One of the common questions in leadership theory is around the differences between managing people and leading them. There are key distinctions between the two as well as two different required skill sets. One of the main ones is the fact managing people is mostly focused on the day to day aspects while leading people requires keeping an eye on the future. A way that a leader does this is by improving the daily work processes and outputs. There are two forms of this to be aware of. Strategic changes are generally large moves that involve new work, new staff positions and/or a change in focus of current staff’s focus. This usually is large scale, requires planning in the budget cycle of requests, and needs to be approached from more of a change theory leadership standpoint. The other type of improvement is the act of tweaks and adjustments to current work practices to gain efficiencies and stronger results. Every leader should be on the lookout for these in their area of responsibility. It is easy, however, in the grips of the daily work for these opportunities to be forgotten or never implemented. For these improvements to happen the leader has to be responsible and disciplined enough to approach the existing work with a different mindset than most everyone else on the job: a mindset for improvement. Nothing happens without a plan and here are three steps to begin to work this into your mindset.
Step One: Observation
The first step is simply being aware. If you are the leader then it is part of your job to be looking for improvements that your supervisor may not be able to see from their vantage point. Chances are no one on the team you are leading is waking up each day with an eye for improvement. Many are simply trying to get their work done and moving on to the next task. As the leader you have to have both an eye and an ear open for opportunities to gain efficiencies. With your eyes look for processes or outcomes that you know your supervisor would want improved if they knew about them. Many times you are the only one who sits in that zone of understanding of how your supervisors want the work to go in the way of mission purpose and values alignment among the team you lead. Use those insights to look for opportunities to improve work that they would appreciate. Use your ears to listen to employees and where their challenges lie. Many times you will hear about barriers that can be removed or processes that can be made easier by hearing what your team is saying when they talk about work. The main key here is not relying upon your own assumptions about what can be better but finding those things that present challenges for your staff and providing solutions for those that are in alignment with your supervisor’s vision.
Step Two: Documentation
Of the three steps this is the one where the best ideas are likely to fall into a black hole and nothing come of them. Rarely are there a shortage of ideas for improvement; what is rare are people having a system for documenting them. Here’s a Murphy’s Law truth for you: good ideas rarely come at convenient times. They come in the busy-ness of a crisis or in the quietness of working in at home in your yard. For whatever reason they don’t seem to come when you are at your desk and have the time to play around with what it would take to implement them. You need a system of documenting ideas as they come. Fortunately this is not as complicated as it sounds. What it usually means is pausing long enough to capture the essence of the idea so that you may come back to it later when you have time. As much of a distraction as smartphones can be one of the helpful things about them is they can help you capture the essence of an idea when you have it. Keep a section of notes in your phone around rough ideas. When an idea hits you then press a button and speak them into your phone. Don’t count on yourself to remember them later, too much life happens between the ideas and when you have time to do anything about it. Don’t even feel you have to have a fully fleshed out idea, just capture the essence of it for later while it is fresh in your head.
Step Three: Application
Here’s where the magic starts to happen, but it requires some planning. Once you have a documentation system in place you have to have time set aside to ideate on them and what they might look like if put into place. You need to be ahead of this by having time on your work calendar specifically blocked off for planning. It can feel like an indulgence to our nature to be busy but this is one of the aspects that set a leader of people apart from a manager of people. Having time set aside to flesh out ideas and their implications is critical to your success. This doesn’t have to be done in isolation either. In fact, it’s often helpful to get input from others once you have the basics of the idea captured. You want to take the idea to the ones who it will affect to make sure they can validate that yes, indeed, it does help them (there are few things more damaging to your leadership influence than bringing finalized ideas to a team that in reality don’t solve anything for them). Once you have some buy in from the team members that it is a good idea then take the rough idea to your supervisor to see if they think it is worth your organizational time to perfect. That way all significant players have been involved and you can feel assured you are not operating out of a bubble apart from the reality that everyone else is working in.
Getting the idea into place can be easy from here. It may involve a work group or may be something that your supervisor wants you to work on as a solo project. Whichever way it goes once you have refined the idea then take the time to run it by both groups again. From there, with buy in from both those you lead and your leaders, implementing the idea is a smoother road. By providing a steady stream of improvements you will demonstrate to your supervisors that you are a problem-solver with an eye for finding solutions and will quickly make yourself very valuable to them and your organization.