Management truths that go against your instincts: We asked, executives told

Certain leadership and management practices are so widely accepted they border on cliché. Take "culture eats strategy for breakfast," for example.

Other principles — delegate early and often, communicate clearly and provide feedback regularly — have become fixtures in the business world. The main reason? They work. Employees feel empowered when given the opportunity to contribute value and take ownership of their work. They feel engaged and more highly committed to the organization when its leaders communicate transparently. They see the potential for personal and career growth when they receive personalized, constructive feedback.

This all makes perfect sense, and these principles work perfectly well.

However, not all effective management principles are as intuitive. Some practices may be so different than what's taught in business school that they might generate resistance. But these three management practices — however counterintuitive — can yield as much success as the more obvious ones. 

Management truth No. 1: Run from your strengths. When promoted or hired to a new leadership role, people are vulnerable to the pressure — whether perceived or actual— to prove themselves. How do they do that? They stick to what they know they're good at, or the skills and expertise that promoted their success in their previous role.

This is a vital mistake for a new leader, according to Dan Michelson, CEO of Strata Decision Technology.

"They instantly lean on what they are good at, thin slice the information they are collecting, draw quick conclusions and then rinse and repeat something they have done before in a prior role," says Mr. Michelson. While this might help a new leader maintain confidence during an otherwise challenging transition, "the issue is they are often working on the wrong problem. Instead of focusing on what's most critical in this new role or new company, they run to what's most comfortable."

In doing so, one's insecurities begin to dictate his decisions, according to Mr. Michelson.

"In learning and in life, while one door opens another, opening the same doors over and over can lead to a dead end, for you and for your company," he says.

Mr. Michelson avoided this mistake when he became CEO of Strata in 2012. While he was confident he could guide the company in the right direction, he also knew he had a lot to learn. So, for the first 30 days on the job, Mr. Michelson didn't tell one "glory story" from his resume or draw one conclusion from the information his colleagues shared with him. He focused only on two things: listening and learning. He did this for the next 30 days, and, after having earned the trust of his team, shared his observations, not conclusions.

After his first 60 days at the helm, Mr. Michelson could clearly see what the company needed and convey that to his colleagues from an informed position. By then, through his dedicated practice of listening and learning, he had cultivated the trust and respect required to make change happen.

"Had I gone to my comfort zone of vision, strategy and growth, I would have likely generated better results initially, which would have drowned the company eventually," says Mr. Michelson.

Management truth No. 2: Execute more than you strategize, and maintain persistence. From the time he was three years old, David Shade's mother used to lament that he could never take "no" for an answer. What began as boyhood stubbornness transformed over time into a critical understanding that entrepreneurial success hinges on persistence and taking action. In the end, Mr. Shade's inability to take "no" for an answer was precisely what enabled him to successfully co-found Prism Healthcare Partners, a national healthcare consulting firm based in Chicago.

"As I worked with more people, I realized the tremendous value of persistence," says Mr. Shade. "It's so important for execution and making new ideas happen. So many times it would have been easy to say something wasn't going to work, but persistence paid off."

Persistence is an especially pertinent leadership trait when it comes to change management, which requires careful strategy and execution. By definition, creating a new company is creating change. When Mr. Shade co-founded Prism in 2013, he decided to take a less precise approach with its design. This is not to be confused with a less calculated or considerate approach; the fundamental elements were carefully designed, while some details were left to take shape organically.

Mr. Shade and Mukesh Gangwal, president, CEO and a co-founder of Prism, say they adhered to an 80/20 rule during the company's formation, in which 20 percent of energy was dealt to strategy and 80 percent was paid to execution.

"We knew what we wanted the company to be," says Mr. Shade, who serves as chairman. "We wanted it to focus on healthcare and to encompass a wide range of performance improvement services to meet the immediate needs of our hospital clients. We thought carefully and framed the strategy. We didn't spend months on it."

This mindset can be carried over throughout all stages of business. While some may be uncomfortable with an imprecise plan, Mr. Gangwal says emphasizing short-term execution over long-term planning yields much higher success.

"In business school, vision, goals and objectives were the mantra of strategy. As I thought more and more about the practice of consulting, I realized that execution has a higher precedence than pure strategy," says Mr. Gangwal. "The two are by no means mutually exclusive; execution is just a higher priority."

The demand for a high-level of certainty — something the healthcare industry is inclined to prefer — can impair the ability to execute in the short term. And as the pace of change in the industry accelerates, the need to accept change and make decisions quickly and effectively to meet near-term goals determines long-term viability.

"The idea of having a little uncertainty but going ahead with the execution anyways is more important than getting entangled with the enormous amount of analysis and other management tools that are good, but are — in my experience — secondary to execution," says Mr. Gangwal.

Mr. Shade adds that a leadership team that is comfortable executing plans without first working out a myriad of details fosters the culture of nimbleness and flexibility necessary to react quickly and comfortably to the many changes constantly occurring in the market.

Other business leaders have seconded Mr. Shade and Mr. Gangwal, affirming that strategizing can easily become a detriment to a company's success. It can zap energy and drown people in process. For instance, in the most recent edition of Harvard Business Review, authors Chris Zook and James Allen write that company "stall-outs" are rarely the result of a business model becoming obsolete. "Rather, our research shows that the business has almost always become too complex, most often owing to bureaucracy that slows the company's metabolism, or internal dysfunction that distorts information and hampers managers' ability to make rapid decisions and take swift action on them."

Management truth No. 3: You don't have to brand yourself with a management philosophy. Management and operational methods proven for efficiency — such as Toyota's lean management or Six Sigma — are attractive schools of thought. These methods are on a first-name basis with most executives, shortened to simply to "lean" and beloved by "Black Belts." And while their principles can be effectively applied to a variety of endeavors, leaders don't need to wholly commit to them, according to Patty Maysent, CEO of UC San Diego Health.

"Rather than sending a bunch of people out to learn about lean management, the more effective approach is to teach leaders how to drive change," says Ms. Maysent.

Numerous name-brand management strategies uphold the fundamental competencies for leading and driving change. Oftentimes, organizations benefit from picking and choosing elements of different strategies to meet their particular needs, according to Ms. Maysent.

"If we need a tool out of the lean bucket, we'll use it," she says. "If we need something from another bucket, we'll use that, too. I care less about the name of the philosophy than I do about the efficacy of the tool we need to drive the specific change we're going for."

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