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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

4 steps to identify your personal management operating principles

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Claire Hughes Johnson

Whether you’ve heard the term or not, you’ve probably already formed many of your own “management operating principles”— the guidelines you use to make decisions and get work done. Knowing and understanding how these guardrails influence your work can make you a better leader.

Over time, I have refined the backbone of how I lead into four key principles, and I believe they form the foundation of my success:

1. Build self-awareness to build mutual awareness.

2. Say the thing you think you cannot say.

3. Distinguish between management and leadership.

4. Come back to the operating system.

These principles are about one thing: building trust. If you’re not self-aware, how can others trust your feedback about their own abilities and behaviour? If you’re not direct with your opinions and judgments, how will people know where they stand? If you’re not clear on whether you’re managing to a defined goal or charting an entirely new vision, how will your team trust that you’re leading them to success? And if you don’t maintain a foundation of consistency, how will those around you know what to expect? Let’s take a deeper dive into each of the four principles.

PRINCIPLE 1: Build self-awareness to build mutual awareness

Self-awareness is the key to great management. The other three operating principles are much more about functioning in the moment, but this is the one that underpins them all. Self-awareness has three components:

UNDERSTAND YOUR VALUES. At Google, I worked with a manager whom I’ll call Eli. His reports liked working for him, his teams delivered results and he cared a lot about the company. Eli was a good manager. But we had a problem: He told his team everything.

What do you do really well? Which skills do you already have, and which do you need to build?

When we were planning a divisional change that would affect many teams, he informed his reports early, making other managers look uncommunicative. When we were working on a new compensation process, he told his reports and introduced uncertainty into the team’s dynamic, letting his fears guide his language with announcements like “It’s a mess and we don’t know our compensation plan yet, so I’m totally stressed.” His reports started to feel anxious about the process and rejected it before they’d had an opportunity to learn how it might benefit them.

Eli and I had a couple of difficult sessions to discuss his behaviour. In each meeting, he agreed with my assessment of his behaviour, but as soon as he left the room he would revert to his habits. I felt stuck.

Not long after one of these frustrating conversations, my HR partner helped me organize a training session for my division with Stan Slap, the author of Bury My Heart at Conference Room B. Stan led us through a session on values in which he asked all of us to reflect on the values that were important to us and where we thought they came from. He invited participants to come on stage, in front of hundreds of other managers, to share one of those core values.

Eli raised his hand. This was the story he told: When he was around seven or eight, his mom fell very ill. Later, he would learn that she had breast cancer, but at the time, no one in his family told him what was going on. They wanted to keep things as normal as possible. Of course, things were far from normal, and Eli noticed that his mother was not herself, physically or emotionally. Her condition deteriorated, and she eventually had to go to the hospital. Eli was not allowed to visit her. One day, Eli’s stepdad came to pick him up from school. They drove to his favourite diner and ordered pancakes. While Eli poked at his pancakes, his stepdad told him that his mom had died.

Eli’s core value was transparency. That story has stuck with me for a long time, particularly the two lessons I took from it. First, you never know someone else’s story. When you’re finding a direct report difficult to work with, there’s almost always a deeper reason for their behaviour that’s worth trying to understand. Second, some people don’t necessarily understand why they act the way they do. If you don’t understand how your actions are driven by your underlying beliefs, you’ll never be able to adapt them, no matter how hard you try.

Eli knew that his lack of discretion was making it harder for his team to operate and also sometimes harmed the division. He wanted to do better, but at the same time, withholding information from them felt like betraying his commitment to transparency.

Once Eli became aware of this value and was able to share it with others, we were able to talk about every situation at a meta level. We could negotiate what felt right and appropriate for him to share with his team and his division. By building self-awareness, he was able to contribute to the dynamic of mutual awareness that makes managers — and their reports, teams and divisions — work successfully. Ultimately, Eli realized that he needed to consult his peers and his manager before he shared critical decisions, and that being thoughtful about communication was a way of caring in and of itself.

Understanding what is most important to you will help you make sense of how you work, what gives you energy (and what saps it) and what might trigger an outsized reaction. With these insights, you'll be able to express your values and understand when they are at odds with someone else’s. When you get frustrated, you’ll be more open to the possibility that your own values are making you a “blocker.” Then, you can develop a path forward, as Eli did.

IDENTIFY YOUR WORKSTYLE PREFERENCES. If you spend even just a few weeks writing down the moments when you feel most energized and when you feel drained, you’ll start to see patterns. Most workstyle assessments plot you and your team on a continuum from “introverted” to “extroverted” and from “task-oriented” to “people-oriented.” Common ones include DiSC (which stands for dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness) and the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which helps identify 16 different personality types and is based on the work of Carl Jung.

My personal favourite assessment is Insights Discovery, which quickly builds a strong vocabulary for certain behaviours within a team. The assessment puts you into one of four coloured quadrants of a circle: red, yellow, green or blue.

The Insights Discovery® Framework | COOL BLUE: cautious, precise, deliberate, questioning, formal. FIERY RED: competitive, demanding, determined, strong-willed, purposeful. SUNSHINE YELLOW: sociable, dynamic, demonstrative, enthusiastic, persuasive. EARTH GREEN: caring, encouraging, sharing, patient, relaxed. The order and strength of the four colour energies in each participant generates eight types: Director | Extraverted Thinking | Results focus, decisive, assertive Motivator | Extraverted Intuition | Drive, enthusiasm, positive thinking Inspirer | Extraverted Feeling | Persuasive, creative, people skills Helper | Introverted Intuition with Extraverted Sensing | Flexible and helps others, shares ideas Supporter | Introverted Feelings | Listens, loyal, team approach Coordinator | Introverted Sensing | Planning, organizing, time management Observer | Introverted Thinking | Sets standards, product knowledge, analysis Reformer | Extroverted Sensing with Introverted Intuition | Determination, monitoring performance

Your placement with respect to the centre of the circle depends on the strength of your preference. The results also indicate how much you dial your behaviours up or down at home versus at work.

For me, the biggest insight was that my preferred style (green, near the border with yellow, in the “supporter” category) is closely followed by the opposite style on the wheel (red, or “director”), which is apparently somewhat unusual. These insights gave me the language to articulate what I think is (largely) a strength of mine: I love to get things done, but I do so via process and people, whereas other leaders who have a lot of red in their charts do so more via assigning tasks or just doing the work themselves.

ANALYZE YOUR SKILLS AND CAPABILITIES. Once you can articulate your core values and workstyle preferences, you can get down to the more tactical version of self-awareness by asking yourself two sets of questions:

1. What do you do really well? Which skills do you already have, and which ones do you need to build?

2. What are your capabilities? What are you naturally good at, and which capabilities have you acquired over time?

Skills are quite tactical: whether you can use HTML, build a financial model in a spreadsheet or create a detailed marketing campaign. At a slightly higher level, they also encompass abilities, like whether you can break down a business problem and write a strategy. But they’re all fairly binary: “Yes, I have done this” or “No, I haven’t done that.” Take inventory of what skills you need for your role, what you know how to do and what you need to learn in order to identify any gaps and make a plan to fill them.

Capabilities (also called competencies) are a step above a pure skill. They’re more about an innate ability to use a particular set of skills in a given situation. For example, my tactical analytical skills are not particularly strong. Although I learned how to build a financial model in business school, I wouldn’t trust myself to build a good enough one to base a decision on. But my analytical capabilities are strong. I’ve been told that I can absorb a lot of data and opinions and quite quickly synthesize all the elements to identify the decision that needs to be made.

Consider managing internal and external communications for a company in a crisis. This takes skill, yes, but also instincts and pattern-matching to past events, both of which allow you to handle any issue that might arise, even if it’s a new one. Your skills might include project management and writing talking points for a leader. Your capabilities might include the ability to manage stakeholders, assess risk and make sound judgments on communication strategy in high-pressure situations.

Your strengths are the sum of your skills and capabilities — which is why both skills and capabilities come up in conversations about strengths and weaknesses. For example, when asked about an area for development, one of my reports might say, “I want to write better e-mails.” When I ask why, they might answer that their team has grown to a size that requires them to have stronger communication skills. Because e-mail is the primary method of communication for them, they’re all working on that skill. But as they do that, they’re also building leadership communication capabilities. Both are important, but it’s the capability that really fosters growth, because it can be translated and repurposed into other forms of communication.

PRINCIPLE 2: Say the thing you think you cannot say

How often have you sat in a meeting and mused, “It really feels like there’s something that isn’t being talked about right now?” Or had a conversation with a report and thought, “I think they’re getting upset about what I’m saying?” These questions prompt a bigger one: “Why don’t managers say what is actually on their minds?”

People often think good management is about having a lot of filters, and for good reason. There’s a lot that might feel risky to say, or that feels like a personal judgment. But be wary of over-filtering. Following are three tactics I’ve found useful in this regard.

SHARE YOUR FEELINGS. Everyone has emotions, which makes them a powerful management tool. We all know what it feels like to be worried or overloaded. Sharing a feeling with your team can quickly contextualize the importance of your statement. If you say, “We didn’t hit our target,” you haven’t offered any comment on the gravity of the situation. On the other hand, if you say, “We didn’t hit our target, and I’m worried about the impact this will have on our team and on the business,” the team will immediately understand that there is a problem that demands attention.

BE MEASURED. On the other hand, imagine how your team would react if you said, “I’m freaking out because we didn’t hit our target.” People might start to feel panicked, which would impede your ability to move necessary work forward. In the example I shared earlier, Eli was honest about what was going on in the division and how it made him feel (“It’s a mess; I’m totally stressed”), but he failed to deliver the information and feelings in a measured way, which destabilized his team.

SEPARATE THE  PERSON FROM THE IDEA OR TASK. Always make the distinction between who someone is and what they did. I once had a coach who observed that criticism and risky observations often feel oppositional — when in fact it’s very powerful to stand next to someone and look at the same thing and make observations together. Think about the difference between saying “That presentation was terrible,” prompting the other person to feel defensive about whatever role they played in it, versus “What did you think of the presentation? I was disappointed in aspects of it and would love to hear what you thought.”

I understand why a lot of managers don’t say what they think. Sometimes management can feel like a balancing act in a gymnastics competition: Take one step to the right and you’ve shared too much; take one to the left and you’re unapproachable. But learning to constructively express the closest thing to your truth helps you keep your balance. It feels high stakes, because it is; but honing this ability will help you land the dismount: building trust.

The payoff will be enormous, because it will strengthen your whole team. Teams where people can say what’s on their minds will raise and resolve problems much more quickly. They’ll also be happier, since they won’t be suppressing thoughts and feelings about their work. More importantly, being more open and direct, yet always constructive, will earn you the one-to-one trust that is critical to an effective relationship with direct reports.

PRINCIPLE 3: Distinguish between management and leadership

Great leaders put forth a vision and set lofty goals that inspire others to forge ahead. Even when the path isn’t always clear, the clarity of their vision keeps everyone focused on the big picture and sustains participation and motivation. Leaders don’t have to be managers, but if they aren’t, they need to know how to work with and hire managers to build the right teams to execute the vision.

Management is all about human-centric execution. Great managers know how to define goals and set operational cadences, all while helping each report have a clear view of their current performance and future career aspirations. Teams with great managers have a high level of trust, experience the challenge and reward of hard work, and feel like they’re making progress both as individuals and as a team. Great managers don’t initially have to be great leaders, but the more senior they become, the more important it is that they also develop leadership skills. Eventually, managers need to be able to set a vision and direction for their team — and potentially make the team uncomfortable with a bit of heat — or they’ll hit a ceiling in their careers.

Understanding the distinction between management and leadership has proved invaluable in my career. It has helped me retain high performers I might have been tempted to promote into management but who I recognized could be much more effective as leaders in non-manager roles. It has also helped me push myself and others to develop beyond technical problem management and into the adaptive leadership zone.

I recently coached a talented up-and-coming product marketing leader at Stripe who kept running up against the challenge of syncing her team’s work with the company’s everchanging product roadmap. We spent a whole one-on-one talking about solutions, at the end of which I observed that there would never be a one-and-done fix for the issue. Instead, she would need to continually adapt her approach and push the product team to adapt theirs. The realization that this situation called for leadership via influence and careful communication, rather than building the perfect process, freed her from seeking the perfect answer.

Experienced employees mostly need a leader and just a bit of a manager. If they’ve made it to a certain point in their careers, they’re probably good at getting their work done. But they’ll look to a leader to lay out the overarching vision and the milestones they should be working towards, and to pave the way for progress within the systems that operate outside of the team.

PRINCIPLE 4: Come back to your operating system

It was only recently that I was able to articulate this as an actual guiding principle. In 2018, I was leaving a conference in Colorado when bad weather prompted a huge number of flight cancellations. I ended up problem-solving a trip home with a venture capitalist and a banker who were seated nearby, forming what we jokingly called our “escape syndicate.” Our solution involved chartering a small plane (luckily for me, paid for mostly by the other syndicate members) to get back to the Bay Area. Trapped as we were for hours in the airport, and then on the flight, we traded stories.

The banker, who has worked with many successful companies as they’ve gone public, said that he has a favourite question he asks the CEOs and leaders he gets to know: What is your secret power? I thought for a minute and realized what my own secret power is: The ability to build a repeatable operating system for every team I manage. They each have the same components: a clear mission, stated goals, metrics that matter, similar meeting structures, and weekly and quarterly cadences. That means that as a leader, I can switch contexts seamlessly.

When I started managing multiple teams at Google, I felt overwhelmed by the constant context-switching. Creating a common user interface for all of them made things much easier. Just as it did for me, a common operating approach with the same core elements across all of your teams will give you a "management shortcut" of sorts.

Your system, like mine, will be based on the rhythms of how you operate: quarterly goals, metrics review meetings on Mondays, team meetings on Tuesdays, weekly one-to-ones, offsites for big-picture thinking and so on. Teams and companies vary, but these fundamental approaches create stability.

Building self-awareness, saying the thing you think you cannot say and knowing when to be a manager versus a leader are all fundamental principles of great management. But none of them describe how you will drive results. It is the combination of your team environment and the team’s execution that will produce great results. But for that to happen, in my experience, you need to operate within a framework of core principles.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Rotman Management magazine. Subscribe today.

Claire Hughes Johnson is a corporate officer and advisor at Stripe and former VP for AdWords, Google Offers and Google’s self-driving car project.