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The Situational Leadership Framework

Former COO of Google, Europe

IP Interview
Published on February 23, 2020

Why is this interview interesting?

  • How first-time managers can use the situational leadership framework to manage direct reports
Executive Bio

Ben Legg

Former COO of Google, Europe

Ben is an engineer by training and spent over 10 years in the Royal Engineers in the British Army career before moving to McKinsey. In 2002, he moved to Coca-Cola where he ran teams across Eastern Europe before turning around the Indian business leading 12,000 salespeople. Ben then moved to Google where was COO of UK and Ireland for 2 years before being promoted to COO Europe where he was responsible for writing the monetisation blueprint of Google’s various properties. This involved defining the role of ad units, properties, interactions with agencies and partners, and devising how auctions should work. Ben then ran a Yellow Pages turnaround before running an ad-tech business for 6 years which ran $200m of ad spend through the major technology platforms. Ben is the author of Marketing for CEO’s and is on the Board of The Oxford Foundry where he is a mentor and investor to multiple startups.

Interview Transcript

How do you look at situational leadership?

Situational leadership is, for first-time and frontline leaders, probably the best and easiest to use framework for leadership that exists. If you’re a first-time or frontline leader, you’ve got a bunch of people in your team reporting to you, and each of them has multiple tasks.

For each individual on a task, you need to figure out, “How do I manage this person? Do I tell them what to do? Do I back off? How much time and attention do I give it?” The situational leadership framework is a very simple two-by-two matrix; skill and will. Does the person have the skills to do the task? High or low? And do they have the will — the passion, determination, enthusiasm? High or low? If you think about the four blocks that come out of that framework, if someone has all the motivation and skills to do a task, you don’t want to micromanage them. You don’t need to give them much time because you’ll annoy them. “I know what to do and I love doing it. Back off.” You need to say, “Let me know if you need help,” and maybe congratulate them when they do a good job. That’s about it. You’ve saved a lot of time as a leader. You don’t need to focus there.

If they have high will but low skill — they’re still enthusiastic, but they don’t have the skills — you need to teach them how to do it. You know they’re going to do their best, but their best may not be good enough, so you need to say, “Maybe I’ll do it for you or I’ll sit with you, we’ll work it out together.” Try and make sure you impart the skills so they move up into that top-right bucket of high skill and high will. In general, highly motivated employees are very easy to manage. You either back off or you give them the skills — and then you back off. There may be a situation where you don’t have the skills to give them because you can’t teach them their job, so you get someone else to do it. That’s still all very manageable. That’s the joy of leadership when people are motivated.

If they have high skill, low will — i.e., they’re perfectly capable of doing the job well, but they don’t seem to be motivated by it — you need to get to the bottom of why. “You don’t seem enthusiastic. You’re missing deadlines; why is that?” Maybe they’ve done it multiple times before and they’re bored; in which case, you probably need to give it to someone else. Maybe they don’t feel incentivised. “All my bonus is linked to this, not this.” Maybe you need to change their incentives. Maybe they’ve been promised a tool so they can do that task more productively and they haven’t been given it. You need to get to the bottom of why they’re not motivated and fix that problem.

And then the bottom-left square is if people have low will and low skill. You should probably take them off that task. Give it to someone else. Trying to give them both motivation and skill at the same time is hard. It’s not impossible if you don’t have anyone else to put on that task and it has to get done, but don’t assume it will happen well unless you can fix both the skill and the will. For any frontline leader in any situation, don’t let leadership baffle you and seem too complicated. For any individual on a particular task, if in doubt, come back to that framework.

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