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CORPORATE CLASSICS

5 timeless management strategies every leader should know

Visitors wearing protective face masks, look at artworks at an exhibition, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Jakarta, Indonesia November 9, 2020.
Reuters/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana
Classics that should be part of any manager’s collection.
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Management is an evolving art, one that should respond to the times and to the shifting needs and norms of the workplace. But some strategies will never go out of style.

Drawn from Quartz at Work’s coverage and contributed content, these are the classics (or if not yet, they should be). Mastering them should serve you well in any era or environment.

1. Know your priorities and be able to articulate them

Laura Gallaher, an organizational psychologist in Orlando, Florida, has been known to stump business leaders with a simple exercise: She asks them to name their top priority. If they can’t articulate one—and often that’s the case—it doesn’t bode well for employee morale. This was a lesson learned at NASA, where Gallaher was called in to work with employees after the 2003 Columbia shuttle explosion. As Quartz at Work’s Lila MacLellan notes, NASA had determined “that cultural issues—including a tendency for people to stay silent on concerns and ‘fluctuating priorities,’ among other problems—had as much to do with the accident as the piece of foam that hit the shuttle’s wing and lead to the vehicle’s destruction.”

How does naming your priority shape the ways in which people think and act, and why are so few leaders able to do it? Read Quartz at Work’s piece on the deceptively simple exercise that will boost employees’ spirits.

2. Fight bureaucracy any which way you can

Perhaps you are among the ranks of managers quietly seething with resentment at the bureaucracy slowing things down at your company. It’s understandable; bureaucracy sucks. But don’t just roll your eyes at it—you should be working to actively dismantle it in the name of human agency and employee dignity. But where to start?

London Business School professor Gary Hamel and former McKinsey consultant Michele Zanini are the co-founders of the Management Lab consultancy and co-authors of the book Humanocracy (Harvard Business Review Press, August 2020). In an article for Quartz at Work, they offer 12 questions you can ask yourself to determine how you contribute to the bottlenecks around you. The answers essentially serve as your individualized plan for productively undermining bureaucracy, one heroic decision or process at a time.

Read all 12 questions in Hamel and Zanini’s article: How to break free of bureaucracy in the workplace

3. Make better decisions

There are six steps in a rational decision-making process, according to psychologists Don Moore at the University of California, Berkeley, and Max Bazerman at Harvard University. Can you guess which step is usually the most difficult?

  1. Define the problem
  1. Identify the criteria
  1. Weigh the criteria
  1. Generate alternatives
  1. Rate each alternative on each criteria
  1. Compute the optimal decision

Quartz’s Walt Frick, who put together the Quartz field guide to decision making, writes that step five is where we usually get tripped up—because “it involves connecting options to outcomes and usually requires forecasting, which is a skill unto itself.” Here, as with most of the steps, we are prone to overconfidence, short-termism, and other biases that can seriously mess with our judgment.

Read Frick’s article on how to improve your decision making process, and check out our interactive tool to help you overcome what Moore and Bazerman call “the mother of all biases.”

4. Hold onto your empathy

It seems so obvious now that management without compassion and empathy isn’t really management at all. But even the most ardent converts to this way of thinking are at risk of acting contrary to it. Maybe a crisis prompts them to revert to old habits, or maybe they simply have blind spots—perhaps the same ones as everyone else or the ones that develop as we attain status. Or maybe, in their pursuit of excellence, they prioritize customers at the expense of employees.

Schmidt’s Naturals founder Jaime Schmidt, who sold her line of personal-care products to Unilever in 2017, looked at the allegations of toxic work environments at the luggage company Away and other darlings of the startup scene and concluded they all suffered from the same basic problem: There are limits and consequences to being customer-obsessed.

“We’ve seen stories about employees working unacceptably long hours, having their paid time off suspended until performance benchmarks were met, criticized in public communications channels, or fired after participating in private conversations serving as a safe space for marginalized employees,” she wrote. “Worrisome to me is that these behaviors are often enforced or enacted in the name of the company’s values: thoughtful, customer-obsessed, iterative, empowered, accessible, in it together. For example, ‘customer-obsessed’ employees might be expected to do whatever it takes to make consumers happy, even if it comes at the cost of their own well-being.”

Read about how Schmidt balanced her drive to serve customers with her goals of creating a healthy work environment, in her article: Be as obsessed with employees as you are with your customers

5. Understand what you are incentivizing

Perhaps the best lesson here is one we shared earlier this year in The Memo, the weekly newsletter from Quartz at Work:

Like a lot of startups, Mailchimp, the email marketing platform, was born obsessed with the user experience and light on hard numbers. Qualitative measurements ruled the day. But eventually the company adopted key performance indicators (KPIs), as maturing startups often do. It didn’t yield much.
“The movement in team KPIs seemed to track with the macro-level growth of the company. The teams couldn’t articulate how their actions affected the KPIs they’d chose,” Mailchimp chief product officer John Foreman notes. Plus, “[w]hen we looked at the work the teams had chosen to prioritize…it wasn’t necessarily the most valuable work given their selected KPI.”
An experiment in direct accountability was similarly discouraging, he notes, as the team simply “chose work that drove the metric they were accountable for—to the detriment of overall customer experience and revenue.”
So Mailchimp changed course. Rather than asking teams whether they moved their metric, managers would ask a set of questions that were meant to encourage behaviors that could ultimately move their metric. It was an indirect form of accountability that led to better results than having direct accountability or none at all.

Does this mean direct accountability is dead? Nah. Foreman says it’s fine for managers to add some back in—but only when employees have direct control over the metric. Read more of his advice in his article for Quartz at Work: Why metrics plus accountability doesn’t always equal success.