Developing leaders – when good enough is actually better

A Street for Those Who Are Happy to Settle for Second Best
I’ve been thinking a fair bit about leadership and succession planning lately, particularly in relation to the well-worn Tom Peters adage that:

Leaders don’t create more followers, they create more leaders

But as a leader, what are some of the important things you need to do in order to achieve just this? The one I want to touch on today specifically relates to the second dot point in this Forbes article: giving team members the right experience.

What do we mean by the ‘right experience’? Giving them tasks that are challenging but achievable, and then supporting to do those tasks to a standard which is ‘good enough’.

I remember one occasion early in my career where I was working on a written document for my boss at the time. I was not long out of University, and though I had the fundamentals that I needed to write well, I was pretty rough. Being asked to write something was a pretty big deal at the time, and I jumped in with enthusiasm. I started drafting, sending on for review, getting it back ‘red penned’ (and physically red penned for that matter – that’s how long ago it was) with requests to work on this or rewrite that, and after a few iterations of this my boss said ‘leave it with me from here, I’ll finalise it and send it on’. When I saw the final document, there were a whole bunch of minor changes from my last draft, and it was pretty clear that they had spent some time to make it sound a lot closer to ‘their voice’ than my own admittedly imperfect one.

At the time, I remember feeling two things:

  1. I did my best and it wasn’t good enough (and hence I am not good enough).
  2. Why bother trying so hard when you’re only going to rewrite it anyway.

Giving this person the benefit of the doubt and with a little more hindsight, I suspect that a lot of the problem with what I had done related less to me and more to one of that person’s weaknesses as a leader – perfectionism. There’s been plenty written on the pitfalls of being a perfectionist leader (I particularly like this article about perfectionism vs speed), but I think as a long-term negative one of the biggest risks of perfectionism in a leader is that it will hamper the development of more leaders.

of the biggest risks of perfectionism in a leader is that it will hamper the development of more leaders.

One of the aspects of my own leadership I’ve tried to work on more in more recent years is to get a better sense of what good enough looks like within the work of my team, and to whenever possible let good enough be exactly that – good enough.

Not only does this mentality improve throughput and help create a ‘sustainable pace’ (through having less frantic last-minute rework cycles), it also:

  • keeps the focus of the team on what actually matters (getting the job done instead of getting the job done exactly how I would have done it);
  • builds confidence in those doing the work through having more carriage over the artefacts being created or services being delivered; and
  • fosters a culture of trust throughout the team through seeing that leadership is more often than not ‘noninvasive’, and that people will be given space to express themselves in their own way.

This is not to say that any manager should accept work that is clearly sub-par – and there will always be occasions when work is far enough off what is expected that allowing it to stay as-is would be detrimental to all involved. I think the hardest part of taking this approach is working out where the ‘good enough’ line sits, which is typically based on the expectations of customers and the impact on all stakeholders of potentially setting the bar too low. Sometimes I liken this judgement call to times when I’ve done home repairs around the house and made small faults (I’m no pro by any means), and have had to ask myself realistically ‘would anyone else even notice it, and if they did then would they care?’ A lot of the time, refining beyond a certain point of quality falls foul of the law of diminishing returns, not only in the end product but in the effect that it has to others involved in the process.

No doubt some of the people I’ve managed will look back at the work they did earlier in their career and think ‘wow, I could do that so much better with what I know now’ – I know I certainly do of my own work – but hopefully they will also take on board the need to allow their own employees to create work which is good enough in the short term, so that they have a better chance of becoming far better later on.