Five Smart Ways to Double Your Leadership Productivity

I’m preparing for my next Future-Ready Leaders coaching program, which starts in May, and the first few participants have shared what they most want to get from the three months we’ll be working together. And I’m always curious to see what’s top of mind for leaders. Of course, the topics always include the usual suspects, like innovation, managing uncertainty, managing digital transformation in their teams, and (now) hybrid teams.

But there’s one other common thread across almost all of the participants in this group – you’ll recognise it from these sample comments:

“My team is motivated (which is great), but also challenges me in busy times”

“Feeling overloaded – I prioritise everyone else first”

“Managing my own workload along with leading other team members”

Yep, it’s about productivity. What we used to call time management. Or what I call ‘channelling chaos’ – because we can’t shut out the chaos, and have to work with it.

It’s different for leaders.

As leaders, we need to manage our own time and productivity, and take responsibility for our team’s productivity as well. That’s a challenge, but also an opportunity.

Unfortunately – as the COVID-19 pandemic brutally demonstrated – most leaders and managers just don’t know how to lead teams in a disruptive, fast-changing world. This is true even if you’re an experienced leader – maybe even especially if you’re an experienced leader. What used to work doesn’t work anymore, and you need new strategies to lead and manage effectively.

When Harvard workplace researchers Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones asked people about what makes ‘the best workplace on earth’, they identified the things that attract (and keep!) the best talent. They are exactly what the most productive teams do.

Here’s a quick summary of the five key differences between teams that are aligned with the past and those that are ready for the future:

Let’s take these in turn – and see how they affect your productivity:

  • Fit vs Diversity: You want team members with shared values, but if your team all look and think the same, it’s more difficult to relate to customers, find creative solutions, share interesting ideas, and stay current. That means more meetings, more interruptions, and more wasted time.
  • Information vs Authority: Everybody has more information than ever before, but they also need the authority to act on that information. Otherwise, they have to keep checking in with you, which reduces everybody’s productivity (especially yours!)
  • Training vs Talent: Training and ongoing development boost productivity, but in a fast-changing world, training programs alone aren’t enough – and obsolete training programs drain productivity. Look for ways to learn from talented individuals – regardless of their role, experience, or seniority – and provide customised learning experiences for everybody.
  • Engagement vs Meaning: We talk a lot about employee engagement – especially in the wake of a crisis – but many leaders try to create it artificially, which takes time, energy, and often fails. Instead, give them work with meaning and purpose, in a place where they feel proud to work.
  • Policy vs Judgement: Official policies can never keep up with a fast-changing, complex world. Instead, the best leaders build the judgement of their team members, and then allow them to exercise that judgement rather than relying on (often ineffienct and obsolete) policies.

These are profound shifts in thinking. The best leaders have always acted this way, but a crisis like COVID-19 lifted the bar for everybody else, too. It’s a challenge, especially for experienced leaders who have always done things the old way. If you don’t make this change, your best people might stay for a while, hoping to be attracted and inspired, but they eventually get pulled by a stronger magnet and leave.

How does your leadership stack up?

When I work with leaders in this area, one of the first things we do is conduct a quick survey to see how their current team stacks up with ‘the best workplace on earth’.

If you would like to try this yourself, here’s a cut-down version of the survey.

Read each of these 15 statements below and select those that are true for your workplace. Be honest, and be tough on yourself. If it’s not a strong ‘Yes’, it’s a ‘No’.

  1. We proactively embrace and encourage diversity.
  2. We operate flexible teams (flexible work hours, working from home, freelancing, global teams, etc.).
  3. We help people build their personal brand.
  4. When we delegate work, we also delegate authority.
  5. We transparently share information with our people, even ‘above their pay grade’.
  6. We identify emerging leaders and fast-track their leadership.
  7. We encourage reverse mentoring.
  8. We offer other on-the-job learning (e.g. shadowing, job swaps).
  9. Our new recruits often come through referrals from employees.
  10. We’re clear about how we’re changing the world.
  11. People say they are proud to work here.
  12. People think their day-to-day work is meaningful.
  13. People know which rules they can break (and they do).
  14. We teach decision-making and good judgement.
  15. We encourage people to make judgement calls, and support them when they do.

How did you do?

If you’re going to be tough on yourself, I reckon 12 out of 15 is a pass, and everything else is a fail.

There’s no shame if you scored low – as long as you don’t stay this way!


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