We went over the project budget by $50k. Our PM didn’t even mention it.

As soon as we found out, the partners pulled the PMO director and me into a room. One of our partners was frustrated as hell and said, “How hard is it to teach people to just look at their budgets? This is not a process problem. It is a people and coaching problem.”

Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals. — Jim Rohn

I was six months into my first leadership role. I had no idea what to do.

Back then, I was the Manager of DevOps. I obsessed for days about the problem. I talked to my dad and asked him for advice. I got back a chuckle and heard a lecture about focusing on people and fundamentals.

You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise. — Michael Jordan

Over the next few years, I focused on two things:

  1. Simplifying how we manage budgets
  2. Improving our understanding of what our clients want

That work wasn’t fun or exciting. Smart people want to work on interesting things, and I wasn’t offering any. I spent years dealing with doubt from others who didn’t understand or agree with that philosophy.

To this day, I still think about questions I was peppered with:

  • “When are we moving towards automated testing?”
  • “Why aren’t we using a build server yet?”
  • “We plan to eventually start working on continuous deployments, right?”

These were seen as exciting projects that our team would get to leverage. Instead, over the next three years, I focused our team on the fundamentals. That focus doubled our profit, improved the work-life balance of the team, and led to having a happier team than ever.

I learned two valuable lessons:

  • Focus on what builds your business, not what is fun to work on
  • The best teams focus on fundamental skills

Everyone wants to feel smart, especially when they can impress others.

Great leaders don’t focus on providing the ideas and value directly. They focus on getting their team to provide the majority of company value.

Good management consists in showing average people how to do the work of superior people. — John D. Rockefeller

To be a successful leader, you have to be a great coach.

The value of a leader is your ability to coach people, grow business, and see what is up ahead. A football coach doesn’t try to out throw the quarterback. Coaches focus on teaching, planning, recruiting the right people, managing talent, developing culture, and creating a clear vision to win.

Being the “dumbest” person in the room

It means asking questions that might be seen as embarrassing to ask.

  1. “Remind me, why are we here?”
  2. “Help me understand how that relates to our goals.”
  3. “Why do you feel like that is important?”
  4. “What do you think is most important here?”

“Dumb” questions help your team focus on what you really care about.

Leaders often focus on giving their teams the answers instead of helping clarify the problem and how to go about solving it.

Ask yourself what drives your revenue, growth, and team happiness.

Other ways to focus on the fundamentals

  • Listen more than you speak: Stop trying to provide your own opinion in every situation. Ask a lot of questions. Provide guidance where necessary, but step back and let people grow.
  • If the business relies on you for success, change it: Build and grow a leadership team around you. Treat time spent growing them as an investment in your future.
  • Give the guidance you wish you had: Most of us complain about not having training or that we wish we were managed differently. Are you doing the same to your own people?
  • Coaching vs. management: You cannot be a good leader without both skill sets.
  • It doesn’t have to be your idea: Are you are the loudest in the room? You shouldn’t be. Encourage and develop ideas that others have without feeling the need to add your own brand.

Stop trying to be the smartest person in the room. You probably aren’t.