Leadership SLAs

As part of the toolkit all leaders need, no matter how senior, I often find myself recommending an interesting exercise to clients: Instead of simply trying to prioritize things as they appear, try to decide ahead of time what type of leader you would like to be. In this exercise, you list the different aspects of your work that come up regularly and decide about your “level of service.” You don’t need to make these SLAs public or anything. Merely thinking about these can help shape your mindset around leadership more sustainably and responsibly. Here are some examples I’ve used in the past to help you do this exercise.

Feedback Time

One of the fundamental concepts of leadership is that leaders are in charge of helping their people improve. That is impossible without providing feedback regularly in a candid and timely manner. Ask yourself, how prompt are you to provide feedback? Is your organization one that leverages feedback as a growth accelerator, or do your managers tend to sit on their hands?

Aim to have a feedback SLA that isn’t extreme but still rapid. After all, it would help if you didn’t blurt out that someone is not doing their job well the very instant you get an inkling that is the case. However, it seems like most of us do not face this risk—we default to the other end of the spectrum. We wait with feedback until it is absolutely impossible to let the situation continue as is. The problem is that by this point, things are already beyond repair.

I often say that feedback is like a continuous-integration system’s build results. It should be given relatively fast while the engineer still has the context in mind. Telling me I did something bad a couple of weeks ago is almost useless, much like realizing I broke the build two days after I finished working on the task.

Talent Growth

And why do we care about feedback? Again, leaders are in charge of their people’s growth. Feedback is one arrow in your coaching quiver. It doesn’t end there. Leading organizations are those where people do not have a tendency to stay stuck in limbo.

Have you ever worked with someone who has remained in a certain stage of their career for too long? The junior engineer that is still pretty much a junior a couple of years later? To be geeky for a second, it is like Pikachu not wanting to evolve: part of this is our responsibility as their managers to help them see what steps they can take to grow and what that might unlock. One example of a growth SLA is keeping track of your Peter Pan count. Tracking allows you to see how many people are regularly growing and which seem to need more of a nudge. For those, turn up the coaching dial.

Organizational Course Corrections

This one connects directly to what I call the team’s Speed of Change. Your assumption about how fast the team could evolve and change its processes puts a hard limit on how fast the organization will evolve. I’ve yet to see an R&D group that outpaced management’s expectations for cultural changes.

Therefore, think about how you manage to pull your team forward and how keen you are to do that. For example, do you tend to sit on changes you know have to happen until it seems like people are less stressed (Pro tip: they’re always stressed)? Are you procrastinating kicking off a vital leadership attention shift until the end of the quarter? Is there really a reason to wait that long, or are you just shying away from taking action right now?

Personal Growth

Your obligation is also to yourself. How are you prioritizing your learning and advancement? If you fail to do so, like so many do, you risk having the organization outgrow you and wasting years without really improving at what you do.

This is obviously harder to quantify, but sometimes when working with my clients, we can come up with an interesting way to keep track of this. For example, your SLA commitment to yourself could be that you choose to focus on one thing outside of your comfort zone every quarter. You can keep track of your leadership blocks used for deep work and not just answering emails. Maybe commit to joining a community or attending X conferences yearly to invest in yourself. That’s the most valuable asset you’ve got!

Setting the right SLAs can help make your days simpler. You systematize how you want your ideal days to look and, therefore, more quickly evaluate which task should get your attention and ensure that there is steady progress toward your goals.