To be someone worth following, you have to know exactly where you are going. People do not follow someone who is unsure where they are going. While this seems like a basic idea, even elementary, I have discovered that it is much more difficult in practice. In fact, it is a leadership principle that many nod in agreement to, but only a few execute because it requires discipline.
Here are two examples of areas where knowing where you are going is vital.
The Organizational Direction
The leader must be crystal clear on where the company is headed and how it’s going to get there. While this is obvious, or should be, it isn’t easy. If you have ever found yourself with a bunch of executives in a conference room charged with the task of developing a unified strategic direction, you probably know that this isn’t easy. It is easy to have a general consensus at a broad level. For Hoffer Plastics, that may mean “let's keep making custom injected molded parts,” but that is hardly specific enough. Better would be for the leader to stand up and say specifically where they think the organization needs to head. This can entail what markets you are going to participate in, geographical locations you are going to be active in, or it can have to do with internal rally-cries like implementing a new ERP system or improving organizational health. The point is that it has to be clear, compelling, and communicated frequently. In doing so, I have learned that following Simon Sinek’s advice to Start with Why is always the way to go because people need to know WHY this direction matters to THEM.
For instance, we decided a couple of years ago to go all-in on the development of a recyclable pouch. To do this, we had to work with a German UltraSonic company to revamp one of our proprietary products. This entailed making changes to a large injection mold that had just been commissioned with our previous (now out-of-date) design. I reminded everyone in earshot that we were doing this because we had committed to being stewards of the plastic parts that we develop. This meant that we aim to be better stewards of the natural resources we used while manufacturing parts. It goes hand-in-hand with our belief that the customer is the hero, and we are the guide. So, given that belief, we wanted to work with converters (pouch makers) who were serious about being better stewards of plastic, so that we could give new moms a product that was recyclable (baby food pouches being the primary targeted market). Thus, when the product designer flew over to Germany (something they did more than once), they knew what they were working on was not only important, not only mattered to them —designing parts that improve the lives of others is why they are on the team--but they also knew it was the decided upon direction of the company.
The Vital Performance Metrics
The leader must also clearly know and communicate what constitutes a successful outcome for a team-member. Given that we work in a day and age where more data is available than ever before, what metrics matter most? I ask these questions because I often hear leaders sound vague in their appraisal of their direct reports. There is a lot of “I feel like so and so is not doing a good job,” (or the reverse!), instead of “based on these metrics, so and so is doing a great job." See the difference? It is the leader’s job to do two things here. First, decide what those metrics are (It should go without saying that these metrics should be something the direct report has control over). And next, they have to communicate exactly what these metrics are to their direct reports. I like to do this by writing Key Result Areas, which outlines what success looks like in PLAIN ENGLISH (emphasis on PLAIN ENGLISH).
For example, for our Director of Operations I might write a large goal of “reducing waste” as one of their 3 goals, and then spell it out with very specific bullet points: “A winning outcome will be our internal PPM (parts per million defects) being 20% less than 2018” (I'd actually give that exact figure in a private KRA!). I won’t stop there, but will list another 4-5 bullet points as to what winning looks like. The point here being that knowing what the end goal is (reducing waste), and what the specific outcomes are needed to win, this team-member and I will have clarity on that direction we need to go to ensure success.
Whether it is the direction of the organization, or what metrics matter to individual performance, a leader needs to communicate with crystal-clear clarity. So, our aim should be to become the "Waze" of giving directions towards success.
Then we will be someone worth following...