The Atomium.
The Atomium. (source: Pixabay).

If your company is like many, an enormous amount of time and money is dedicated to systems design. The organization chart is crafted and refined at executive-level retreats. Information architects work to optimize the flow of data, funds, and other resources through enterprise networks. Designers strive to create seamless and intuitive user interfaces. Decision scientists make every effort to link business units with the data they need when and where it will be most useful.

Yet, too few leaders devote similar consideration to the design of the important human relationships that all of those systems are created to facilitate. As advantage shifts to those who optimize for flow rather than control, insights from system design for platforms become useful to leaders as well. But first, the call to intentional relationship design.

As executive coach Kira McGovern pointed out to me several years ago, all relationships are designed. The variable is whether this is done purposefully or left to chance. In the passive manner I often see, each person shows up with his or her expectations and assumptions—about being the boss or subordinate for example—and then hopes for the best. Each observes the other, and usually one adapts to the needs of the other, dominant player. That can work. Or not. When it doesn’t, the result is conflict, lack of engagement, or even the departure of one person from the relationship. It’s as true at home as at work.

The alternative is to purposefully design your relationships to give them the greatest chance to be not only rewarding, but fulfilling and even inspiring. The added thought and effort that it takes pales in comparison with the rewards of great relationships and the costs of lousy ones.

Constructing a platform is an apt analogy for current leadership challenges. Not a platform in the sense of a stage that elevates you above others—that’s limiting, old-school thinking—but rather like a software platform that enables many stakeholders to contribute and derive benefits. Think of the elements that make a platform successful: simple rules of governance universally applied to critical functions with broad leeway between those rules for participation, innovation, and problem solving. The three most dominant consumer-facing software platforms today are, in alphabetical order, Android, iOS, and Windows. Each of these has strict rules for how the efforts of independent app developers integrate with the platform, and they deliberately leave the canvas bare in terms of what the various apps will do. It is a combination of smooth interoperability with robust creativity that enables the platform and those who participate on it to thrive.

Strong, well-crafted governing principles and rules make life easier for the platform host, developers, hardware designers, and end users. Each may be asked to compromise a bit from their ideal; though, when it is done well, all benefit far more than they could have on their own. That’s what leadership is about: engaging people to believe in and act toward something beyond their own immediate self-interests. Too many restrictions, and more time is spent worrying about compliance rather than creating value. Too few, and chaos reigns. Your challenge is to find the right balance.

A good place to start is the purpose of your leadership platform. Getting this right is a combination of the practical and the philosophical: pragmatically, you must know what job your customer hired you, your department, or your firm to help them do. This is the what. Philosophically, you need to articulate the values that will guide you and the impact you want to have on the world—the why. Are you here simply to write great code or generate profits—or do you hope to improve people’s lives in some tangible way? Companies such as Becton Dickinson, Unilever, and Siemens all articulate a link between their social and financial objectives. This helps determine who they hire, with whom they partner, and which products and services they pursue. This integration of a significant what with a compelling why is a defining characteristic of their platforms.

Becoming a relationship designer

In leadership, the platform design process starts with knowing yourself: your strengths and weaknesses, your relationship must-haves, your nice-to-haves, and your flashpoints for anger and disengagement. I’ll lay myself bare in general terms to illustrate the point. I am a big-picture person, and my eyes glass over at about the third level of detail. I am strong with words and weaker with numbers. I am a morning person. It can sometimes take me a minute or two to process information. I am particularly good at pattern recognition, so I make connections between seemingly divergent ideas more easily than do some other people. I must have honesty and respect in a relationship. I prefer one-on-one meetings and “managing by wandering around” to a lot of group gatherings because I find this more productive and more enjoyable. Lack of willingness to go an extra mile for the customer drives me insane.

In designing my relationships with people who work for me, I share this information in the context of what it will mean for us to work well together. I will give general direction and trust you to do your job.  If you need help, ask for it. If you think you have a better way to get to our objective, share it, and then let’s try it. To be more concrete, if you need me to look at a detailed financial report, get me in the morning, perhaps meeting over a coffee. Connect the numbers to the mission, and give me a top line summary to provide context. An advance copy will give me time to process the information and prepare intelligent questions. If, instead, you thrust it at me in the afternoon and expect instant decisions, the outcome will not be pleasant for either of us.

Former Campbell Soup Company CEO Doug Conant calls this “declaring yourself.” He has a one-hour conversation with all of his new direct reports where he shares everything from his leadership philosophy to his work style to his favorite quotes.

For those you hire, you start with a clean slate. However if you inherit team members you are entering a bit of an arranged marriage. Get to know people while helping them to understand you and what you hope that you can accomplish together. Your title as “boss” places you in the hierarchy, but it does not make you a leader. Only your followers determine that.

Effective relationship design is a two-way conversation. You cannot simply impose a dynamic, innovative environment by ordering people to “be creative” or “collaborate.” Creating the conditions in which creativity and collaboration are emergent properties of the larger system, the organization’s culture, is as much a result of your behavior as the rules you set. It is the encouragement you give as much as the discipline you enforce.

See where there are easy match-ups and where there are issues to be resolved with your subordinates. For example, a project manager who once worked for me was a real detail detective. She knew where every penny of expense was going. When she first joined the team, she and I had frustrating meetings because she wanted to go through every line item. I could neither process it as fast as she was sharing it nor was all of the detail useful to me.

After some back-and-forth, we arrived at a solution that worked for us both: I acknowledged that while I did not want to sift through all of the detail, I did appreciate that it was there if needed and trusted her ability to manage costs. I accommodated her need to work at home at times so that she could wrangle the pennies without distraction. She, in turn, created a new report that rolled up those pennies into dollars at a level that I needed in order to be fluent with the department’s overall budget, for which I was accountable, and she agreed to schedule her at-home days so they didn’t disrupt overall team function. That’s win-win intentional design.

When you are designing relationships with your boss, suppliers, customers, or other stakeholders, the power-authority equation is much different, yet the relationships are just a critical to your leadership platform. You leverage is often more values- and competence-based than derived from any command you can issue: just like your subordinates, these people want to know if you can be trusted, if you will deliver on your promises, and if you are an effective problem solver. The essential elements are summed up well in the “trust equation” articulated by David Maister, Charles Green, and Rob Galford. Through their work in the consulting world, they found that individuals who were highly credible, reliable, adept at relationship building, and consistent in putting the client’s interest first were perceived as more trustworthy, and thus more valuable, than those who were not. Each of those elements is mission-critical to your platform. A low score on any one undermines high scores on the others.

Even when you are in a position of little power, you can still make intentional choices about your leadership platform governance and function. Several years ago, I consulted at a tech start up run by a legendary entrepreneur and his recently minted MBA son. Also consulting were two young women who had just launched a graphic design firm. They shared that they had been pressed hard for a break on their hourly rate by the founder’s son. It was a common “cut us a deal now and we’ll all get rich later” plea. They held firm to their standard fee. One told me that they were confident in their ability to deliver great work and attract clients. As a two-person shop with little overhead, they could be hyper-efficient. However, they only wanted clients who respected them and their abilities enough to pay market rate. For them, it was a relationship must-have—and good advice for any service provider.

This example points out one of the most difficult aspects of relationship design: saying “no.” However, platform success depends upon it. Whether driven by the need to make ends meet or the desire to be accepted, each us can succumb to optimism bias, which leads us to think that things will work out for the best. A better bet is be honest with yourself and summon the courage to say, “That doesn’t work for me.” As a leader, you want to be clear about the simple rules you need in place; equally important is understanding how other stakeholders delineate their boundaries. Far worse is to have someone engaging in passive-aggressive behavior or even working to subvert you because a relationship design conflict has been left to fester. Ignoring such issues is a design decision just as much as resolving them. Remember that fluid interoperability is foundational to a robust platform.

One last consideration for leadership platform performance is friction. Think about where you want it and where you don’t. For example, an important principle of collaborative problem solving that I picked up from placemaker Milenko Matanovic of the Pomegranate Center is to be “hard on ideas and easy on people.” Rigorous debate can help you get to a better solution, but it is most fruitful when disagreements are focused on the issue and not the advocates. Enabling that good friction without its damaging counterpart, personal derision and disrespect, fosters an environment where people are willing to share their thoughts, take risks, and make decisions. Make your leadership platform a safe one for everyone who participates and adheres to your governance policies.

Intentional design for high impact

Admittedly, the software platform is an imperfect analogy. The human factors of relationships are more dynamic and complex than even the most complicated platform. However, thinking of leadership as a platform provides an important and distinct perspective on the leadership challenges you face. In team-centered work, you will need the active and engaged participation of those who work for you, cooperation and coordination with your peers, support from your boss, and collaboration with outside partners. You may find yourself working closely with your customers and suppliers to develop solutions. Effective leadership will not be linear and directive; it will be inclusive and mission-focused. Like any robust platform, there should be many opportunities to give and to get. The more intentional and informed your relationship design choices, the more likely you are to lead in a system that is rewarding for you and all those you hope to lead.

Article image: The Atomium. (source: Pixabay).