When are we supposed to do all that?” That’s the question we constantly get from new managers, only weeks or months into their new positions, when we describe the three key activities they should be focusing on to be successful as leaders: building trust, building a team, and building a broader network. To their dismay, most of them have found they rarely end a day in their new positions having done what they planned to do. They spend most of their time solving unexpected problems and making sure their groups do their work on time, on budget, and up to standard. They feel desperately out of control because what’s urgent–the daily work–always seems to highjack what’s important–their ongoing work as managers and leaders.
So they push back because they think we’ve just made their to-do list even longer. And these key elements (we call them the “Three Imperatives of Leading and Managing”) are not quick and easy wins – they are substantial and fundamental to one’s ability to function effectively as a leader. Here’s why:
Building trust. Successful leadership is, at root, about influencing others, and trust is the foundation of all ability to influence others. You cannot influence anyone who does not trust you. Thus the manager must work to cultivate the trust of everyone they work with. They do this by demonstrating the two basic components of trust: competence and character. Competence doesn’t mean being the resident expert in everything the group does; it does mean understanding the work well enough to make solid decisions about it, and having the courage to ask questions where they may be less knowledgeable. Character means basing decisions and actions on values that go beyond self-interest, and truly caring about the work, about the customers (internal or external) for whom they do the work, and about the people doing the work. If people believe in your competence and character, they will trust you to do the right thing.
Further rebuilding a real team and managing through it. An effective team is bound together by a common, compelling purpose, based on shared values. In a genuine team, the bonds among members are so strong that they truly believe they will all succeed or fail together and that no individual can win if the team loses. Besides purpose and values, strong teams also have rules of engagement, explicit and implicit understandings of how members work together – for example, what kinds of conflict are allowed and what kinds are not. Smart leaders make sure all the elements that create a real team are in place – purpose, values, rules – and then manage through the team. So instead of saying, “do it because i’m the boss,” they say, “do it for the team,” which is a much more powerful approach. In a real team, members value their membership and strive mightily not to let their comrades down. The smart leader builds and uses these powerful ties to shape behavior.
Building a network. Every team depends on the support and collaboration of outside people and groups. Effective group leaders proactively build and maintain a network of these outsiders, which includes not just those needed for today’s work but also those the group will need to achieve future goals. This is without doubt the imperative that most troubles new managers. They think “networking” is manipulative organizational politicking that requires them to pretend they like people just because they want something from them. They strive to be above that sort of thing. Alas, in the process, they unnecessarily limit their own and their group’s ability to influence others for good ends. Building a network can be politicking but it need not be if they do it honestly, openly, and with the genuine intent of creating relationships that benefit both sides.
It is here, after covering these imperatives, that we hear the question, “When are we supposed to build trust, build a team, and create a network? How do we do that on top of everything else we have to do? ”
Our answer is that the “Three Imperatives” and all that each embodies are not discrete tasks to put on a to-do. Instead, strong, effective leaders manage and lead through the daily work. They do this in the way they define, assign, structure, talk about, review, and generally guide that work. They are masters at using the daily work and its inevitable crises to perform their work as managers and leaders.
How do they do this?
They build trust by taking the opportunity to demonstrate their ability as they do their daily work, by asking knowledgeable questions and offering insightful suggestions. They use daily decisions and choices to illustrate their own values, expressing their concern for those who work for them or those for whom the group does its work. They reveal themselves, but not in an egotistical way, showing what they know, what they believe, and what they value – and in doing this, they show themselves to be trustworthy.
They build a team by using problems and crises in the daily work to remind members of the team’s purpose and what it values most. They explain their decisions in these terms. They immediately call out team members who violate a rule of engagement – treating each other disrespectfully, for example – or who place their interests above those of the team. And since the rules apply to all members, including the leader, they ask team members to hold the leader accountable if she ever forgets one of those rules.
They build a network by taking opportunities afforded by routine activities – a regular meeting of department heads, for example, or even a chance meeting in the elevator – to build and maintain relationships with colleagues outside their group. They consciously approach problems that involve another group leader in a way that both solves the problem and fosters a long-term relationship. They proactively share information with outsiders who would benefit from it. They encourage their group members to take the same approach when they deal with outsiders.
These are obviously only a few of the ways good managers use their daily work to fulfill the deeper imperatives of leadership, but you get the idea. In fact, if there’s anything that might be called a “secret” for not getting overwhelmed by the challenges of becoming an effective manager, this is surely it. We’ve seen new managers light up when they finally grasp this principle – that the daily work isn’t an impediment to doing what good leaders do. Instead, it’s the way, the vehicle, to do most of what good managers do.
Once they learn this lesson, they look at their daily work differently. For every new task, for every unexpected problem, they take a moment to step back and ask, How can I use this to foster trust? To build and strengthen us as a team? To expand our network and make it stronger?