Checking Off Boxes Isn’t Enough

red pen marking off check boxes

A standard question I ask my leadership coaching clients is, “What did you do in your leadership practice this week?”

A standard answer is something like, “I held a Zoom staff meeting and then met with each person individually to talk about their action plans for the week.”

My standard reply: “Fine, those are tasks. How are you deepening your leadership skills?”

It’s so easy to fall into a task-oriented mindset, where all we do is check off boxes. But leaders don’t check off boxes. Leaders engage and empower people to do their best work. 

You engage and empower people by building relationships. You need to know what motivates them, what keeps them awake at night, what gets them out of bed in the morning. They need to know you as someone they can trust: You will hold them accountable but won’t throw them under the bus when something goes wrong.

Building relationships takes time. It also takes intention. You’ll never have the time unless you make coffee dates or set up other occasions for chat that isn’t task oriented.

In my practice, I’ve found that leaders who come up through technical departments like IT or finance sometimes have a hard time prioritizing relationships. Fortunately, there are intermediate steps you can take.

My client Sheldon, who leads the statistical department of a government agency, found his own way to greater team engagement. He told me about his weekly task-oriented meeting with each of his direct reports and then said, “I finish these meetings, they walk away–and I feel like they’re missing something. They wanted more from me than they got.”

I supported Sheldon in thinking it through. He knew it had something to do with engagement. So he decided to give them a chance to use their expertise outside of the check boxes. He asked them for suggestions on how to improve their statistical reporting system. 

Howard, who had been working in this department for nearly four years, jumped at the chance. “When I was in the Army,” he said, “our reports always had a line at the end that said, ‘What other info do you see?’ That was the place where I could add to the statistics about how many Jeeps broke down last month to say, ‘But yeah, this one Jeep breaks down just about every time they take it out.'”

Sheldon appreciated the suggestion. Even more, he appreciated learning that Howard had been in the military! Sure, it was on his resume, but that was four years ago. In all this time, Howard’s Army experience hadn’t come up–because Sheldon was focused on checking off task boxes.

“So now, every time we meet, we talk about how Howard’s military experience applies to our work. He brings a new idea every time, and our reports are improving every day because of it,” said Sheldon.

Sheldon, Howard, and the rest of the team haven’t progressed all the way from task orientation to passionate engagement. But they’ve taken an intermediate step that is completely appropriate to Sheldon’s leadership development and the team’s comfort level. 

After all, you can’t go straight from “Amy, are you on track to have the draft report to Leonard by Wednesday?” to “So, how is your family coping with Delta?” 

In the state of overwhelm that almost everyone is experiencing these days, you may, like many leaders, be falling back on task orientation. You and your team do in fact need to accomplish tasks. You know how to accomplish tasks. So you stick with what’s familiar.

But task-oriented conversations can’t take you to the next level. To move forward, you need to build relationships. Relationships build engagement. Engagement inspires people to do their best work while supporting their teammates to do the same. 

If you’re not yet up to getting to know your team members on a personal level, you can take intermediate steps as Sheldon did. 

If you’re not sure what those steps might be, maybe some coaching would help. Or maybe you’d like to try an online course on how to keep moving forward in an environment that seems to want to hold you back. 

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