How hard is leadership? Well, let’s assume that you are a wonderful leader and a wonderful human being. That you are intelligent, thoughtful, well-balanced, inspiring, trustworthy…in short, everything your dog thinks you are. And let’s say you are also a terrific strategist and communicator. Clearly, you are standing on the precipice of perfection.  And yet there is still an entire category of things that can go wrong. I call these tripwires of delivery.

1. Tripwires of speed Moving either too quickly or too slowly

2. Tripwires of intensity Pushing too hard on some things, or not pushing hard enough

3. Tripwires of sequencing Taking actions in the wrong order

4. Tripwires of timing Making a move too soon, or not soon enough.

There are two keys to avoiding tripwires of delivery. First, you must fully understand the goal you’re leading people toward. Second, you must fully understand the people who need to deliver on that goal. So-called calibration checkpoints (brief, highly-focused progress review meetings, focused on both the process and the people on a project) may be the best, most powerful tool we have to help us avoid tripwires of delivery. These are brief, highly-focused progress review meetings examining both the process and the people on a project. Calibration checkpoints examine not just tasks, but the pacing of tasks: not just the “what,” but also the “who,” the “how,” the “when,” and the “how much.” 

One CEO whom I admire greatly is Uwe Krueger, now the London-based CEO of Atkins, a global engineering and design firm. Earlier in his career, Krueger realized he was misjudging the time and effort that it took for talented individuals to adjust to new circumstances, new positions, and new cultural surroundings, and to form viable working relationships with colleagues. Says Krueger:“I consistently underestimated how difficult it was for many individuals to become effective in a new position, with a new group of people, even if their technical expertise was similar and they had a common background.”

At one point, Krueger was surprised to find that a strong performer from Silicon Valley just wasn’t jelling with a group of European engineers with similar backgrounds and expertise. Even though everyone on the team was a solid performer, and had a reputation as a good team player, the team was a bit dysfunctional, causing unexpected delays.  Krueger had seen a similar issue years earlier, while working in Eastern Europe on a corporate reorganization. In that case, an “East meets West” group had been assembled to drive a turnaround. As Krueger explains:

"In both cases, it wasn’t that I didn’t understand the issues inherent in asking people from different work environments to find common ground. The issue was more about … my expectations for how long it would take for highly talented people to bridge their cultural differences and become an effective team. The teams did eventually gel, but it took much more time than I thought it would. And that had implications on our expected progress, and performance."

Ultimately, Krueger realized, his own personal ease at adapting to new circumstances—one of his greatest strengths—was getting in his way. “I came to understand that I was basing my view of everyone else on my own, rather unique history,” he said, “and as a result, I was wrong in my assumptions.”

Today, Krueger is careful to use calibration checkpoints to make sure his assumptions are accurate. The checkpoints help assess “whether things are progressing as I’d expected, or if we need to revise our course, or our expected timing, much earlier on.”

Uwe’s experience teaches us that senior managers are not “beyond” the use of calibration checkpoints. Well-conducted, they will help you deliver in every situation and manage more effectively. They will ensure that those ultimate tripwires of delivery--speed, intensity, sequencing and timing--are avoided as much as possible.