The Futility of Pushing a String…

You’re familiar with this situation. You’ve got an employee or someone on your team who does exactly what you tell them… but never any more than that, and to make things even more challenging, they’ll only do it when they’re explicitly told to do it.

It’s the frustration and futility of pushing a string.  Dwight Eisenhower once famously used this idea as a way to explain leadership:

“Pull the string and it will follow you wherever you go. Push it and it will go nowhere at all. It’s just that way when it comes to leading people.”    – Dwight Eisenhower


Contrast that situation with a great employee in a great environment. Imagine an employee who doesn’t need to be told what to do, they know what’s expected and they do it, on time and the right way – and then they ask how else they might be able to help.

If that sounds like a fairy tale to you, then your business or your team is probably exhausting you.  One of the biggest reasons businesses fail is because the owner never gets to the point of being able to let go of the day-to-day struggles. They believe they have to constantly manage their team if they want to get anything done.

They’re always trying to push the string…!

A better alternative

There are two primary components you must have when it comes to creating a great team (one that can run without you).  You need Great Employees and you have to create an environment that consistently drives engagement and accountability.

That sounds awfully basic and simple – and it is. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy (or that it’s not true).

Great Employees

A great employee is one that buys into your culture – they embody your most important core values. In other words, they believe what you and your company believe when it comes to the important things like how you treat people, how work gets done, how money is handled and the end results you’re trying to deliver.

On top of that, they have the characteristics of a Great Team member as defined by Patrick Lencioni. They are Humble, Hungry and Smart.

It’s not easy to find a great employee, but they are definitely out there and it’s worth the effort to find them.  Although it’s not scientific, Kip Tindell, the CEO of the Container Store, built his very successful business on the idea that 1 Great Employee is worth 3 good employees…!  So when you find them, make sure you’re doing everything you can to hold onto them.

Great Environment

The other half of the equation is your job (as the owner or boss) to create a great environment that drives engagement and accountability. This is equal parts leadership and management.

On the leadership side, it starts with clear direction. You have to paint a picture – your team must know the following:

  • Big picture – where are you going over the next 3, 5, maybe even 10 years. Jim Collins calls this your Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
  • Why are you doing what you’re doing (purpose, mission, vision, whatever you want to call it)? What drives you and the company?
  • What’s important this year?  What are the top 5 priorities (on top of business as usual) that need to get done this year?
  • What’s critical for the next 90 days?
  • How do we measure success? (For the team and for the individual).

Beyond that, you need to make sure you give them the tools they need to get the job done and that you make your time and expertise available to them on a regular basis (weekly…).  A huge part of having a great environment is having the leader actively supporting the team and making them better every single day.

From a management perspective, your job is to keep expectations clear and to do that frequently and consistently. Make sure they know what’s important, what the focus is, how they’re being measured (and how they’re doing). There should be a weekly meeting with the team and regular 1 on 1 meetings.  This is a two-way communication. You also need to make sure you’re living up to their expectations and giving them whatever they need to succeed.

An important part of that management process is making sure you are giving them feedback immediately (good and bad). If they do something good, make sure they publicly recognized, praised and/or rewarded within 24 hours of it happening. If they screw up, then make sure you pull them aside (privately) and let them know and work with them on how they’re going to do better going forward.

Treat your employees like adults…

Do you currently treat your employees more like children or like adults?  If you’re micro-managing them, if you’re constantly reminding them and pushing them to get their work done, then you’re treating them like children. As adults, they own the responsibility of their job and it’s up to them to get it done.  The hard part is that you have to let them do it, which means they might fail. If and when they do, it’s a chance to learn and improve – let them do that.

You don’t have to do any of this, but if you can’t figure this out, you’ll just continue to push the string…and you’ll have a hard time growing your business (or freeing up your time).

What do you think? Is this a model you could implement? We’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach