss manage you is to manage your boss. Everybody has a boss, and you need that vertical anchor. You need to communicate with your boss and have clear priorities and ground rules so that you can collaborate with everyone else.

Under-management is a huge problem. Not only does it disrupt working relationships and the chain of command, but it also makes it much harder for people to collaborate sideways and diagonally. Both sides have to take ownership and work towards meeting in the middle. If you want your manager to manage you at the right degree of frequency, you’ve got to do some of the work and help your manager.

What are the management challenges with remote teams, and what does it mean for the future of hybrid work?

Now that we’ve adjusted to working remotely, we’ve realized that something is missing. We’re missing out on the intangible energy that comes from being with other people, and its clear that we do want to work together, at least some of the time. We’re entering a new phase, one where we’re coming to terms with a hybrid future.

One of the things we’ve learned about management is that when people are managing in proximity to their direct reports, they tend to view a person’s presence at work as a mark of performance. But good measures of performance aren’t place and time, they’re how much work someone does, how many errors they make, and how they communicate. Remote work has forced leaders and managers to give up the crutch of place and time and instead zero in on spelling out expectations and tracking performance, concrete actions, and outcomes.

It’s also forced managers to put more structure into their team huddles and their one-on-ones. In many ways, managers and people who have to manage their managers have learned a lot about how to put more structure and substance into their communication over the past year.

At its heart, work is a transactional relationship. Employees want to get paid, they want some control over their schedule, and they want to have relationships and do work that is satisfying. Employers want people to get as much work done as possible, as fast as they can. It’s a balance between happiness and performance. The transformation leaders face now is how to help people negotiate that balance and get more of what they need in exchange for better performance.

What are some tips about managing different levels of experience?

Sometimes people are managing someone who is really the expert on a topic. The question then becomes, how do you provide guidance, direction, support, and coaching to somebody who’s an expert, when you’re not? Lots of people find themselves in these roles, especially in organizations where the technical and leadership tracks diverge.

The solution is to engage that person in regular structured dialogue. You start by asking what they’re doing, and how. You ask about the steps they’re taking, and about timelines. You can always get a second opinion, by asking another expert. You can evaluate the non-technical aspects of their work. And most significant, you can make them complicit in spelling out expectations, and then check to see how well the performance lines up with those expectations.

Over time, you might not become an expert, but you will learn more. You’ll learn what to expect, what questions to ask, and who to go to for second opinions. And then you can start to see if that person’s performance is consistent, or if it goes up and down over time. The strategy is to make yourself a really effective client of this person’s professional services.

What would you say is the most consistent characteristic across the most successful organizations that you’ve worked with when it comes to leadership mentality and development?

Every organization has risks and problems and opportunities to improve. They’re all susceptible to market headwinds, radical changes in circumstances, or disruptive outside forces. But I also think that the common denominator of success is when organizations have a clear and meaningful mission and when they can turn that mission into concrete goals and objectives. Then, they can drive those goals and objectives into priorities that they can push all the way down through the chain of command. They can create alignment so that the mission, the goals, and the objectives are translated into concrete action at every level. Communication and alignment are key.

What characteristic of leadership hasn’t changed and is still applicable today?

Day to day, year to year, there are lots of changes in what’s popular. But what’s never going to change is that people collaborate together. We need to communicate, cooperate, back each other up, and support each other. We need each other, and a team with a strong, supportive leader is always going to do better.

In today’s business environment, the challenges leaders face are constantly evolving, so it’s more important than ever to have strategies in place that help you adapt and change. Whether you’re trying to avoid being a micro-manager or to prevent undermanagement, looking for more effective ways to manage hybrid workers or looking for strategies to manage different levels of experience, you’ll be able to use these insights to build stronger teams that work better together.


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