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How to be a leader rather than a manager

It starts with identifying your own strengths, and then those of your employees

[Editors note: This article was originally published on James Breiner: Entrepreneurial Journalism website. Mr. Breiner also creates My News Biz newsletter, that in-depth covers the major media topics. You can sign up for the newsletter here.]

In my continuing search for learning better leadership skills, I saw statistics from the Gallup organization on the reasons people gave for why they quit their jobs. Half left to get away from their boss, and we can imagine all the possible reasons.

So, as a boss, I thought I should probably get better at this or I’ll lose my best people. At the time, our company was working with Donald O. Clifton, who was chairman of the Gallup organization and had a contrarian view about what we know as management.

Clifton’s view was that we should spend most of our time focused on an employee’s strengths and talents rather than their weaknesses. He blended his skills as a data scientist and psychologist with his business sense. He was a charismatic speaker. His book Soar with Your Strengths transformed all my ideas about how to run an organization.

The dreaded annual review

Think about your own experience with one of the tortures invented to justify whether you get a pay raise or a promotion. Once a year, you get a performance review. Often the topic of this boss-employee meeting ends up focusing not on a year’s performance but about something unpleasant that happened recently. It’s the most easily remembered.

From the boss’s perspective, the meeting justifies a budget decision–they only have so much salary and bonus money to divide up among the team. From the employee’s perspective, it seems unfair–it focuses on their mistakes and weaknesses and results in a “development plan” to correct the weaknesses. Often it is mostly negative and demotivating. How can that be good for the business?

Clifton’s company helped me identify my three strongest talents out of the 15 linked to top business performance among publishers in our company. In other words, I had less or no talent in 12 important areas. But the contrarian idea was that, by getting even better at my three top talents, I would be better able to control and manage the others.

The “strength theory” in practice

One of the three talents Gallup identified in me was “developer” of people–essentially a teacher or coach. So one of the ways that I ended up applying the strength theory was to have weekly meetings with each of my five department managers focused on THEIR professional and personal goals. The conversation was about goals they had chosen and what they were doing, short term and long term, to reach those goals.

These confidential weekly coaching sessions put the developer talent into practice. They helped my department heads learn how to become more effective leaders. We used the socratic method to talk about their problems: “What could you do about that?” rather than “I think you should . . . ” or “when I had a situation like that”. Problems didn’t become crises.

These sessions made an annual review irrelevant. I remember telling some of my peers that I set aside five hours a week for these coaching sessions with my department managers, and they thought this amount of time was excessive. But the longer I used this practice, the less my managers needed to run to me with their crises. They learned to solve problems on their own and became more effective leaders. As a result, I had more time, not less. And it was no coincidence that our business performance improved significantly over the next several years.

No more lone wolf

What were some of the 12 talents I lacked? I am not a visionary, nor empathetic, nor innovative, nor a good admnistrator, nor good at cheerleading. But one of the three talents I had was called “team”, and that had to do with developing and leading a team.

I won’t bore you with the theory behind that concept, but one way I applied it was by having monthly all-staff meetings that involved some fun prize giveaways, some employee recognition, and details about our financial performance. Another was involving all employees in the annual process of goal setting and budgeting. We would focus on three measurable goals for the year and give monthly updates. We had a modest profit-sharing program based on the goals.

This “team” talent didn’t come out naturally in my career as a reporter/writer, which involved a lot of independent work, nor in my role as a newspaper editor, which required a dictatorial management style that put a premium on the discipline of meeting rigid daily production and printing deadlines.

But when my “team” strength combined with “developer”, it translated into better hiring practices. We hired as a team and brought on people with talent for some of those things that our organization needed–event planning, customer service, and creative design, among others.

How we failed

We made lots of mistakes, of course. In hiring, in firing, in execution of strategy, in product launches, in managing crises. The point is not that we were perfect and had a perfect organization but that we learned as a group how to deal with these issues. We treated our mistakes as learning experiences.

In general, our biggest personal mistakes are seared into our memory. The trick is how we respond. We can make that memory a source of self-flagellation and anger or we can transform it into a lesson, a strength.

Anyway, I wanted to share these experiences with you and pay tribute to the late Donald O. Clifton, whose life and works and words had a transformative impact on my personal and professional life.

Maybe in a future post, I will reveal what Gallup identified as my third talent.

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Photo by Mike Kononov on Unsplash

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