How to think differently about leading and managing

Art Petty  August 27, 2020  

It wasn’t long ago when the phrase “think differently” evoked images of an Apple advertising campaign or the call to action from the cool kids in our corporate and startup playgrounds telling us how to innovate, to cope with the change that was going to disrupt everything.

Oh, for the good old days when all we had to do was think and talk about thinking differently. It’s incredible how a crisis turns squishy, abstract concepts into quick-setting concrete.

Few will argue that the pandemic’s stressors, shifting global and local tensions, and the ubiquitous sprint of technology demand new approaches to leading, managing and innovating. Unfortunately, there’s no real guide or GPS to reorient our brains and push us out of those well-honed grooves that represent the status quo. And when it comes to our approach to leading and all the ingrained habits and systems of managing, it becomes apparent that thinking and acting differently is extraordinarily difficult for biological and political reasons.

Here are some ideas to help jumpstart your level-up activities when it comes to solving new problems in new ways. 

Maybe George Costanza had it right: Do the opposite

One of my favorite cultural examples of thinking and acting differently comes from the classic sitcom, “Seinfeld,” where the hapless and chronic underperformer George Costanza decides to change things up and do the opposite of what he would typically do. Suddenly, George starts succeeding at everything, proving his theory. Unfortunately, success is short-lived, as he quickly reverts to his nature.  

While, in my opinion, much of life and work can be explained in “Seinfeld” episodes, a slightly more rigorous approach to thinking and acting differently is to challenge your assumptions on key activities rigorously.

Think differently about what it means to lead

When I talk with leaders at senior levels and ask them what their real job is, their answers end up in the neighborhood of painting a vision or pointing to a direction. Some suggest their role is about defining strategy. And others throw in some variation of getting the right people in the right seats.

While I have no qualms about the “right people” issue, the longstanding dogma on defining vision and strategy is questionable.

The underlying assumption is that the senior leader is in the role because they know where the organization needs to go and what to do to get there. While top leaders still have a voice for vision and strategy, it’s a big mistake not to accept help from the gray matter around them.

The right answers are somewhere below the C-suite and in the minds of the contributors and managers, at all levels. The challenge for senior leaders is to create the environment and systems to enable emergent and adaptive strategies and flexible execution, all fueled by rapid learning.

That’s a mouthful, so let’s break it down into some digestible questions:

  • What if the real job of senior leaders — and frankly, everyone involved in managing — was all about creating the right environment? What would this mean for goals, key performance indicators, reward system and daily calendars? 
  • What would you do differently if your daily obsession was about reducing the friction slowing down people and teams across the organization? 
  • What if you woke up every morning and found ways to help people experiment and learn faster, as well as accelerate decisions that moved initiatives forward?
  • What if you served the people in the firm instead of the other way around?

In organizations where I see leaders focused on the above questions, the environment has a different feel than the typical hierarchical and bureaucratic organizations so many of us know intimately. There’s a sense of urgency and an underlying optimism that everyone brings to their challenges. People feel respected, and the political environment is about deciding what needs to get done and who’s best for the work.

It feels healthy and right in this world, and it starts with thinking differently about the role and priorities of leaders. 

Think differently about talent acquisition

The leadership model described above only works if the organization is great at securing the right people with the right skills and giving them room to run. While there’s a lot of talk about winning the war for talent, in most organizations, the acquisition and development processes are mired somewhere in the late Industrial Revolution. 

It’s time to put a stake in models built on the premise that “Prior performance in a role is the best indicator of future success.” In a world where so many of the roles are new, and the challenges people are facing are novel and wickedly complex, there’s no reasonable basis for evaluation of prior performance in a traditional sense. 

Instead, it’s time to think differently and look for individuals who exhibit the characteristics of great video game players. These people embrace novel challenges and ever-shifting terrain filled with new adversaries and unique traps as they strive to level up. It’s this level-up mentality and skill set in the face of the unexpected that is critically needed now and forever. 

Think differently about talent development and retention

Individuals with the cognitive abilities and confidence to find ways to level up in the face of novel challenges don’t want traditional training, and they don’t want to be constrained by arcane evaluation and advancement processes and nonsensical job-leveling schemes.

These individuals hunger for an ever-changing set of experiences and opportunities to learn that make their brains boil with ideas. They want coaching to smooth the rough spots and fine-tune their skills for communicating, persuading and collaborating. And, they want and need opportunities to keep exploring. 

The idea of retaining or hoarding these people in your organization is anachronistic. It’s essential to let people explore and gain new experiences. A better approach for this era is a hybrid alumni model where you expect talented individuals to take on new opportunities.

Instead of restraining them, you help them land that external role or find a way to let them remain with you and work with the other party. If they leave, pave the way for their eventual return. And if they opt to play two games at once, as long as the competitive issues aren’t in the way, adjust their roles to enable this exploration. 

One CEO was excited to bring a talented professional into her organization. She believed this individual was perfect for the level-up challenges the firm was facing. Her counterpart at this employee’s previous firm reached out and asked for the opportunity to “share” the individual for six months to complete a critical project. Both parties agreed, and the individual loved the idea and delivered great results for both organizations. 

Bottom line

Much of the work of thinking differently feels counterintuitive. It is, because much like George fighting his nature, the ideas fly in the face of the patterns and approaches we’ve grown conditioned to in our lives. 

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the areas in our organizations where thinking differently is essential for survival and success. Teaming, strategy and problem-solving all loom large and merit this treatment.

However, starting with the role and work of leaders, adding talent and supporting development are perfect entry points. Expect resistance. Look for similarly motivated individuals and build coalitions dedicated to leveling up. And then keep moving, or the past is likely to catch you. 

Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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