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Bill Sanford, Senior Executive Trainer at Bell Leadership
Bill Sanford, Senior Executive Trainer at Bell Leadership

Working Smart: 3 Practices to Get You There


Great coaches and great leaders inspire the type of commitment that naturally causes a team to work hard.  But teams that don’t also work smart can find their work efforts squandered.  

Coach Smith never sent his players out on the court without a well-planned strategy, designed to capitalize on the team’s strengths.  He adjusted that strategy year over year as the players changed and the competition evolved.  He made sure every player understood how their position contributed to the overall game plan.  The team built a set of practices to continuously measure what mattered and provide feedback so that individual players and the team could adjust.  This smart approach proved to be a winning formula. 

According to Dr. Bell, many leaders spend too much time working and not enough time thinking. Working smart is about dedicating the time to think and helping your teams to do the same.  The same principles Coach Smith used in basketball apply to leaders and their teams in business.  With a focus on a few key areas, allocating time to think strategically will equip you with the valuable insights you need to guide your teams to working as smart as they can.  

1 – Adapt your strategy continuouslyIn basketball, coaches vigilantly study what’s happening on and off the court to inform game strategy. In The Carolina Way, Dr. Bell translated that habit to business—imploring leaders to master their internal and external environment at every opportunity.

As a leader, pay attention to how things might change inside your organization—understand your team dynamics and adapt your plans and processes to complement those changes. Carefully monitor the world outside your organization; what do changes in the external environment mean for how your business, your teams, and your strategy need to evolve? Good companies die quickly when they lose touch with the external environment. Study your customers, competitors, and the wider culture to gather clues on how to shift your methods and objectives to meet their needs.

2 – Bring clarity to the work.  Individuals can’t bring their best committed efforts to the team if the work lacks clarity or they are unsure of what role they play. Leaders play a pivotal part in providing this clarity. Whether on the court, the manufacturing floor, or the board room, every team member needs to be able to clearly articulate the team’s goals and what role they each play to reach them. The best leaders don’t dictate the goals or overmanage their team, rather they provide the structure and guide the process needed for the team to reach a place of clarity and alignment. Effective leaders facilitate open communication and establish regular check-ins to ensure that team members remain aligned with the goals and understand how their individual contributions support the overall success of the team.

3 – Analyze and embrace feedback.  Highly-effective leaders crave feedback. You can’t make informed decisions about the future of your work without understanding the impact of your current actions. Implement systems that provide ongoing feedback from both customers and employees on the things that matter most. Passive comments from clients won’t suffice. As a business you need to actively seek feedback regularly through multiple channels designed to ensure honest, unfiltered information. Once you receive and unpack that data, make sure to share the results with everyone on your team so that you can collectively tweak the work to be more effective.   

It’s easy for leaders to get bogged down in the day-to-day details of the work just as it’s easy for a coach to become consumed by the minutia of a game. Make time for you and your teams to think strategically about the things that make the biggest impact. You will create a team culture where everyone knows where they stand and is aligned with each other and their mission, dedicated to ongoing improvement.

Finally, when everyone is working smart, and not just hard, how do you ensure that they are truly working together? Find out in Part 3 in the Lessons from The Carolina Way series.