Five Actionable Tips to Improve Your Leadership—The Fourth One is Just as Great as the Others!
Five things you can do to dodge common leadership pitfalls. Plus a few fun stories along the way.
As I write this, I'm hanging out at my family's place in Wisconsin. It's been in the family since 1945, since my great-grandfather came up here and said, "Oh, I love how the mosquitos here are larger than hummingbirds!", and bought some land on a lake. Regardless of the occasional mosquito issue, I've visited here for at least a couple of weeks every year since I was born. And my daughter gets to have the same experience. Great fun!
Also, to share a little about my newsletter process. I've mentioned before that headline quality matters a ton when it comes to click rate. It's insane how much a better written headline changes how many people click & read & subscribe. But I can't stand writing clickbait headlines. I usually write what I consider a "factual" headline first. Something like "Five Leadership Tips", and then I mess around with headline analyzers, hoping to be inspired into something click-worthy, but not lame clickbait. These tools often suggest horrible clickbait things, like "The Fourth One Will Shock You!" Thus, today's headline. Even if no one else gets my humor, I get to amuse myself. Ok, on to the article.
I couldn't get anything done. It was driving me crazy.
My organization was responsible for building the first mobile version of Seller Central (Amazon's 3rd party seller administration site), but I was unable to get traction with anyone.
Holy bajeebers, it can be incredibly frustrating to do cross organizational work at Amazon. It's probably one of the biggest weaknesses of the distributed ownership model.
"Hey Myron, could your team spend around 2-weeks in the next 6-months to get your feature into our mobile app?"
"Oh man, sorry, I'm booked up this year. Maybe next year."
"Yo Sherri, my good friend. Could your team perhaps spend 3-weeks in the next.."
"Yeaaaaah, well, we'd love to help you, but we are already over booked this year. Maybe next year."
I was still relatively early in my time at Amazon, and I hadn't learned all the tricks to get onto people's roadmaps. I'd assumed "build your feature into our mobile app" would be exciting, and people would get on board. I was wrong.
Stefan Haney offered some advice.
He said (and I'm paraphrasing, because of my leaky memory),
"You're trying to get them to do your work. Make it their work."
He'd typically end his quotes like that, and I'd be forced to puzzle it out, like Confucius management advice. But I got that one.
I approached teams differently. Instead of saying, "Can you do X for me / my project?", I offered for them to be owners.
"Would you like to be a co-owner of the first mobile app launch?"
Wham. Absolutely they did. They joined my meetings. I had people outside my organization loaning design resources, and project management resources. They bent over backwards to get their features into the initial launch so that they could be a leader for the first mobile app launch.
Why did that work? I'll get to that in point 5 later in the article.
I was recently going through some of my work related notes in Obsidian, pulling out thoughts and feedback which could become articles. I ended up with a list of 5 things which I wanted to write about. Except, I didn't feel like picking a single thing to write about. I wanted to write about all 5.
That's how many coaching and mentoring conversations progress. You don't talk about a single issue. You end up touching on multiple challenges or opportunities, and you discuss a few options for how to think about your next steps.
So today I'm going to follow that model, and touch on a few things.
1. As a leader, strive to become redundant.
A great leader isn't merely the smartest person on a team. Because a person who makes great decisions is essentially an individual contributor specializing in decision-making.
Instead, a leader is a person who teaches others to make great decisions.
My absolute earliest leadership lesson was when I was quite young. I'd guess 10–12 years old.
I was hanging at my grandparent's place, and was looking at a plaque on the wall, congratulating my grandfather on his retirement. He was a relatively senior leader at a utility company.
Somehow my grandfather got to talking about a big vacation they went on, close to his retirement. He and my grandmother decided to go on a 6-week driving trip across the US to visit some natural parks. Back in those days, it meant he would be out of contact with his team for that entire period.
He said his boss asked him if he could shorten his vacation. My grandfather said no. His boss asked him how his department would survive with my grandfather out.
My grandfather said if his organization couldn't keep functioning for 6-weeks with him out of the office, he should be fired. His boss approved his vacation.
What's funny is that I didn't understand the moral of the story at the time, but I remembered the story because I respected my grandfather. Years later, it finally clicked.
That's how all of us should think about leadership. We should have great judgement, but more importantly, figure out how to impart that judgement to others. And then learn how to respect their choices. I can help the managers working for me make better decisions, but I hope to build their ability to make those decisions on their own.
As a small tangent, this also applies to leadership at home. Parenting isn't about making the right decisions for your kids. That's short-sighted. Parenting is about teaching your children how to make decisions, and then letting them make small recoverable mistakes. That ensures that they learn how to make good decisions on their own.
Lead towards independence and autonomy.
2. The conflict you have with a co-worker is only your problem, until you talk to them about it.
We all have challenges with interpersonal conflict, to one degree or another. I'm going to pass along one specific bit of advice.
A frequent mentorship / coaching topic is interpersonal conflict. There is some type of difficulty between two co-workers. I'll start asking questions about the conflict, until I realize that they've never talked to the other person about it.
Them - "They talk over me in meetings, and interrupt me. When I try to talk with them about any ideas, I feel I can't get a word in edgewise. What should I do about it?"
Me - "Well, what did they say when you brought this up to them?"
Them - "Oh, that'd be super awkward. I couldn't do that."
Here's a great rule to consider.
If someone is doing something which is bothering you, it's only your problem to solve. They're seemingly fine with it.
It only becomes their problem when you've told them about it. Not before. I know we love to imagine that people are self-aware enough to notice that they're causing issues. But for the most part, we only continue our behaviors because we're not aware that they're causing a problem.
It's amazing how frequently issues are solved once people get over their reluctance to have an awkward conversation, and simply talk to other people.