It’s often the small things that make the biggest difference.
What manager doesn’t want to be excellent in their job? To not just get consistent results, but to have team members fully engaged, developing, and living out the organization’s mission.
Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that most managers aren’t very good. My in-the-field research, gained by training managers to become leaders the last several years, suggests that 50% of managers should turn in their title and go back to being individual contributors. The list of reasons is long but boiled down; it’s their inability or unwillingness to inspire, empower, and serve their team members.
Most managers aren’t leaders because they are unwilling to inspire, empower, and serve their team.
However, a significant group of managers enjoy their role and aspire to become the best leader they can be but struggle to make the leap. Often, there is too much focus on doing big or significant things like giving a big speech, solving a huge problem, or making changes to the team. But the truth is, rarely is it one big thing that causes one to be perceived as a leader. It’s often the small things done repeatedly well that make the biggest difference.
The Aggregation of Marginal Gains
Take, for instance, David Brailsford, the British Cycling coach who made famous the theory of marginal gains. If you are unfamiliar with either Brailsford or Marginal gains, here is the summarized version.
Coach Brailsford took over a British Cycling team that was abysmal and had been for 100 years. Instead of changing everything about the team, he adopted a different strategy known as the aggregation of marginal gains or the 1% rule. The idea was simple; if you broke down everything you could think of that it takes to be a successful rider, then improved by 1% every day, you would get a significant increase in the long run.
The cycling team took on the manta of 1% better, and day after day, they focused on getting a little better, and eventually, it added up on the scoreboard. In the 2012 London Olympics, they won 8 gold, 2 silver, and 2 bronze, and in Rio, in 2016, they won 6 gold, 4 silver, and 1 bronze. An enormous improvement from a team that has just won 2 bronze total since 1984.
In other words, the aggregation of marginal gains works whether you are talking about sport or leadership. So, with that in mind, I listed 10 tips for managers to get 1% better to become the leader they can ultimately be.
1. Do One Thing Every Day to Build Trust-Based Relationships
Your ability to lead and not just manage a team starts with good, quality, professional relationships built on the bond of mutual trust. George Macdonald famously said, “To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” To do this, you must consistently share your competence, care, and character for people to trust you. The key here is consistency, Reid Hoffmann, a founder of LinkedIn and partner at Greylock, provides a simple formula for quickly understanding trust.
Consistency + Time = Trust
2. Take Leadership Outside the Business Conversation
In a hybrid or remote work environment, most interactions between managers and their team focus on business and results. While results are essential, understanding that part of a leader’s job is to elevate others inside and outside work. As Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said, “my job is to serve my player’s hearts, not just their talents.”
Create opportunities to take your leadership outside the business conversation by asking one of my favorite questions: “Is there someone whom you admire or aspire to be like because of the kind of person they are inside and outside of work?”
3. Put 1-on-1’s on the Calendar
Spontaneous 1-on-1 meetings with team members are great but not super realistic as the daily hustle and bustle take over. Sure, the idea of scheduling dedicated time to help support the growth and development of people doesn’t sound super realistic, but it can help keep people on track. If this is an area of improvement for you or the managers in your organization, check out Peoplebox.
4. Let Other People Solve Problems
Maybe you’re a bit of a control freak. Maybe you are an elite problem-solver, which helped you get to your position today. Those things by themselves are great, but if you are the only person who can solve your team’s problems, you won’t go far or fast. There is an old African proverb that all leaders must remember, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Find at least one opportunity each week to challenge team members to solve a problem independently or develop a list of possible solutions to solve it collaboratively. When you do this, you will have shared responsibility and be moving together as a team of people pulling their weight.
5. Tell a Story a Day
If you want to inspire people like the best leaders in the world, you might want to think about telling a story every day. Storytelling allows you to reach both the emotional and the rational parts of an employee’s mind. Unfortunately, many managers forget how important storytelling is and stick solely to facts and figures, which turns their team members’ brains to negative or neutral.
Managers speak primarily in facts and figures; leaders talk in stories.
6. Embrace Taking Blame
Taking the blame for something that you didn’t physically do can be challenging. However, that’s exactly what the best leaders do because they know this essential lesson:
Leaders are responsible for the people, and those people are responsible for the results.
Your job is to be responsible for your people, and when a mistake happens (which it will), don’t throw them under the bus; fall on the sword for them. You will be amazed at how hard team members will work to make it up to you, knowing that the mistake should have fallen on them.
7. Don’t Forget to Give Credit
If it’s hard for you to take the blame, that means it’s even harder to give credit. Dave Cancel, the founder of Drift, said, “My best advice for leaders: when things go wrong, take all the blame. When things go right, give away all the credit.”
Following up and following through on this leadership truth is hard and takes practice. From the time we are in school, we are taught to raise the trophy high above our heads, not above others.
8. Say Something When Effort Isn’t There
When it comes to getting better as a leader, we tend to focus on changing the behavior of others. But the reality is, we should be focused on looking at our behavior first. An example of this is our courage and skill to have difficult conversations.
When something isn’t right, like a lack of effort or a bad attitude, it’s your obligation to determine what is going on. Find the courage to say something, and get to the root of what may be causing the issue.
9. “Thank You” a Day Keeps the “My Boss is an Ass” Away
There is nothing wrong with being a leader who elevates the standard of what’s required to help produce positive results. However, if you refuse to say “thank you” or “great job,” it will eventually wear your people out. Instead of being called a “leader,” you will be called “ass” behind your back.
Challenge yourself to give praise or recognition on a more consistent cadence and rhythm than you are today.
10. Invest In Your People
Being invested in feels good. It shows that either through money or time that someone cares about you. The best companies in the world and the best leaders in the world understand that investing in people is a worthwhile investment. Or you could say it this way, a company that doesn’t invest in managers doesn’t value leadership.
A company that doesn’t invest in managers doesn’t value leadership.
If you don’t control the company budget for the investment in people, look for smaller opportunities to invest in your people with learning opportunities. You could start a book club, run an internal training session, or simply pass around a leadership column (hint…hint)
Coaching for Excellence: The development of your coaching skills will make a tremendous difference in helping you lead your best in 2021. Join me for the next Coaching for Excellence Workshop. https://bit.ly/3goZLv2
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About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.