Three Practical Ways to Be a More Successful Leader and Manager
Before I offer any guidance on leadership, I’d like to explain that the advice contained within this piece is based on what works for me. I’m not an expert. I have built up a playbook of ideas and structures over the years that helped me grow successful teams.
Leadership is about maintaining sensible, practical habits and a mindset of learning. I’ve structured this post so all the activities and practical tips are enclosed in boxes, making them easier to find.
I’ve led teams in scaling businesses for over a decade. In this type of business, the focus is on quickly building Go To Market strategies and developing pipelines. I was lucky enough to work for Appirio as it expanded into six European regions before its acquisition to Wipro. Since then, I’ve worked as a CMO for both Hive Learning and Modulr, which recently secured funding of over £20m.
If I’m honest, my first leadership role wasn’t a big success. I was young, inexperienced and made a lot of mistakes. In fact, I’d say that I learned more from being a bad leader than from being a good one.
The mistakes I made taught me a huge amount.
- Young, inexperienced and suddenly in charge of a team
- Driven largely by KPIs and my team’s daily output (but in the wrong context)
- Focused on the company needs and numbers, instead of the needs of my team
Does this sound like you? Young leaders are often placed under huge pressure to deliver metrics while building teams at scale. It’s no surprise that their team’s ‘motivation’ doesn’t factor into their mindset.
This style of leadership is often characterised with black and white thinking — either your team are delivering or they’re failing. As you might expect, this type of style doesn’t bring out the best in people.
Being numbers-driven affected the performance of my team, and this was how I learned the single most important function of a leader.
Your most important job is to help your team perform at their best.
1. Learning and mentorship
For me, effective leadership is powered by a coaching and learning mindset. These two things together make for an inspiring combination. Coaching conversations are an effective way of moving people towards their goals, without being didactic. I regularly use this model:
GROW coaching is particularly useful. It’s a simple model to structure conversations:
What’s the Goal
What is the current Reality
What Options do you have
What Will you do to achieve it
I like to lead by encouraging learning. I began by sending out a weekly set of aggregated links to my team, to give them the opportunity to read around what we were doing that week. This led to a newsletter that you can subscribe to here.
This year I’ve started sending a daily motivation note based on conversations I’ve had with my team, whether it’s a useful article or a podcast. This encourages the group to learn together, which people often appreciate. Everyone wants the chance to develop, so leaders should look to constantly facilitate this.
Are you a new leader? All four of these books look at how to build a clear vision and how to communicate to inspire others. Some of my top reads for 2020:
Books on leadership worth a read:
- Trillion Dollar Coach, Eric Schmidt
- Dream Manager, Matthew Kelly
- The Leader You Want To Be, Amy Jen Su
- Trailblazer, Marc Benioff
I was recently asked how I find so much helpful content by a subscriber. So, in the interest of transparency, here’s exactly how I do it:How to find great leadership content:
- Use Feedly to aggregate content from over 300+ sources
- Use Evernote to create folders and tags, which you can constantly save pieces of content into
- Check Medium every day, saving relevant pieces to your Evernote folder
- Aim to read a certain number of books each year (I aim for 25 in 2020)
- Use Blinkist to help you read books quickly (doesn’t replace books! This is my tier 2 reading list)
- Use Mercury Reader to constantly snip articles to Kindle
Combining a mindset of coaching and learning makes you a great listener and by extension, a great leader.
2. Structure and Process
You won’t build a high performing team by holding a meeting every two weeks. Instead, you need to build trust across a group.
Building Trust: An Exercise
Seat your entire team in two rows, facing each other. Give each pair 2 minutes to discuss one thing in turn for one minute each. Here’s the topic:
‘How do you make me feel?’
This admittedly daunting topic creates incredible trust. Tough conversations, yes, but productive and important too. Try it out on your next away day and see the results for yourself.
To build long term trust requires a structured approach to management.
Start by considering your activities with your team — when do you see them? Think about daily interactions, weekly meetings, 1–2–1s and formal team meetings. Ensure that you have a framework for regular, open conversations. The only way to lead well is to ensure your team trusts you enough to be completely open with you. Seek feedback every day, because the more feedback you get, the better you can adapt and learn the needs of your team.
Understanding your team through a structured approach will result in a purposeful environment. Leadership isn’t just about culture, it is about purpose. Generation Z workers in particular aspire to work for someone they believe in purpose (see here for more on that subject) and are driven less by earnings.
Meet regularly, talk to your team, be open and understand individual motivation so you can give people something to connect deeply with. ‘High Performance Habits’ is a framework for helping your team develop their working practises.
3. Building High Performance Habits
Create a document containing all the roles in your team. For each role, build a ‘scorecard’ of habits applicable to that position.
I divide each role into three columns of habits:
Each role will list different critical habits, each habit helping to build up an individual’s skill set.
Once you’ve created your scorecard, you can use it to shape productive conversations with everyone you manage. During 1–2–1s people can self reflect on how they’re performing across different habits:
Focus Behaviours and World Class Habits
I ask my team to have a clear Focus Behaviour they want to develop. This can be anything they feel is a current challenge. Each time we meet, we self reflect and grade on how they’re performing for each Focus Behaviour.
We grade ourselves against those who are World Class. So, if you’re seeking to develop communication, then Barack Obama is a 10/10 and you might be a 3. Being a 3/10 is fine (I consider myself a 3/10 at public speaking) because there is a clear pathway for growth.
Building a Self Governing Team
Whatever stage you’re at as a tech leader, your end goal is to have the team be leaders within themselves, because you’ve developed the skills and responsibility for them to do so.
Working with a brand new team? Get off to a great start:
If you’re forming a new team start with a baseline on who you are:
Create a document about you — what’s your background?
Explain how you like to work and set your expectations
Begin getting to know people individually. See where individuals are at and get a baseline. Then organise your first team meeting. I create a Team Charter with every new team, which collates my own preferred ways of working with their individual needs. Together we outline our preferred behaviours and expectations e.g ‘no moaning at the watercooler.
’I’m not an expert on leadership. But I am an enthusiast.
Through my own roles and experiences and the books I’ve read on leadership I noticed some similarities. I’ll leave you with this:
Common habits of great leaders:
1. Clear communication
Good leaders understand their team enough to communicate clearly and move people on. I believe in deep questioning — ask ‘why’ enough times and the quality of your answers will transform.
All good leaders set a clear vision of where the team is going. The best visions are authentic, believable and inspirational.
Humble, likeable people that genuinely care about others make the best leaders.
4. Coaching mindset
Coaching, not directing is key. It’s nothing new. But people struggle to execute in practice. We all think we are coaches but we’re not.
5. Voracious learners
Learn how to change — all leaders are readers — you are what you read.6. Focused on detailFinally, I believe that the best leaders understand and pay attention to detail. They think non-linear, in a lateral way. All scenarios. They think in Second Order detail.