How do you lead a team successfully, and become an effective leader? While caring for your team and making good on your word may not seem like the most glamorous or earth-shattering leadership traits, they certainly number among the most important.

Think about the best boss(es) you’ve had in your career. What comes to mind? A huge project or win? A monumental endeavor? Or something…little. Perhaps something they said, or did? The little things seem so basic, yet they’re vital to the success of our projects, teams and organizations.

Looking forward to this year’s Digital PM Summit, we were reminded of a thought-provoking session delivered at a past Summit. In “It’s All About the Little Things,” Sam Barnes, Senior Development Manager at Marks and Spencer, took the stage to outline little things that can add up to success—or disaster. As Sam illustrated, the little things make all the difference in the world. Mastering them may be even more important than all of the grand things we think we need to achieve to be great at our jobs.

Ready to dig in? Here are 10 basics that every effective leader gets right.


1. Successfully Manage Your Workload

You set the standard for your team, and if you’re not able to manage your own workload, it’s a lot to ask your team to do the same. From The Pomodoro Technique to Don’t Break the Chain, The Action Method and Eating Live Frogs: Do the Worst Thing First, there are many productivity techniques.

Sam is a fan of methods outlined by David Allen in the book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. The goal is to get things out of your head, so they’re not cluttering up your mind and creating undue stress. Here are two techniques you can start with today:

  • Inbox Zero: This is not a myth. While the idea of attaining Inbox Zero may seem impossible, it’s easier than it sounds. The goal is to clean out your Inbox every workday. Sam recommends setting up folders and, as you read each email, ask yourself one question: “Does this email contain an action for me—or not?” If it does, put the to-do on your to-do list with a due date. If it doesn’t, file that email away.

  • Next Action: The simplest things are often the easiest to forget when things get busy. Say someone on your team is out sick. Sure, you may outline the tasks that you need to accomplish while that person is away. But what about when they get back? Do you have a reminder to follow up with them on how they’re feeling? Get that to-do out of your brain, so it doesn’t rumble around and slip through the cracks.

2. Get Back to People on Time

We get it. You’re overloaded with emails and Slack messages and phone follow-ups and meetings—all of the things. It’s understandable that you’re busy, but there’s no reason not to get back to people on time. Because when people don’t hear back (especially starting out in their careers), they worry. Save them the angst and shoot them a quick note that you have what you need and you’ll be back in touch. Set a new date and keep your word. Speaking of which…

3. Always Keep Your Word

One of the most common failings among busy leaders is not doing what you say you’re going to do. As Sam says, you must keep your word always: “In our jobs, I believe that trust and integrity are some of our most valuable currencies.”

4. Keep People in Mind When Booking Meetings

You pick a date and send an invite. And suddenly your team is apologizing, scrambling to shuffle prior obligations or getting together at a time when they’re not their best. Help set people up for success by checking people’s availability and their preferences. Some people aren’t their best before 10:00 AM, or they need to rush home at the end of the day to avoid a terrible commute. Checking with people shows you really care about them, and that they’re not money-making robots. Manners can so easily be forgotten, especially when things keep stacking up. But the littlest things stick out and stay with people for a long time.

5. Have Regular 1:1s—& Really Listen

It’s easy to let one-on-ones slip, but these absolutely need to happen. Even if it’s just a project one-to-one. To make one-on-ones successful, really listen to people. Act on the information that’s discussed in the meeting, and be proactive with follow-ups, even if it’s only to say you haven’t forgotten.

6. Unlock Radical Candor

It’s tough to talk with someone about their conduct or performance. But when you sincerely care for your team, it allows for complete honesty without the awkwardness. Radical Candor is a management philosophy outlined by Kim Scott in her book, Radical Candor: How to be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing‎ Your Humanity. It’s essential for effective leadership, and much easier to achieve when you genuinely care about your team.

7. Create a Culture of Trust

Ever drag yourself to the phone to call your boss and say you’ll be out sick? Or sit at your desk waiting for quitting time, despite finishing your work ahead of schedule? As workplaces become more flexible, it’s up to us as leaders to create cultures of trust. Two notorious issues that crop up when there’s a lack of trust are employee guilt and employee sneer. As Sam explains,

  • Employee Guilt: That feeling that you can’t leave the office until quitting time, even if you finish your work for the day

  • Employee Sneer: An unwritten rule that employees can criticize and complain about people who arrive late or leave early

Sound familiar? If so, you need to root these out. As a people or project manager, you can’t allow the pressure of delivering work to lead to these two cultural fouls. Here are some tips Sam suggests to foster mutual trust, and show that you really care about your people:

  • Let people text out when ill

  • Squash employee guilt and employee sneer

  • When sending after-hours communications, make it clear that you’re not expecting a reply until the next work day

Little things, right?

8. Assume People Mean Well

Very rarely is there just one solution to a business problem, and people likely aren’t disagreeing with you just to be difficult. People are inherently different in the way they think and act, and in the past experiences they bring to a project or job.

Say, for example, you have an extrovert CEO working with an introvert DPM. Both love digital, enjoy their jobs, want to win the work, want the project to go well and get along personally. But typically, introverts are more risk-averse than extroverts, and want to think things through carefully. Despite these differences, both want the best for the client, team and business. But without understanding each other, they may feel the other person is just…difficult.

The solution, Sam says, is assuming the other person means well, and talking through differences.

9. Gain Trust to Execute Big Ideas

Ever pitch a plan or idea to…crickets? When you believe in something, it can be disheartening when your team doesn’t see it the same way. But oftentimes, it’s not that the idea is bad. It’s that it’s just too big. People may struggle to commit when faced with a huge leap of faith. Sam suggests breaking ambitious projects into small, easily digestible chunks and working to show benefits as each piece is accomplished. Trust will build as the work progresses, and people will be more willing to rally behind you in the future.

10. Practice The No Asshole Rule

Expertise is a funny thing. Some people prioritize expertise above all else, even when experts are toxic and damaging to the people around them. In The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, Robert Sutton outlines a technique to fight the good fight: Get rid of assholes.

Toxic people have a cost, and Sutton puts a name to it: the “total cost of assholes” or TCA. Based on studies of toxic workplaces, Sutton found the following:

There is a 15% average bullying rate in companies, where 25% of bullying targets resign, as do 20% who witness the bullying close up. Crunch the numbers for a 1,000-person company and you’re facing a TCA of $980,000. Here’s how that breaks down:

15% bullied people = 150
25% bullied people will resign = 38
2x witnesses per person = 300
20% witnesses will resign = 60
98x replacements, each costing $10,000
TCA = $980,000

Do the math, and it just doesn’t make sense to keep jerks on your team. While it’s a tough argument to make or justify, it’s important to build the business case for treating your team right.

Let’s Learn Together

What qualities do you value most as a leader—or which ones do you struggle with? Join us in Orlando for the 2019 Digital PM Summit, and talk through challenges with people who understand what you’re up against. Your team and company will be better for it.

As Sam says, “The Digital PM Summit has changed my life, and many other people’s lives for the better. It’s become the primary place where people go to learn what the latest trends are within project and product delivery, project management and leadership. A very common thing I’ve heard every single year is how attendees finally feel like they’ve ‘found their people,’ and how they go back to work feeling incredibly proud of the job they do and inspired to do it even better using what they've learned at the Summit.” Join us!