Of Cogs and Brains and True Leadership

Does your boss view you as a cog or a brain? Forget what they tell you, the proof of their view is in what they do whenever this comes up.

Sandi P. is one of the bright young leaders I coach and I love what I’m learning from her! 

We were having a discussion during this week’s session about how a manager should set expectations.  Sandi manages a team with a mix of experienced people and folks new to their current role.  Sandi is an incredibly talented project manager with ten years’ history of delivering amazingly successful results, and she is now transferring project oversight responsibilities to others in the organization. 

We’ve been having a lively discussion about how a leader’s top responsibility is to replicate themselves, which in her case means having less experienced project managers step up and manage projects with the same attention to detail and execution Sandi did.

“When you provide them with a project, what do you tell them?” I asked.

“I start with what I expect… the deliverables and outcomes, when it’s due, the resources they have to work with, that kind of stuff,” Sandi replied.  “Good,” I said.  “Then what?”

“I tell them why it’s important, how it fits into the bigger picture,” she responded. “That a great point, Sandi,” I said with a smile.  “Many leaders miss that one!  It makes the assignment more meaningful to people when they see how what they’re doing affects customers and the organization.  Anything else?”

“Yeah.  We set up a series of checkpoint meetings to review how they’re doing and to make sure they are on track,” Sandi replied.  “That’s how I know if we will meet all our deliverables.” 

Then I asked, “What’s their first deliverable when you assign them a project?”  Sandi paused for a moment and said more slowly, “Well, that depends on the assignment, right?  Different deliverables for different projects…”

Me: “The first deliverable is always the same, Sandi.  It is their plan of specifically how they will go about achieving the assignment’s objectives.  It needs to be completed and reviewed by you before they start working on the project.” 

Sandi: “Well, I usually map out the process for them so there are no questions. 

Me: “So whose plan is that, yours or theirs?” 

Sandi: “Mine.”

Me: “Who owns the outcome? 

Sandi: “They do.” 

Me: “If you own the plan, what makes you think they truly own the outcome? And if they own neither the plan nor the outcome, what makes you think they are fully committed to success in the assignment?” 

As I said this I could see a flash of realization and the wheels turning in Sandi’s head. 

And then she said something completely brilliant, “Oh I see… if they own the outcome, then then need to own the plan in order for them to own the whole project.  If I give them the plan, then they are just a cog in the wheel.  If they develop the plan, then they’re the brains in the machine.” 

I thought, “Wow… she’s right.  People view themselves as replaceable cogs in the wheel when they don’t own the plan but are assigned the deliverable.  No wonder voluntary turnover is so high when people don’t see themselves as valuable and able to think for themselves.”

When People Own the Outcome, They Must Own the Plan

When people simply follow their supervisor’s detailed directions they are not invested in the assignment nor the outcome. 

Conversely, when people have the responsibility to develop the plan for how they will achieve an objective, they are free to think for themselves, become creative, and build ownership in both the plan and the outcome.  All they need is a manager like Sandi who will work patiently with them to help them develop an effective plan.  By the time she’s through helping them plan, they fully own the project and are excited to deliver results.

Some best practice tips to help someone “own the plan:”

  1. Define outcomes in detail and leave the method to accomplish the outcome to them. Ask your staff to develop a plan to achieve the outcomes you establish.
  2. Ask the person assigned the project to walk you through his or her plan. And ask questions seeking clarification that add detail.
  3. Don’t tell… ask. If you tell them something, they’ll forget it.  If you ask the right questions that lead them to the answer, it’s their answer and they’ll remember it.
  4. Don’t tell them where the flaws are in their plan. Using your knowledge about successful project plans, be their thinking partner and ask questions to help them spot the flaw.  Examples:
    1. “What might go wrong with that step?”
    2. “What might the signs be that something is going wrong in that area?”
    3. “How could you approach that area differently?”
    4. “What could you do to strengthen this area?”
  5. After using this approach, your staffers will develop even better plans in anticipation of you asking them to walk you through their plan.

What Happens When People Don’t Own the Plan

People whose supervisors view them as cogs in the works feel unvalued and believe what they do having little meaning or importance.

  • Over time competent people give up and move on to where they are appreciated and can make a meaningful contribution.
  • Over time less competent people give up and stay since they don’t need to do any thinking, use their creativity, or work hard to achieve. Their manager’s approach leads them to do the minimum to get by.

Of course, it takes hard work and an investment of time for managers to lead their staff to become self-directed and competent.  But there is no better way to encourage people to do their best and want to be part of the team.

Bottom line

How about you and your boss? Does he or she view you as a cog or a brain? 

This article is based on principles taught in Boyer Management Group’s acclaimed management and leadership development series, Leading Through People™ Module 6, Performance Management.

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:

  • Improving your (or your team’s) management and leadership skills: Leading Through People™. This acclaimed program equips participants in thousands of current and emerging best practices of leadership, hiring, and talent development.
  • Raising your (or your team’s) selling and sales management effectiveness: B2B Sales Essentials™ (among the 30-plus courses we offer are ones on selling with emotional intelligence and storyselling!)
  • Conducting a more effective job search: Get a Better Job Faster™

I help leaders and aspiring leaders improve their performance and acumen, and sales and marketing professionals to become more productive and effective. I also 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. We develop sales teams with our highly regarded B2B Sales Essentials™ and B2C Sales Essentials™ tailored sales curriculum. My company’s coaching programs produce significant results in compressed periods of time. 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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