A couple of months ago I sent out a Facebook post with a photo of a briefcase-carrying woman jumping a hurdle, along with the headline, “Hire smart people, train them properly, then get out of their way.” That post went viral, garnering thousands more views than my usual posts. Something about the message really resonated with people. Why? I think it’s because people know that at its best, leadership is a partnership—one that involves mutual trust and respect between people working together to achieve common goals. Leaders and direct reports influence each other. Both play a role in figuring out how to get things done. In other words, leadership is about we, not me.
So, let’s drill down into the three steps a leader can take to become the kind of boss people want and organizations need.
Hire Smart People
This one is a no-brainer. When you hire, you’re looking for people who resonate with your organization’s values, first and foremost. You also want people who have the required skills for the position or the potential to develop those skills. You’re looking for people with the ability to think and plan. Plus, you want to see initiative, organizational ability, creativity, and an ability to communicate well. In short, you’re looking for winners.
I often ask managers, “How many of you go out and hire losers? Unfortunately, too many organizations still use the normal distribution curve model, where managers are expected to rate only a few people high, a few people low, and the rest as average performers. That’s nonsense. Do you go around saying, “We lost some of our worst losers last year, so let’s hire some new ones to fill those low spots”? Of course you don’t! You hire either winners or potential winners—people who can perform at the highest level.
Train Them Properly
Even if you hire someone who already has the technical skill to do the job, it’s essential to provide ongoing training and support. Too often leaders hire people, give them some haphazard training, and pray that the new hire will become a winner. Great leaders don’t leave people to sink or swim. They support them through all three stages of partnering for performance:
Performance Planning. No matter how busy you are, it’s essential to spend time with your direct reports on planning and goal setting. Assess your direct report’s competence and commitment on each task. It’s up to you to provide the support they need, whether it’s technical training, help getting access to people or information, or just moral support. Even high performers need support and encouragement to be their best.
Performance Coaching. Leaders often assume that their performance planning conversations are so clear that there is no need for follow up. Save yourself time and misery by having regular progress-check meetings with your direct reports. If everything is coming along smoothly, it will be an opportunity to praise progress and celebrate wins together. If things aren’t progressing as planned, it will allow you to redirect efforts before small issues turn into 800-pound gorillas.
Performance Review. I don’t believe in the dreaded annual performance review. I think of performance review as an ongoing process that happens during open, honest discussions leaders have with their direct reports all year long. If you’ve been having regular one-on-one meetings throughout the year, the annual performance review should contain no surprises.
Then Get Out of Their Way
Once you’ve collaborated with your direct reports on goals and given them the coaching and support they need to master the job, you really need to let them run with the ball. People aren’t just hired hands—they have brains, too! A trained individual doesn’t need micromanaging; they need autonomy to grow and thrive.
While it’s completely appropriate to provide a hands-on, directing/coaching leadership style when someone is learning a new task or skill, the goal is to move to a hands-off, supporting/delegating style. This means trusting your direct report to act independently. It means turning over responsibility for day-to-day decision making and problem solving. It means, in other words, to get out of their way!
But don’t disappear altogether. Even the highest, most self-reliant achievers need leaders to praise their progress, celebrate their wins, and provide new challenges to keep them engaged.