In a previous post I implored leaders to delegate responsibilities so they could focus on leading. Now I offer you the other side of that coin—you’ve delegated (great job!)—but you must still prioritize. As a leader, you must master the task of balancing not only your priorities but those of your direct reports. After all, their success is your success.
Prioritizing is Essential
Evaluating and acting on priorities is perhaps THE most basic, essential task of our workplace lives. How do we determine what deserves our attention? How do we prioritize competing tasks and establish which item to tackle first? Finally, how do we keep track of priorities and ensure they are completed? And who holds us accountable for their completion?
Without taking ownership away from the individual, it is a leader’s responsibility to help set priorities with direct reports and hold them accountable for their execution. Successful leaders embody this method. More than simply doling out a shopping list of objectives, setting priorities requires the leader to successfully translate the core strategic goals of the organization into meaningful tasks for his or her team. It must ensure that team members participate and learn from this function—evaluating priorities provides a coaching moment for the leader and his reports.
Delegating, Coaching, and Managing Priorities
Building on what I said above about delegation, I’d like to also address the role that coaching plays in establishing the right leadership behaviors. Delegation, coaching and prioritization form a continuum. That said, I’d like to concentrate on priority management and accountability in this piece as I round out my focus on core front-line leadership behaviors.
As I’ve noted previously, when we lead others, we need to focus on level-appropriate activities; and we need to spend a disproportionate amount of our time developing those who report to us, not working as individual contributors. Constructive coaching—where we sponsor the right types of insights and developmental conversations by asking good, open-ended questions—is a critical part of this time investment. Similarly, helping our direct reports evaluate and execute their priorities is a natural extension of these activities. In addition, it requires them to engage with level-appropriate priorities, and that we spend sufficient time in helping them execute these tasks.
Our direct reports are not necessarily in a position to understand the broad strategic objectives of the organization. Typically, individual contributors don’t have the line of sight necessary to evaluate and translate organizational objectives into work tasks. This responsibility falls upon the leader; and it is an essential leadership behavior. In its absence, strategic goals have no way of becoming actionable—and therefore achievable. Your company’s leaders may spend weeks developing strategic goals, but if you fail to translate these goals into actionable items for your team, you prevent them from being accomplished.
Additionally, if you successfully translate those objectives into key priorities for your team, but fail to hold them accountable for the achievement of those priorities, you directly contribute to the organization’s failure to achieve its stated goals. Leading without holding reports accountable equals not leading!
Setting Objectives and Creating Accountability
True leading entails both setting the goals and holding your team member accountable for achieving them. This takes tremendous focus and energy, and you should clearly see by now why delegation and coaching are essential behaviors of good leadership. You don’t have time to work on tasks that are not helping your direct reports to achieve their objectives; and you must invest time in ensuring reports are coached and supported around the achievement of these objectives.
To expand on this, setting objectives and creating accountability absolutely requires good coaching. Direct reports who share in the responsibility of evaluating and prioritizing their goals, develop professional, and better understand the impact they make. In short, telling someone what to do is never as effective as creating a shared learning space; inviting them to participate in the creation of their priorities and their inherent accountability. Setting goals offers an excellent developmental exercise, as it provides you—the leader—the opportunity to tie together the work goals of the individual with his or her broader developmental needs; as well as providing a means of evaluating their performance against mutually understood—and agreed-upon—objectives.
This last piece is extremely important when we think about how best to evaluate our employees and gauge their progress. If you haven’t established their objectives, solicited their buy-in and created a clear timeline for completion to establish accountability, what criteria are you using to evaluate their performance? How do you know if they are effective or ineffective as employees? How do you reward their performance, or evaluate and tackle deficiencies? As effective delegation and coaching lead to setting priorities and creating accountability with our direct reports, this evaluative process is the next step in the leadership continuum. Assessing our teams and improving their performance is the natural outcome of this prioritization step and will form the focus of my next leadership piece on core behaviors.
Get the Basics Right
While it may seem somewhat basic to establish priorities for your direct reports, few leaders successfully perform all facets of this process. This is largely due to a managing versus leading mentality. Managing a set of on-going priorities requires relatively little energy; but to ensure priorities reflect the larger organizational objectives, and that direct reports fully participate in the creation of these priorities and are held accountable for their proper execution is a hallmark of active leading.
Coaching your reports around their priorities creates a strong developmental conversation and increases their sense of engagement with both the work and with the organization. So, make time for your team and invest time in a healthy discussion of key objectives. Ensuring they are working on the right objectives, and that they are held accountable for their outcome, means you add measurable value to the organization as a leader; and it means your reports experience firsthand the value of this leadership.