Playing To Win
Strategy and Leadership #3
This is the third in my series on Strategy and Leadership and addresses what I see as a seriously underrated leadership skill, and that is helping those who work for you make great strategic choices. You can’t make them all yourself, but you augment the value of your choices and be a better leader of strategy by helping others make better choices. On that front, my 17th Year III Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece is Strategy and Leadership #3: How to Help Your People Make Better Strategy Choices. You can find the previous 127 PTW/PI here.
Previously in this series, I argued for leaders being minimalist in the choices they make — making only the choices that they are definitively more equipped to make than any member of their team. But is that all they should do? Too often it is. Leaders routinely make their strategy choices and follow that by telling their people to ‘execute their strategy.’ I have argued elsewhere in this series that this approach is logically bankrupt, delusional, and insulting — the antithesis of leadership.
What you do after your strategy choice is what either makes you an effective leader or not. Your post-choice job is to be great at Strategic Choice Chartering. I have written about this before but want to combine it with work from my first book, 21st years ago, The Responsibility Virus to provide a more comprehensive and actionable picture of leadership through helping your people make better choices.
Strategic Choice Chartering
The Strategic Choice Structuring framework posits that to be effective as a leader, there are five additional things that you must do after you have (1) made the strategy choices that you are best positioned to make:
Next, (2) you need to explain the choice to the colleagues you are leading so that they know the ‘why’ behind the ‘what.’ Contrary to the military nostrum, they should understand — and if not, question — why you want them to do or die!
Then (3) you must identify the choices that you need them to make. You can’t specify the answer, but you must specify the choices you need them to tackle. This requires understanding that nothing is going to happen by itself because you have made your choice. You need their follow-on choices to make the things happen that your strategy counts on to happen.
Then (4) you need to add a genuine and specific offer to help with their decision. And this is where a tool from The Responsibility Virus comes into play. (I will return to (5) and (6) later below.)
In helping your people make their choices, you can look for various levels of responsibility from each one of them in each particular instance, as shown in the diagram at the top of this article.
The highest level of responsibility occurs when you offer to help them on their choice, and they decline the help because they don’t need it. Rather, they make the choice and inform you of their decision after the fact. This is a situation of highest confidence because either because it is an easy choice or, if it is a hard one, the team member in question is getting close to being able to assume your job.
At the next level of responsibility, they come back with a recommendation on their decision, and you assist by either affirming their choice, or if you see flaws and/or dangers they don’t, you get a chance to intervene and make the choice better. This is for harder choices when your people are not quite ready to make them in their entirety.
At the next level of responsibility, they come back with possibilities for your consideration. This is for situations in which it is too complex for them to take their thinking to the point of recommendation. But they are capable of helping you by coming up with a range of possibilities.
At the next level of responsibility, they do some work on structuring the choice but fall short of being able to generate a set of possibilities. At this point on the Responsibility Ladder, we cross into the threshold of team members being incapable of providing leadership on the choice for which they should be capable of leading and need considerable mentorship to get to the level they need to be.
At the next level of responsibility, they watch and learn as you tackle the choice in question. This drags you further into a territory in which you would rather not be — making choices that your people should be able to make. But it is a classic case of apprenticeship. You are investing in their future capability so that they can work their way up the Responsibility Ladder to eventually be ready to work at the top rung.
The lowest level of responsibility is to make the choice yourself, even though you don’t think you should. Selecting this rung of the Ladder for a choice means that you completely lack confidence in the team member in question. The individual won’t learn a thing by being excluded entirely from the consideration of the choice. The only leaderly thing to do in this situation is to replace the individual, because leadership in choice-making means helping your team members step ever higher up on the Responsibility Ladder. If you can’t get them started, you can’t lead them.
When, with your help, they get onto the top step, consistently, you have fully prepared them to succeed you in your job, which means you have readied yourself for your next promotion.
In The Responsibility Virus, I argued that leaders have the tendency to default to either the top or the bottom rung of the Ladder when considering sharing responsibility for a decision with a team member. That is, they either dish the choice off in its entirety (top rung) or choose to make it themselves (bottom rung). Typically, the optimal course for learning, relationship building, and choice quality is on one of the rungs in between the two extremes. That is why the fourth step in Strategic Choice Structuring is the offer of help in making the choice in question. The offer creates the dialogue necessary to agree on the rung of the Responsibility Ladder that provides the optimal leverage for leaders and best learning for team members.
Final Elements of Strategic Choice Chartering
The last two elements of the Strategic Choice Chartering process are critical to positive leadership.
The fifth (5) is to commit to revisit choice based on downstream feedback. Until your team members can make choices that are consistent with and reinforcing of your choice, you can’t tell whether you made a good choice or whether it just looked good in theory. If they can’t make a set of consistent and reinforcing choices, the world will call it ‘bad execution’ by them. But it was really your unrealistic choice — your bad strategy!
But your team members can save you from this fate if they feel you are open to being told that try as they may, across some or all of their choice areas, they can’t find consistent and reinforcing possibilities. If they feel you are open, they will come back and give you a chance to make a better choice — and provide the kind of feedback about their choices that will guide you in the direction of a better choice. If they feel you are closed, they will make the best choices they can to support your bad strategy and everyone will only find out later that the strategy was incapable of delivering the desired outcomes, and often that will be too late to fix it!
The sixth and final step (6) in the Strategic Choice Chartering process is to ask for process to be repeated at the next level. The last thing you should want to have happen is for your team members to define their strategy choices at part of this interplay with you and then turn around and tell their team members to execute their strategy. Rather, you want them to cascade the Strategic Choice Chartering down to the next level — and as the final step in the interaction between them and their team members, encourage the same from the next level. The chances are that they will do so because you, as their leader, have modeled it. That is the value of leadership by way of behavior. However, it will never hurt to reinforce that this is the way you want to have choices made throughout the organization.
I have previously argued that strategy leadership entails managing in a way that insulates you from being jerked around by shareholders. And it entails being minimalist in only making the choices that you are definitively better equipped to make.
I am now adding that strategy leadership also entails chartering strategic choices in a way that helps your team members both be most valuable in making choices today and advance as quickly as possible in their strategy choice making capabilities. The Responsibility Ladder is a tool that you can use to help your team members advance as fast as possible in making strategy choices.
If you help your team members both be valuable today and advance their capabilities for tomorrow, you will pass the test of leadership — that is, if you turn around there will be people behind you moving in the same direction as you!