Outgrowing the Myth of Spandex Leadership


A true test of your ,leadership is how you adapt your approach to the different individuals on your team. A “one size mentality” only leads to eventual failure.


Jeff Miller is the second generation CEO of a 90-person manufacturing firm his father started out of the family’s garage 21 years earlier. Jeff was meeting with me to figure out how to get his revenues moving again after a few years of flat growth.

“The key to managing people is to use a tried-and-true set of management skills and simply scale them to the size of the business,” Jeff Miller told me that day in September. “What do you mean?” I asked. Jeff thought a moment before he replied, “I spent the last eight years here working with my dad and I saw how he managed his staff, and I adopted many of his practices. When he left eighteen months ago, I continued using the same approaches. In fact, most people here tell me that I sound like a younger version of him. Not sure I want to mess with what got us to $76M in revenue.”

Fair point, I thought. Then I asked, “Jeff, tell me…what are the visible changes that have happened here over the past five years?” He went on to describe how retiring people have been replaced with people who have a different work ethic, some volatility in their customer base, and challenges in keeping up with technology. Plus, about a 25% increase in headcount over the five years.

Jeff’s situation is pretty common for many organizations – while the firm his dad founded has taken great care to preserve its family culture, core values, and heritage, its market, employee population, company size, and technology have each continued to evolve. The question he posed to me that day was, “Should I scrap the management approaches my dad used and adopt one of the newer approaches I’ve been reading about?” That’s a great question!

If you’re like most growth-minded leaders, you probably have a number of management and leadership articles from terrific sources that appear in your daily news feed. You want to keep up with the latest guidance on managing people. If you’ve tried a few of the latest approaches, you’ve likely learned that some methods work with some people, but rarely will one method work across your entire workforce… even though it is a best-practices method.

Welcome to the myth of spandex management where one approach fits all. In the same way spandex can be a good look on some people, it can be a disastrous look on others! The problem is neither in the cloth nor the wearer, it is in the way it is fit to the person.


Success is Found in Tailoring Your Approach

You already understand that people are inherently different from one another, and I’m not just talking about physical appearance or gender or generational groupings. When it comes to working with people, each individual’s specific behavioral and motivational makeup seems to most influence how he or she responds to his or her manager’s approach. Consequently, in order for a great leadership or management principal to work for any specific individual, it must be applied using that individual’s behavioral and motivational preferences

Meet Janis Cuellar and Steve Kelly, who both are members of Jeff’s customer care team. He’s about to speak to them about the rollout of an important new customer service initiative. Let’s see how his approach with each illustrates how to tailor Jeff setting clear expectations for the new initiative.



Behaviorally, Janis is a big-picture thinker who acts quickly and decisively. She also has a compassionate heart for people. Jeff knows that Janis and her husband are currently buying their first home so money is an important motivator for her. In contrast, Steve is a quiet, analytical and detailed person who reflects on something before he moves ahead. Steve’s mantra is, “if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”

Given these behavioral tendencies and motivational factors for Janis and Steve, here’s how he should go about setting expectations for his company’s new customer service initiative with each:

  • When setting expectations with Janis, Jeff should focus on the big picture when explaining why the new initiative is important to both the company and the customers who will be affected. “Janis, think about how each customer’s experience will be improved by our new initiative. It’ll be great for the company’s ability to speed up each customer’s call. And by you performing well during implementation, you’ll put yourself in a position to earn extra bonus money following a successful rollout.”
  • When setting expectations with Steve, Jeff should take a different approach and walk through the details of the rollout, taking the time to explain how the different elements fit together. At several points in the discussion he should pause and ask, “Steve, how will we make certain that this aspect of the rollout is accomplished in the best way possible?” By getting Steve’s engagement in the process, Jeff will gain his commitment to be a performance leader during the roll-out.


How to Tailor to Individual Differences

Effective managers and leaders recognize the wisdom of investing the time and resources to understand each staff member at a deeper level. That way they avoid practicing spandex management!

As pointed out earlier, two of the most important ways to tailor the application of management best practices are to better understand each person’s behavioral tendencies and motivators. Here are several tools you can use to help you do this:

  • A high quality behavioral assessment – there are many different options out there, so look for one whose science is well vetted (it has been deemed validated, correlated, and reliable), is bias-free, offers management and communications guidance, and helps you understand the individual’s workplace behavioral tendencies. My go-to instrument is the Behaviors profile from TTI. Over the past 30-plus years I’ve had experience with (and have been certified in) more than a dozen different behavioral assessments – in my opinion, this is best-in-class.
  • A motivators map which is created and updated periodically with your staff. Have your staff as a group identify a list of motivators (such as money, recognition, doing meaningful work, etc.). Then have each individually rank the top six motivators from the group list.

Learn more about this in my recent blog, Getting to the Heart of Motivation.

Here are some of the common management tasks where tailoring your application of best practices to individual staff members makes sense:

  • Assigning work, tasks, and delegating responsibilities
  • Setting goals and objectives
  • Teaching new skills
  • Setting clear expectations
  • Providing feedback
  • Coaching to master performance
  • Evaluating performance
  • Helping employees solve problems
  • Counseling to correct performance
  • Creating a motivational climate
  • Taking disciplinary action


Bottom Line

The one-size-fits-all spandex management approach is a myth. In order to apply best practices in ways that optimize results, build stronger teams, and engage employees, managers and leaders must tailor their approach to the individual and stop treating everyone the same way.

I love working with people and organizations who want to improve their effectiveness! Here are several outstanding resources that can help you and your organization to go to the next level:

I work with some of the world’s top employers by helping them get the most out of their talented people. My company’s extensive leadership development course catalog provides effective skills-building for everyone in the organization, from the new / developing leader to the seasoned C-level executive. My company’s coaching programs produce significant results in compressed periods of time. I also help job seekers, higher ed, and employment services connect people to better jobs faster. My company’s acclaimed career development tools help people navigate the ever-changing landscape of conducting a successful job search. To find out more, please visit us at www.boyermanagement.com, email us at info@boyermanagement.com, or call us at 215-942-0982.


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