Few things can be more frustrating than not being able to get the result you want when leading. This is especially true after trying all sorts of approaches without success. At this point, too many leaders blame or find fault with their people, which makes things worse. Fortunately, there is a way to get the result you want when leading that is simpler than you might think.

Why You’re Not Getting the Results You Want

Before getting to what you can do to get results, let’s look at what many leaders typically do when they’re not getting results. Some of the more common leader behaviors include:

  • Micromanaging and telling the person how to get the result and/or do their job
  • Making the same points over and over again, thinking that if they say them enough times (or using different variations), that the person will eventually understand
  • Giving poor instructions
  • Being too vague about what they want
  • Not being available for support or follow-through
  • Blaming, shaming, or punishing

I’ve yet to see any of these approaches work, especially in the long-term. Ironically, however, it doesn’t seem to stop leaders from continuing to use some variation or combination of them. Do any of them sound or feel familiar to you? Before continuing, ask yourself which ones you are likely doing when you’re not getting the results you want.

What these approaches mostly boil down to is this: leaders confuse the “what” with the “how” when going after a result.

The “What” vs. the “How”

The “what” is the outcome or result you’re looking for. It could be a finished product, plan, report, or idea. There is typically only one clear “what.”

The “how” is the means for achieving the “what.” It could be anything from research to a series of actions to having conversations. For any given “what,” there are countless “hows.”

The mistake leaders make is that they focus a lot on the “how” with their people and very little on the “what” for themselves. Sometimes, they’re off to the races before they even really know what the “what” is, or if it’s even the right “what.”

The secret lies in reversing the two: focusing a lot on the “what” and very little on the “how.”

Let’s explore.

Defining the “What”

To give yourself and your people the best chance of success, you first have to know and communicate the “what.” This starts with defining a result in the form of a SMART goal, then adding more detail as appropriate.

This is harder than most people think. Often, leaders will present their “what” in ways like:

  • “I need you to prepare a briefing on the status of the project.”
  • “We are looking for ways to increase revenue over the next quarter.”
  • “You need to come up with a goal for your team that aligns with the company’s mission.”

All of the above “what’s” are vague and open-ended. They don’t paint a picture of the actual result you’re looking for. This makes the target very hard to reach. It’s no wonder that your people would keep missing the mark because there is no real mark.

Unfortunately, the deeper problem isn’t that leaders can’t articulate the “what,” often because they aren’t clear themselves on what the “what” actually is. So, before even starting to engage your people in going after a result, it’s crucial for you to get very clear on the “what,” make it into a SMART goal, and then add as much detail as possible to that anyone could easily understand the result. Even better, write it down and ask people to state the “what” in their own words to confirm understanding, or adjust as needed.

Creating the “How”

After you have put it in the effort to come up with a clear “what,” the next step is sharing it with your people. Unfortunately, what happens next is that leaders botch the “how.” They either micromanage, aren’t available for support, or critique the person or their actions. Ultimately, they don’t give the other person ownership of the “how.”

This is where the rest of the secret comes into play: After you communicate the “what,” let your people own the “how.”

Giving ownership doesn’t mean that you go away and let them sink or swim. It means that you engage appropriately based on your people’s needs using situational leadership. From there, use these critical elements to let your people own the “how”:

  1. Accountability: create a rhythm of accountability to check-in, gauge and review progress, and course-correct. Don’t wait until it’s too late to check-in and discover the team is way off base. Again, course-correcting doesn’t mean getting into the “how” – it means restating the “what” and pointing out discrepancies between where they’re at and where you want them to be. Then, let them own the process for making the necessary adjustments
  2. Coaching: ask questions and provide feedback to help your people develop their “how.” Simple questions like, “What are your next steps?”, “Where are you stuck?”, and “What approaches do you think are best?” get them thinking about critical elements without you needing to give them your own solutions.
  3. Support: find out what they need from you along the way. Be as available and accessible as they need you to be (when in doubt, ask them).

I once coached a leader who actually had a good “what.” His team, however, wasn’t getting the right result. The leader’s approach was to keep restating the “what,” which, after several weeks, wasn’t making any difference except that everyone was becoming frustrated.

In this case, the “what” wasn’t the problem. The problem was that they needed more help around owning the “how.” This is especially true in organizational cultures with a very top-down approach because people are used to being told what to do instead of owning the solutions. In this case, they needed more help with learning how to own the “how” in the form of more open dialogue, mentoring, and bouncing around ideas. Unfortunately, the leader wasn’t skilled in these approaches, which is why he kept resorting to the only tool he knew.

With coaching, the leader began to learn these skills and use them with his team. He made time for more in-depth conversations to find out why they were struggling, provide more detail around the result, and ask some questions to help bridge the gap. Almost instantly, things began to click for the team and they quickly discovered the way forward.

Mastering the “What” and the “How”

Letting go of the “how” can be hard, especially when others take a different approach than you. Again, ultimately it’s the result that matters, not how you get there. If you want your people to succeed, if you want them engaged, and if you want them bought-in, letting them own the “how” while you own the “what” will give you the best chance of getting the results you want.