Leadership and taking things personally

I spent over 13 years working at Rightmove.co.uk, one of the UK’s most successful digital businesses, building products, people and teams.

We started out as a few people around a table and over the next decade grew to nearly 400 people spread around the UK. Along the way I stumbled into becoming a coach, leading Rightmove’s management training and induction programmes which were instrumental in creating and sustaining Rightmove’s small company culture.

In time, I became a manager and, with experience, a leader. I became a manager by being in the right place at the right time but I really only became a leader when I began to discover how powerful it was to take things personally.

Now it’s hard to talk about leadership without offering some sort of definition. The one that works for me is to think of leadership as what happens once you move beyond administering processes and people, when you start creating an environment for that activity to take place: when you move from What to How.

Most managers are really only administrators. The clue is in the name : they manage the flow of resources towards given objectives. They are engaged with ensuring things are done right, not whether the right things are done in the first place.

What ‘the right things’ are, most people can figure out with sufficient insight, a dash of creativity and sometimes luck. How you operate and execute your What, the manner in which you and your team behave is where taking things personally really starts to make a difference.

For me, taking things personally marks the line between
leading and simply managing.

Early on in my career I’d taken over the management of a sales team. At my first monthly sales meeting I was nervous about facing a room full of sales beasts, particularly as they were nursing grievances about their commission scheme. The legacy scheme was clunky to operate, complicated to calculate and forecast, didn’t suit business objectives and didn’t allow for differences between sales territories.

Not realising quite how emotional they were about this clunky commision structure, I kicked off the meeting with a series of necessary changes to the business model and pricing – which were almost instantly met with a wall of objections and obstructions. A little ‘five whys’ later, the commission elephant in the room was revealed in all its stinking clunky glory.

This is where it gets personal.

I hate clunky things. Clunky for me is shorthand for stuff that is just too hard to work with. Supermarket self-scan checkouts. Zealously sealed food packaging. Things should be a joy to use, not frustrating to endure.

I passionately believe my job as a leader is to make it easier for teams to deliver on their ambitions, to be able to exercise their heads to make their working lives easier and deliver better, faster. If my minions are wasting any amount of time fighting systems and processes rather than adding value, it’s wrong, clunky. I can’t ignore it. I feel it viscerally…. it’s personal.

As a leader, it’s ok to feel. I’d find it hard to deliver the confidence, credibility and conviction necessary for strong leadership without using my feelings. Leadership has to emanate from an individual so, by definition, you have to make it personal.

Figure out the approaches that matter to you. What makes you happy? What irritates you? It doesn’t even have to be people related, it can be as simple as you hate round corners, or bloated code, or polysyllabic words rather than plain English.

Whatever your personal passion about How your team should be operating, act on it. Use those feelings to choose the path that results in an environment that gives you that warm fuzzy glow. Stand for something.

Back to the growling sales beasts.

I’d determined the right things to do, the right direction for us, the What. Now I had to demonstrate leadership by acting on How.

So I told them to STFU and then I said “Commission is noise. It’s stopping us talk about the stuff that is right for the business and our customers. How about for the next three months, I just pay you all your full sales bonus.”

“Wait a minute. You’re just going to pay us full bonus without us having to work for it?”

“Yup.”

More silence.

What I’d done was demonstrate that nailing our new model was more important to me than burning energy on something clunky. I’d introduced a principle for How I wanted this team to work. I wanted that behaviour to become normalised. I wanted my sales team to be free to do what they did best, sell – not tear their hair out trying to calculate what would be in their pay packet at month end. The extremity of my solution to the commission issues showed that I took it personally when clunky things got in the way of what actually mattered.

Did I have to pay full bonus for the next three months?

As it happened, no, because simply the act of offering to do it, defused the whole mess and got the team talking about what kind of commission structure would work with the new business model. In fact, they actually begged me not to pay full bonus as they said they needed and enjoyed the element of competition and risk as motivation to perform.

Leadership lesson : don’t embark on a project just to meet KPIs, to hit the What.When trying to build something that people will love and get engaged with, do it for reasons that aren’t only about prestige or material reward. Make your How personal, choose and set a standard of behaviour that matters to you and take it personally when it isn’t met. Kudos, KPIs and other rewards will follow naturally.

For more thoughts on culture working find me here: https://www.cultureworking.com

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About Robin Wilson

I spent 13 years at the UK's number one property website creating and managing multi-million pound digital products across the full lifecycle, from strategy, product design and development to implementation and operational management. I'm passionate about embedding great culture rooted in responsibility and systems thinking when building teams.