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How Situational Leadership Can Help Leaders Manage OKRs

Francisco Homem de Mello

Most recently, I was re-reading The Great CEO Within, an amazing – and free – ebook written by one of Silicon Valley’s top CEO coaches, Matt Mochary, and stumbled upon his suggestion that leaders read The One Minute Manager.

Ken Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager is one of the best-selling and most influential books about management ever written. And even though its title sounds a bit cheesy, the book is short and full of practical tools that can be used by managers on their day-to-day work.

Leadership and The One Minute Manager

Anyway, I went back to my Kindle and not surprisingly had purchased – and read about 60% of – both Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager and his newer Leadership and The One Minute Manager.

A quick glance at their table of contents reminded me that even though both books are about people management, the first focuses on goal-setting, feedback, and praises/recognition, while the second focuses on how leaders must adapt their management toolkit to how their direct reports feel about each of their goals. And I thought it could be a great addition to our writings about OKRs.

On Leadership and The One Minute Manager, Blanchard makes the case that people go through four different phases at work and that these phases are related to how much people are prepared with skills and experience to tackle a challenge (what he calls competence) and how motivated they are to do so.

The four development levels

For example, at the start of a project after a new promotion, I may be pretty much unprepared to tackle it. Let’s say I have just become a manager and I now will have to not only manage a team but also make sure this team completes a complex project, which I’ve never done either. In that situation, I may be what Blanchard describes as an enthusiastic beginner: I’m pumped about the project and eager to learn, so high on motivation and low on competence.

After the start of the project, as I discover how much I don’t know about the subject matter (and as I get a better understanding of the challenge), I may fall to a state of low motivation and low competence, becoming what Blanchard calls a disillusioned learner.

As I get my mojo back and gain more understanding, I may gain more competence, but still fair low – or at least hesitant – on my motivation, unsure and insecure about my abilities to succeed. Blanchard would call me capable but cautious.

Finally, as I get my confidence and motivation back, I get to a state where I have both the competence and the motivation to tackle the challenge. I’m what’s called a self-reliant achiever.

Levels are not about people, but about people-OKR pairs

One very interesting insight Blanchard brings us is that a single person may be at different development levels at the same time, as his competence and motivation are different towards each of the different challenges she is facing (which are, hopefully, articulated as OKRs or projects). Therefore, one should look at the development level of each pair of direct report and OKR. Example:

  • Jane and her sales quota attainment OKR: self-reliant achiever
  • Jane and her project to revamp the sales funnel: disillusioned learner
  • Jane and her development goal of learning how to manage other people: enthusiastic begginer

Andy Grove makes a pretty similar argument in his High Output Management when he states that “some [management] researchers argue that there is a fundamental variable that tells you what the best management style is in a particular situation. That variable is the task-relevant maturity (TRM) of the subordinates, which is a combination of the degree of their achievement orientation and readiness to take responsibility, as well as their education, training, and experience. Moreover,all this is very specific to the task at hand, and it is entirely possible for a person or a group of people to have a TRM that is high in one job but low in another.”

Grove goes on to tell readers that a manager must adapt his style to direct reports at different levels of task-relevant maturity, for example by going into much more detail with those on the low side, and so on. One-on-ones, which are frequent meetings between a manager and her direct reports, can also be more frequent and more day-to-day work-oriented with those with low task-relevant maturity, as opposed to those with high task-relevant maturity.

Anyway, you can change “task” in “task-relevant maturity” for “OKRs” and you’ll get insights that are very applicable to the reality of startups, scale-ups, and transforming enterprises.

For each development level, a leadership style

Blanchard makes a similar point. For him, leaders have two different levers to pull regading their leadership styles: the amount of direction and the amount of support that they offer their teams.

Direction is about deciding, teaching, observing, inspecting, and providing detailed task-related feedback. Supporting is about listening, explaining the whys of things, asking for suggestions, involving reports in decisions, facilitating, and encouraging. You get the idea.

For each development level, a manager must use different amounts of both support and direction, and Blanchard combines them in four different leadership styles:

  • Directing (low in support, high in direction)
  • Coaching (high in support, high in direction)
  • Supporting (high in support, low in direction), and
  • Delegating (low in support, low in direction)

As you might have deducted, these four leadership styles map out quite nicely to the four developmental levels we just went through.

  • Enthusiastic beginners need direction
  • Disillusioned learners need coaching
  • Capable but cautious people need supporting, and
  • Self-reliant achievers need delegating

For each OKRs, a leadership style

You can help your direct reports achieve more of they OKRs by trying to understand where they are in the development spectrum regarding each of their OKRs. As you noted, you may find that different individuals may have different development levels for different OKRs and that you should adapt your style to what’s most needed for each pair.

For enthusiastic beginner situations, a leader may provide specific direction about goals, show and tell the how of things, and closely track their performance so as to provide frequent in-depth feedback.

For disillusioned learner situations, a leader may keep on providing direction for how the direct report will achieve her OKRs, but also get into the why, ask for ideas and suggestions, and begin to push more decision making down.

For capable but cautious situations, a leader may collaborate on an equal footing about decisions being made, doing more facilitation, listening, and encouraging.

Finally, for self-reliant achiever situations, a leader may let the direct report work more on her own.

With this, we hope you have a better toolkit to help your team hit their OKRs. Let us know if you would like to chat about this and don’t forget to read both Blanchard’s and Grove’s books!