Busy people are looking for quick advice. Thus it seems if you include a number in the title of your book, article, or blog post (e.g., 7 Habits..., 5 Steps..., 3 Secrets...), it's likely to attract more readers. People wrestling with complex challenges will often settle for a few simple solutions. These may not deliver a complete fix (and rarely do), but at least they offer hope of significant improvement over the status quo.
In that spirit, I introduce my "10 Top Tips" series, starting with the all-important topic of leadership. These represent some of the best strategies I've discovered (and put into practice over the years). There's not a lot of detail presented below, so click on the included links for more insights:
1. Multiply your impact by investing time helping others succeed. By definition, successful leaders have successful followers. This requires the leader spending time helping others increase their skill, productivity, and effectiveness--what I call the Time Investment Principle. Give priority to being an active mentor, coach, encourager. You can never accomplish on your own as much as you can by helping others do more. Even better, focus your attention on developing other leaders who can likewise multiply their impact through others.
2. Bring out the best in people through positive reinforcement. Undoubtedly you've heard the old axiom, "what gets rewarded gets done." Unfortunately, most A/E firms do a poor job of applying rewards in ways that actually improve performance. Positive reinforcement involves leveraging favorable consequences to increase desired behaviors. It is immediate, frequent, and certain, in sharp contrast with the incentives used most often in our industry. Bottom line, it's a proven method for improving performance, with companies seeing productivity gains as high as 300% after implementing a structured process of positive reinforcement.
3. Don't ignore the power of emotion. Research shows that a person's EQ is a much better predictor of leadership ability than IQ. EQ stands for emotional quotient, which is a measure of one's ability to discern and manage the emotional context of human relationships (i.e., emotional intelligence). Why is EQ so important? Because our emotions strongly affect our interactions with others. Ignore them (and many managers seem to) at your own risk. Doing an online assessment of your EQ might be a good starting place. Understanding yourself is a crucial part of strengthening your EQ.
4. Promote simplicity and focus. The unfortunate reality is that most management actions make life more difficult for employees. The usual outcome is more steps to follow, more forms to fill out, more things to remember, more crippling complexity. Overload and complexity exact a heavy toll in our offices, but it has become so normative that we hardly acknowledge it. The new wave of leaders has mastered the art of simplicity and focus. This was a key finding in the research summarized in the landmark book Good to Great (i.e., the Hedgehog Concept). Take this as your leadership challenge: Be constantly looking for ways to focus on what's most important, clarify expectations, simplify work processes, eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy.
5. Use influence rather than positional power. Pulling rank is sometimes necessary, but it's a poor excuse for leadership. Leaders influence others to follow even if they have the authority to tell them what to do. Here's why: Mandates typically produce "compliant effort"--doing the minimum required--versus discretionary effort, which is giving more than is required. Discretionary effort is a gift from the employee to the firm; it can't be demanded. But it can be drawn out through influence and positive reinforcement. The essential difference between the two levels of effort is the difference between "have-to" and "want-to." So use your positional power sparingly; your personal power has far greater potential for elevating your team's performance.
6. Shift more time from Quadrant III to Quadrant II. Time is your most strategic personal and corporate asset. You can't accomplish anything without expending some of it. Here's the rub: Most of us have more things to do than time to do them. So we must carefully allocate the limited time we have. Unfortunately, in many firms, how time is allocated is affected more by externally-driven urgency than internally-defined importance. This mindset leads many firms to spend much of their time on urgent-but-not-important tasks (Quadrant III, according to Covey's Time Management Matrix). Effective leaders, by contrast, are able to shift substantial amounts of time from Quadrant III to Quadrant II--to important-but-not-urgent tasks. This is critical in transitioning from being a reactive organization to becoming a proactive one.
7. Manage nonbillable time. By my calculation, the average 100-person A/E firm has about 7,900 days of nonbillable time each year (you can do the math to determine what that would equate to for your firm). So what are you doing with all that time? Most firms use nonbillable time in haphazard fashion, without specific plans, budgets, assignments, metrics. Yet how you use this time is critical to the success of your strategic initiatives, business development, operational improvements, professional development, and a host of other crucial functions. The simple advice is this: Manage nonbillable time with the same discipline as you manage project time.
8. Foster a culture of collaboration. The advantages of multidisciplinary teams are apparent, but too often the potential benefits are diluted by organizational silos and inadequate coordination. These problems contribute to quality breakdowns, unhappy clients, infighting, eroded profits, and--not to be overlooked--a missed opportunity to gain a competitive edge. What's the solution? Strong leadership. There's no reason why we can't translate the varied strengths of our different technical disciplines into better designs, more innovation, greater efficiency, and higher-value services. This opportunity deserves more attention from leaders than it typically gets.
9. Challenge the status quo. You don't need leaders if your firm is not undergoing change. By change, I mean proactive, internally-driven change, not simply scrambling to keep up with external changes (like the economy) over which you have no control. The recession has presented a wake-up call for leadership, but many firms continue to persist in doing things much as they did before. Successful leaders, by contrast, are change agents. They know how to overcome the typical resistance to change, to define a compelling vision for the future, and to implement the steps toward realizing that vision. The best leaders I know are driven by the pursuit of excellence, not just as a business objective but as a core value.
10. See things through to the end. Many leaders are more effective at starting things than finishing them. They love creating vision, outlining plans, initiating changes, building consensus. But many lose focus and energy over the long haul. That's one of the main reasons that strategic change initiatives ultimately fail. This is where the investments made in developing others and fostering collaboration come into play. There are usually others within the firm who may not be that strong on vision or inspiration, but can finish the job. The leader's task is to engage, support, and encourage these people in keeping the effort going over time until completion.