Great Leaders Manage Outcomes not Activities
- 24 Best Leadership Practices | Part 14 of 24 -
Leaders must be enablers not inhibitors of action. This begins by managing for outcomes not activities. Simply, leaders that build a culture which allows for management of the system, not the people, see immense growth. As Theodore Roosevelt once said: “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Simply, great leaders manage outcomes, not activities by giving out trust before expecting to receive it back. Indeed, managing for outcomes unlocks growth, drives creativity, and builds an ownership rather than employee mindset because each person will have the autonomy to best leverage their talent in arriving at the desired goal. On the other hand, managing activities hinders growth because every rule takes away choice, which is the fuel for engagement, ownership, and innovation.
As General George S. Patton stated, "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." This notion is founded on the simple grounds that (1) choice is the fuel for an ownership mindset and engaged employee, (2) ownership and engagement is the fuel for learning, (3) learning is the fuel for innovation and creativity, (4) innovation is the fuel for both distinctive products and world-class customer experience, and (5) distinctive products and customer experience is the fuel for profitable growth. Consequently, by managing for outcomes instead of activities leaders set the tone for a focus on results – nothing more, nothing less.
Micromanaging Financial Implications
Unfortunately, many leaders and the accompanying enterprise get so focused on the processes, rules, and red tape that the end-goal becomes a faint, blurry image. As such, micromanagement of activities is the death of many initiatives and enterprises. It’s no surprise studies have shown that one in three companies will cease to exist in 5 years, up from one in twenty 50 years ago. In large part this stems from three areas, namely: (1) over the past 50 years enterprise complexity has increased by 35X, (2) 50 percent of performance requirements are contradictory, and (3) only 30 percent of employees are engaged with the other 70 percent either destroying or not creating any value day in and day out. Indeed, in large part these issues stem from managing for activities instead of outcomes which over time has created this enormous complexity, contradictory processes, and poor engagement. Ultimately, managing for outcomes instead of activities drives several key benefits, including:
- Drives an ownership rather than an employee mindset
- Unlocks people’s potential, drives creativity, and spurs innovation
- Enables instead of inhibits action
Drives an Ownership rather than Employee Mindset
Instead, leaders must bring focus and alignment as to where the enterprise is headed and what those goals, milestones, and KPI’s are needed for success. It’s then up to the leader to empower employees with the trust, autonomy, and runway to best leverage their own strengths in charting the course (i.e., activities) that allows them to best arrive at the set outcome. To accomplish this, leaders must mitigate a culture of micromanagement as this only creates complexity, produces poor morale, stifles innovation, and leads to poor employee engagement. Instead, great leaders ensure ownership and choice is brought back to those with the greatest interaction with the customers, the frontline. Simply, leaders must transition the entire workforce from an "employee" mindset to an "owner" mindset. For example, Google allows its engineers to spend 20 percent of their time working on anything they like. Google's goal (i.e., declared outcome) is simply innovative, differentiated products that will drive “wow” customer experiences. Google understands the power of employee autonomy, empowerment, and choice in arriving to these “wow” outcomes. Consequently, in a given year, typically 50 percent of Google’s new products are created from this 20 percent, including Gmail, Orkut, and Google News in large part because Google doesn’t manage activities but rather outcomes. As such, leaders should focus on creating an outcomes based culture which by its nature ensures an ownership mindset because outcomes not activities are managed.
Unlocks people’s potential, drives creativity, and spurs innovation
Ultimately, leadership is about unlocking people's potential. However, any attempt to manage for activities by imposing “your way” on those you’re leading is doomed to fail because it stifles creativity and limits people's potential. For example, imagine if Michelangelo had been micromanaged on how to chisel his statue of David. Instead, the great creator and artist, Michelangelo, was given a large piece of marble and asked to carve a statue of David. How he got there was up to him and indeed, the world is certainly grateful that he was managed for outcomes and not activities. The same can be said for the great creative works of our day from Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, to Beethoven’s glorious Symphony No. 9, and the list goes on. Indeed, former CEO of the Lego Group Jørgen Vig Knudstorp noted that he tries to create an outcome-based culture in which he can say, “Thank you for doing all of the things I never asked you to do. I don’t want to control. I want to create context. I want to create clarity of culture and strategic choice, but then I want people to surprise me. I don’t want a place where people are doing what they’ve been told to do because that stifles with creative bureaucracy which ultimately creates fear.” Simply, define the outcomes and give people the blank canvas they need to surprise, innovate, and create. Otherwise, you’ll unknowingly stifle creativity, which may indeed deprive the enterprise and world of a great masterpiece.
Enables instead of inhibits action
A leaders main task is to enable action. To accomplish this lofty goal, leaders must reduce micromanaging, beginning with themselves. Such a mindset begins with a willingness to take a step back. Otherwise, one will be inhibiting rather than enabling action. For example, appropriately managing for outcomes versus activities is akin to viewing an impressionist paining. The closer you stand the less you see. Leaders must be willing to give trust, take a step back by empowering their team, and hop on the 16K foot jet which will allow them to see the big picture while still being able to course correct quickly. In football terms, rather than being the quarterback who is on the field of play, a great leader must act like the head coach who is close to the action but far enough away to see the bigger picture. Simply, effective leadership is a balancing act between delegating and motivating. Indeed, leaders are like conductors – they must both hear and see the big picture while allowing each musician to leverage their own style, technique, and years of training to collaborate together in the best team performance. Otherwise, they risk getting caught in the web of rules, processes and deliberation of minutia that not only slows down outcomes but also delivers a poor performance.
Implementing an Outcome Based Culture
While this article advocates for autonomy it by no means advocates for an enterprise free-for-all. Unrestrained empowerment can destroy value while a select few standards can fuel creativity. Thus, with any empowerment there should be several key processes that define the parameters for every employee. After all, there are only 12 notes in the musical scale, yet all the greatest music in the world from a Beethoven symphony to a classic Beatles ballad have all come from those same 12 notes. Simply, it only takes a few "right" rules to bring structure to autonomy and parameters to creativity. However, too often, managers have no direct connection to what's happening on the front line yet all of their time is spent on processes rather than on customers. The result is micromanagement and processes that create little benefit to the customer and frustration to the employee. Instead, the right set of rules coupled with autonomy provides the structure, creativity, ownership, and inspiration to create masterpieces. This notion holds as much validity to the corporate world as it does to the music world. Thus, every leadership team must spend significant time problem-solving for the select few, right processes to best emanate the parameters of the musical world's 12 notes. Ultimately, the aspirational goal should be to create rules that provide clear boundaries and process with the autonomy that can also spur unlimited creativity and innovation. Remember, it only takes a few "right" rules to bring structure to autonomy and parameters to creativity.
In summary, great leaders influence, motivate, and empower by being an enabler of action not an inhibitor. Leaders realize people can choose what to do and what not to do. As such, leaders actually have very little control over what others do. Accordingly, when leaders focus on the steps and not the outcome, the steps are meaningless and value destructive. On the other hand, leaders that build a culture around the idea of autonomy within a simple framework that allows for management of the system, not the people, see immense growth. Remember, people leave managers, not companies in large part because they weren’t given the autonomy to direct their own lives. By managing for outcomes instead of activities vital success traits such as ownership, productivity, and creativity are automatically activated, leading to greater innovation, engagement, and results.
Read the other best leadership practices HERE.
24 Best Leadership Practices
- Series Overview -
The following article is Part 14 of a 24 part series on leadership (See all 24 best leadership practices HERE). To summarize, leadership is everyone’s business. Moreover, leadership abilities are not some innate talent that some were either born with or not but rather is a highly learnable skill. As such, everyone has the potential to become a great leader as long as one embraces a mindset of continuous improvement. Simply, leadership is not so much about inherent gifts and raw talent but rather the emotional awareness, humility, and perseverance to understand that leadership is a lifelong journey that is never mastered. Indeed, aspiring leaders must acquire the endurance of a marathoner, the musculature of a sprinter, and the mental fortitude to embrace that there is never a finish line but rather an unending goal of continuous transformation.
Ultimately, the leadership journey is not about becoming someone else but instead is about becoming one's best self so that in turn one can help others become their best self. And, while there are many facets that go into successful leadership we have identified 24 best leadership practices all of which are grouped into one of three categories, namely (1) inspire, (2) empower, and (3) innovate (see all 24 practices HERE).
- INSPIRE: To inspire action, great leaders appeal to people's hearts more than their minds. Simply, visionary leaders plan with the mind, lead with the heart, and reflect with the soul.
- EMPOWER: Great leaders empower those they are leading while simultaneously creating a collaborative culture that promotes the notion that together we can accomplish anything as long as we don't care who gets the credit.
- INNOVATE: Visionary leaders embrace change and understand that the term "good enough" is used by the lazy to justify inaction. As such, great leaders disrupt themselves and their companies before others do it for them.
Leadership is the greatest race one will ever run – one without a finish line but also one with an exponential ceiling for those that embrace change, growth, and learning. While the level of employee talent may determine the potential of an organization it is the leader that ultimately unlocks that potential and determines the success of both the organization and its people. Although no leader will be a master at each of the proposed 24 leadership practices, awareness is often the greatest agent for change and continuous improvement. As such, we hope the proposed practices will be of service to you in maximizing not only your leadership potential but also the potential of those around you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Seedman is the founder and chairman of PNI Consulting, a management consulting firm that specializes in global transformations. He has over 20 years of operating and general management experience with expertise in organizational transformations, customer experience, employee engagement, digital transformations, sales & marketing, operational turnarounds, culture/change management, and high-stakes negotiations. His experience includes executive roles within F500 companies, top-tier consulting leadership (McKinsey & Company), over 10 years of global P&L ownership, and corporate lawyer (Davis Polk & Wardwell). He received his MBA from Kellogg School of Management and his Juris Doctor (cum laude) from Northwestern University School of Law.