“Find Me a Rock!”

There is a widely shared expression among employees in most organizations that exemplifies the very worst in leader behavior. Specifically, the leader’s inability to provide clear guidance and direction to employees.  It is “Find me a rock!” and it springs from numerous encounters with leaders who task their staffs and subordinates to accomplish some ill defined, loosely considered, indefinite, and ambiguous project with little or no understanding on the part of the leader or the employees as to what is needed.  The employees dutifully go forward and do their best to provide a product, but inevitably they fall short after expending untold hours, days, and weeks in the process.  Time, energy, and money are wasted and little or no progress is made.  Armed with no clear intent, they do in fact produce something, but it’s the wrong thing.  They did “find a rock”, but of course it’s the wrong rock (there are millions of rocks!), and the cycle starts all over, unless the leader understands what she/he really wants and conveys it with clarity and purpose. This dynamic is an enormous waster of time and utterly destructive to the morale of employees.  There is a short humorous video called “Pentagon Song.wmv” that can be found on Bing search that’s an accurate depiction of its effects.

Providing clear, actionable, guidance is vital to effective leadership, especially executive leadership. This is how I do it:

Purpose:  Tell employees and subordinates why they are doing this: How is this action or task used to achieve some goal or objective.  To cause, enable, create, deny, deter, prevent, protect, etc.; something that advances the mission and organization.

Method: Link the purpose to the End State. Give guidance, but not too much, on how to go about it.  How to organize it:

  • Tell them what you don’t want:
    • By key events.
    • By key tasks.
    • By describing the authorities and working relationships of the collaborators who are involved.
    • By near-, mid- and long-term progress or stages.
    • Using an executive leadership’s focus/discourse appropriate for this level.
    • With a whole of organization perspective.

End State: Give the set of conditions, that when achieved, satisfies the PURPOSE and effects.

Risk: Give the personal expression of the leader for his/her tolerance of potential ill-effects and negative consequences in one particular function, location, or activity in order to achieve success in another. 

Be clear about risk:

  • Risk is not an expression of priorities.
  • Embodies the understanding that risk is more than exposure to misfortune.
  • Risk awareness requires an understanding of the positive effects to be achieved in exchange for exposure to negative consequences in others.

Giving clear guidance is really not difficult at all, but it does require that the leader spend her/his time in advance, thinking through the project, how it will be internalized by the team, and understanding what it is that’s desired in the end.

If leaders don’t know where they are going, any path will take them there.  Leaders have to know where they are going and how to tell their employees, as well.  This is a pretty good way.

Keith Stalder, #41

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