If You Want to Lead More Effectively You Have to Simplify

In a world of complexity, the solution is almost always simplicity.

As leaders, our natural tendency is to make things more complicated. Why? For a number of reasons but the most common ones are

  1. Because from our vantage point, we see all the moving parts. And since in a system, every part influences every other part, we know that a decision to do anything has far-reaching effects on more than just the person making the decision.
  2. Because most of us are pretty smart people and smart people have a preference for complexity over simplicity (i.e. it’s self-reinforcing, “I know I’m smart because I see the complexity that other people don’t”)
  3. Because communicating complexity reinforces to others that we’re really smart 🙂
  4. Because for some of us, it’s a natural personality preference (e.g. using Myers-Briggs, we’re NTs vs. SPs). In other words, it’s how we see the world (not by choice, but by genetics).

However, regardless of why we prefer complexity, the reality is that when it comes to leadership, simplicity always wins—especially in a world of complexity.

For example, if you’ve read my book, Breaking Through Plateaus, you know I mention that Jack Welch had only four number one priorities over almost two decades of leadership at GE. When you have a company as large and as complex as GE, that sounds unthinkable. Think of all the divisions. Think of all the nations. Think of all the employees and managers and leaders. Think of all the products, etc. And yet, with just four simple number one ideas (like, “Be number one or number two or get out”) he led an incredibly complex organization relatively well for almost two decades.

Note: this doesn’t mean there weren’t complex plans and strategies for all the divisions of GE, what it means is that from the leader, there had to be some simplicity so that everyone in every division and in every nation knew what mattered most.

With that idea in mind, I’d suggest that regardless of whether you’re leading a five-person business or a fifty-person business (or even a fifty-thousand person business),  you should be thinking about simplifying your ideas about virtually everything into a set of simple rules.

For example, if you haven’t watched or listened to this week’s episode of The Wired To Grow Show (which hopefully you will), you’ve missed out on Ben Landers sharing one of his simple rules that he’s passed on to his team about how to decide which prospects they should pursue to accept as clients for their business.

  1. Can we understand this business like an owner?
  2. Can we make a measurable difference for this company?
  3. Can we reasonably expect to turn them into a case study?

If the answer to any of those three questions is a “No,” they don’t pursue or accept that prospect. I love that. Incredibly simple and easy for everyone on the team to get.

So, how should you get started on this new path toward simplicity? Well, here are a few ideas.

I. Start With What You’re Passionate About

As a leader, you have certain things you’re deeply passionate about. For example, let’s say you’re deeply passionate about customer service. You want every customer to feel like they’re royalty or family. You want everyone to become a raving fan. You want everyone to feel like they matter no matter who they talk with or who they interact with on your team. How do you get every one of your people to live that out?

Well, my guess is you already have some ideas about that. It’s your passion. You know how you’d treat anyone who interacted with your company, but, if you’re like most leaders, you haven’t clearly communicated that to your people. You may think you have, but unless you have a simple list of maybe three to five things that you’re regularly communicating to your people (and reinforcing) chances are you haven’t.

In my case, I’m rather passionate about excellence. So if you were to ask me, I’d say that my simple rules about excellence are

  1. The invitations don’t go out until the quality has been put in (i.e. nothing goes out until we know it’s great)
  2. No dropped balls (i.e. pay attention to the transitions between actions, events, people, etc. This is usually where the mistakes are made—similar to a handoff in a relay race)
  3. Two eyeballs (i.e. always have at least two people check anything going out because I hate spelling and grammar mistakes)
  4. Is this an A? (i.e. if you were being graded on this, would it get an “A”?)

That’s pretty easy to get. Four rules. And they flow out of what I’m passionate about. Took me just a minute to come up with the list. Why? Because I’m passionate about the subject and have repeated those same phrases over and over again for decades. I’m sure you can do something similar.

So, what are you passionate about? Take the rules you already have in your head and write them down.

Note: if you’re not sure what you’re “passionate” about, just think about what your employees do that ticks you off when they do or don’t do them. That’ll probably get you started fast.

II. Next, Move to Your Big Bottleneck/Problem

Once you move past what you’re already passionate about, the next thing to create simple rules about is where you’re stuck (meaning your business).

Frequently, when a business or organization gets stuck, it’s stuck because of the overwhelming complexity it’s facing. When that happens, you should gather your team together and wrestle with the question of, “How can we simplify this?”

For example, one of the common problems I observe with small businesses is that they often get stuck in their marketing and sales because the marketing and sales teams are going after way too wide a group. There’s no specificity. They’re going to networking meetings and getting no where. They’re sending out campaigns that aren’t getting traction. They’re making calls on people they shouldn’t be wasting time on etc. In other words, the bottleneck is that there’s no clarity on who their best buyer or ideal client is so they’re going after “everyone.”

In this case, creating a set of simple rules for who’s an ideal prospect (not a whole page) would make sure everyone is focused on the right prospect. For example, “We’re going after

  1. Manufacturing businesses that have between 50-250 employees
  2. Located in NC, SC or GA
  3. Our best buyer is one of the following people: the CTO, COO or CFO
  4. They’re using legacy systems that aren’t mobile-friendly or enabled

Again, that’s not a long list, but it sure could make a difference. For example, if you have a sales rep who’s trying to decide if they should go to a BNI or other small business networking meeting, the answer would be, “Probably not.” Why? Because very few CTOs, COOs, or CFOs of manufacturing companies with 50-250 employees ever show up at those kinds of meetings.

So, what’s your big bottleneck/problem? Is there a way to simplify the solution into five or fewer ideas?

III. Finally, Build Out Your Simple Rules For Everything Else

The easiest way to do this is to build them whenever something comes up and you have a point of view. For example, the next time you have to hire someone, I’m guessing you have some ideas about what kinds of people your company should hire or how the hiring process should proceed. Again, there’s no one right process, it’s the process you want for your company.

For example, some people prefer to hire for aptitude, others for attitude. Which is your preference? Some people only hire A players, others are okay with B and C players. Some people only hire people they know or who’ve been referred to them, others don’t. Some people think character trumps competency, others don’t. Some think that culture fit matters, others don’t. Again, it’s not about right or wrong here, it’s about you taking what’s in your head, putting it into a simple list, and then making sure everyone knows what matters in your company.

For example, you might say that when it comes to hiring in your company

  1. Character trumps competency (i.e. never compromise on integrity. You always end up paying for it if you do)
  2. Attitude beats aptitude (i.e. it’s easier to train someone in a skill than it is to get them to adopt a positive attitude)
  3. Culture fit matters (i.e. values clashes always create conflict and different choices)
  4. Likability is essential (i.e. people won’t spend time with people they don’t like and teams function best when the members like one another).
  5. “A” players only (i.e. you can’t produce an A team with C and B players and A players are not only more productive they require less supervision)

Again, there is no one right system, just your system, reduced down to no more than five ideas in a list (i.e. once you get past five items, most people have difficulty remembering them). Note: this doesn’t mean you don’t or can’t have more complicated systems behind your simple rules, you’re simply refining them down to the most important.

Well, there you have it. Simple rules (or heuristics if you prefer :-). If you want to be a more effective leader, you have to reduce the complexity of your business down to its irreducible minimum—the handful of most important rules that you want to govern the way business is done in your company.

So, as you look at your business, what are the first few simple rules you need to start communicating on a regular basis to your people?

To your accelerated success!

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