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As the great philosopher Forrest Gump once postulated, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
That seems to be true with so many things. Ordering a meal at a new restaurant comes to mind.
Or hiring someone to repair that gizmo you bought online.
Or trying out the weight loss regimen that’s incessantly pitched on that infomercial.
But with some things in life, mindful attention to certain human behaviors really can produce predictable results.
Take work, for example.
Theodore Roosevelt, himself one of the most active and productive people in our history, had this to say: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
Work worth doing. The definition is certainly in the eye of the beholder. But most of us would agree that—because the majority of our waking hours are invested in some kind of “work”—ensuring that it produces something good is worthy of attention.
Richard Lee shows the way. As one of Silicon Valley’s top leadership trainers, he’s coached senior teams at companies like Google, Facebook, Cisco Systems and Genetech/Roche.
In addition to being a gifted coach, Richard is a gifted listener and observer. He shares some of his key learnings in his new book WORK THAT COUNTS: Breaking Down the Barriers to Extraordinary Results.
Rodger Dean Duncan: To help people produce high-impact work results, you use what you call the ACE Model (Alignment, Collaboration, Empowerment) to underscore three important mindsets. Why these particular three?
Richard Lee: These three issues came up more often than anything else in my decades of work with many of the world’s best innovation companies.
As organizations become more complex, it becomes easy for people to lose sight of the bigger picture. There’s a need for people to align around a common purpose and do the right thing, not just for their own immediate team, but for the broader organization.
People need to collaborate, not only within their own teams, but across teams. Most people know this already, but they find that partnering across teams often causes conflict within their teams.
This poses questions for team leaders: When is it right to let go? When to hold onto the reigns more tightly? Most managers lean too far in one of these directions. Finding the sweet spot is what leads to empowered relationships.
Duncan: You say these three mindsets are not only linked but are interdependent. Why is that important?
Lee: Many organizations seem to deal with these topics in isolation. If any one of these three is weak, it will disproportionately diminish impact. If all are strong in and sync, they will drive inordinately greater impact.
I remember someone saying that “if you aren’t aligned, you can’t collaborate, so why try?” I responded with “But you can’t get aligned without collaboration.” And don’t forget the fuel so people can take action and drive decisions. We need all three to make our work truly count.
Duncan: “Empowerment” is certainly an idea that appears in many leadership discussions. What do you see as some of the misconceptions about genuine empowerment, and what can leaders (and team members) do to ensure “empowerment” brings out the best in all parties?
Lee: Let’s start with the misconception that it’s easy, or that an organization can somehow mandate it as a value and therefore a reality. Most companies mistakenly rely on their managers alone to build a culture of empowerment. I believe the way to building a better culture is dynamic. The team leader needs to let go and lift up, while team members must step up and earn it. Both parties contribute to either strengthening or diminishing the trust that drives this capability.
Duncan: What role does trust play in effective work teams, and what are some observable behaviors that help create and maintain trusting relationships?
Lee: Trust is key to effective, empowered relationships. A key skill for all team members is credibility building—the ability to set expectations and meet them, adjust expectations as necessary, and knowing when to ask for help.
If team leaders believe their team members will ask for help when it’s needed, they will be more confident that the team members are less likely to overextend themselves and create unnecessary risk.
Talking it out candidly and constructively, along with investing in those relationships by sharing information and genuinely caring about those in their ecosystems, are also key to building trust.
Duncan: Interdependence is of course a key ingredient of effective teams. What do you see as best practices in managing mutual expectations?
Lee: People tend to think of their team as the team their manager leads. But the truth is that your real team is bigger than you think. Think of the larger enterprise, or at a minimum, the larger division of which your department is only a part. Explicitly identify interdependencies while defining quarterly goals. And consider what you need from other groups and what other groups are depending on from yours.
One of the skills I explore on alignment is how to make the most of each meeting by clarifying the what, the why, and the how. The why gets at mutual expectations. Why is this project, this request important? How does it fit in the bigger picture?
Duncan: Moving decision-making downward is necessary for an organization to scale and grow. How can leaders—at all levels—do this most effectively?
Lee: The first step is for leaders to fully comprehend the risks of concentrating all decisions at the top. It’s also important to recognize that in complex organizations where so much work is interconnected across teams, the leader usually cannot delegate full decision making unless it’s relatively contained and narrowed. This is why I refer more to driving decisions rather than making decisions.
It helps to realize that the decision-making process is dynamic. Of course, focusing on less risky decisions can make this more palatable. Ask your team members in which areas they want to drive decisions, and how they can include you along the way.
Duncan: “Accountability” is often associated with “punishment” and other negative connotations. How can leaders position accountability in a helpful framework and use it to encourage people in producing great work results?
Lee: As we all know, actions speak much louder than words. The manager needs to show over time through their behavior that their intention is to fix issues rather than focus on blame.
The leader should call it out if someone misses a commitment or behaves unacceptably, and do so in a relatively neutral manner. Then move to exploring together, as two adults, what can be done to mitigate the consequences or fix the problem. Remember that these moments are learning opportunities, so focus on what each party can learn.
The column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.