The Best Leaders Manage by the Art of the Nudge

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WHEN I’M ASKED what my biggest accomplishment is, I always point to my first job as a senior executive responsible for an entire department that had been tagged by corporate as being terribly underperforming — so underperforming, in fact, that they were considered one of the very worst units in the entire company.

I was successful in that role because i was able to help lead the staff — and it was a unionized workforce — to become one of the most improved units in the entire organization, and I was able to do it without the people on the staff hating me.

Welcome to the art of the nudge.

I bring this up because I saw a recent New York Times’ Corner Office column with Jeff Goodby, partner and co-chairman of the ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, made reference to how a manager can “nudge” people to improve their game, and ultimately, help to improve the entire company.

Mastering the “art of the nudge”

Here’s what he said when he was asked about how he learned the art of nudging people:

“When you get the job as creative director, your first inclination is to agree with everything people present to you, because you want them to like you. But then when it doesn’t come out well, then you actually have to think, inform the discussion and get the person to come back again with something slightly different and feel good about that. And they may have to change it again.

I try to see the work through the eyes of the people who did it because I don’t want to demoralize them. Why are they excited about their approach? Then I judge it from the best part of it.

Sometimes there isn’t a lot there, and so I’ll say, “You guys are doing a good job of thinking about it because this problem is not easy. So I give them some credit for the time that they’ve put in and for the perspective that they’ve got on it.

Sometimes I also have an idea for fixing the problem. Sometimes it’s a lame idea, and they walk out of the meeting thinking, “I can beat that.” But that’s fine. I give them a lot of rope to do what they think is right.”

This is an interesting concept, because in my experience, the very best managers spend most of their time nudging people and collaborating with their staff to make whatever it is they are working on that much better.

Yes, it’s a critical part of what good managers do.

Hiring people with varied interests and experiences

Nudging people may not sound like a critical skill, but believe me, it is. Not only does a nice nudge go down easier for your employees, but I have found that people would always rather be nudged than be pushed hard to do whatever they are being challenged to do.

But leaders also must recruit and hire, and Jeff Goodby had some good thoughts on that as well.

Here’s what Goodby said when he was asked, “How do you hire?

“For the most part, I hire people on the basis of one piece of work they’ve done that’s really good. You have to see some meshing between the possibilities you see in that work and the possibilities you see in their personality.

When I interview people, I look at their work ahead of time, but I don’t talk about their work. I try to find out who they are as people in the world. Do they do anything besides advertising? Do they have a life? Do they read? Do they have children?

I’m listening for depth in terms of understanding of culture. Do they go to the movies and read books, or are they just reading trades and magazines and staying inside the echo chamber of advertising? Because the way you make yourself better is to get outside that echo chamber. I often ask people, “What do you find in the world to be really brilliant that’s not advertising?

Really knowing what you really want

Here’s my take: As I look at what Goodby says, it is clear to me that he likes to hire people who have a well-rounded life and are interested in lots of different things and NOT just advertising. He wants to hire people who are brilliant in their own right (and really, who doesn’t want to hire people like that?) and who are broadly focused.

As someone who has managed and led creative people, I also know that much of the time you DON’T manage or lead them, and that’s OK because creative types can be a pain at times.

But, the takeaway from what Jeff Goodby is saying is that you need to think through just what it is that you do need in your employees, and then make sure you focus on that when you interview for new member of your staff.

Believe it or not, many talent managers don’t always do that, but it’s something you should be thinking about as you focus on what you truly need for your workforce to be successful.

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