As anyone who follows baseball or saw the 2011 film Moneyball knows, America's favorite pastime now runs on data. Players are monitored on a minute level, generating a flood of statistics that both players and managers use to make better decisions. What would happen if we tried the same approach to leadership, Microsoft recently wondered? 

What came next is the subject of a fascinating recent New York Times article by Neil Irwin, chronicling the effort of Microsoft HR manager Dawn Klinghoffer and Ryan Fuller, the founder of a data analysis startup, VoloMetrix, acquired by Microsoft, to wring insights from employees' calendar and email metadata. 

The long piece is centered on a mystery: Why did people hate working at Microsoft's hardware division so much? (Spoiler: The answer is mostly meeting bloat.) It's a great read if you have a half hour to spare. But in the course of teasing out this answer, Irwin also reveals a few short, easy-to-digest takeaways of the project that can help anyone become a better leader. 

1. Long hours are a sign of a bad leader.  

Being a leader is an intense job, so we often expect that those at the top are going to need to put in intense hours. Not so, according to Microsoft's data on managers. In fact, the analysis showed "that people who worked extremely long workweeks were not necessarily more effective than those who put in a more normal 40 to 50 hours."

Leaders, in particular, saw negative effects when they worked long hours. "When managers put in lots of evening and weekend hours, their employees started matching the behavior and became less engaged in their jobs, according to surveys," notes Irwin. 

Decades of research shows that while short bursts of overtime are fine, consistently clocking more than 40 hours a week leads to a marked drop-off in productivity, so this shouldn't come as a huge surprise. But with hustle porn so popular today, there are still plenty of leaders who haven't gotten this message. Microsoft's results should be one more nail in the coffin of the idea that routine long hours are a sign of a great leader. 

2. One-on-one meetings are gold. 

While the entire Microsoft project could be seen as one big indictment of bloated meetings, that doesn't mean all get-togethers are bad. In fact, the analysis suggested that one type in particular is essential if you aim to be a great leader.

"One of the strongest predictors of success for middle managers was that they held frequent one-on-one meetings with the people who reported directly to them," writes Irwin. 

3. Wide networks beat deep ones. 

Everyone knows that the people you know are key to business success, but exactly what sort of contacts are best? The Microsoft data provided a clear answer. When it comes to climbing the ladder, it's not the depth of your connections that matters most. It's the breadth. 

"People who made lots of contacts across departments tended to have longer, better careers within the company. There was even an element of contagion, in that managers with broad networks passed their habits on to their employees," Irwin reports. 

Again, this jives with previous research showing that having an open network -- i.e., being the type of person who connects with different groups and knows people in a broad array of social and professional circles -- is one of the best predictors of career success, not just for managers, but for everyone. 

But, just because these findings aren't totally groundbreaking, it doesn't mean they aren't valuable. Despite the data, a great many aspiring leaders try to grind their way to the top, neglect one-on-one relationship building, and work mostly to leverage their existing network full of people similar to them rather than trying to broaden their connections. 

These results out of Microsoft suggest that just by following the numbers and making a few small changes, you can give yourself a huge leg up in the race to become a successful leader.  

Published on: Sep 11, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.