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5 Ways OKRs Can Make You a Better Leader


THUD! That’s the sound of John Doerr’s bestselling book, “Measure What Matters,” hitting your desk, followed soon after by your boss’s voice recommending, not so gently, that you read it ASAP because your organization is soon going to be joining countless others in implementing its powerful goal-setting and strategy-execution methodology sweeping the globe. 

You’re a good corporate soldier so you go ahead and read the entire book, cover to cover, and when you finish the last page you think, “Great, it actually makes sense. This OKR idea has definite promise.” But then you remember the 5,000 other things on your plate right now, the never-ending list of meetings, e-mails, messages, and all-consuming fires you’re constantly fighting. At that point you wonder, “Is it worth it?” Not just for the organization but for you. Should you risk your most valuable resources, your time and attention, for this unproven system? My answer? If you want to become a better leader, the answer is a loud and unequivocal, “Yes.” There are at least five ways embracing OKRs will enhance your growth and development as a leader. Each is profiled below. 

#1. OKRs force an understanding of strategy.

The statistics representing what percentage of a typical workforce understands their company’s strategy are dismally low. It’s often suggested that a meager 15% of employees can name even one of their organization’s top three goals. As a leader, you may think you’re immune to this: “Of course I know the strategy!” But do you? Beyond a glossy Powerpoint deck shared at the last Town Hall, do you really understand the machinery behind the strategic plan? 

OKRs, at their core, are a tool to help you execute your strategy by translating it into objectives and key results and then giving everyone the opportunity to demonstrate their unique contribution with aligned OKRs. The first order of business in effectively utilizing OKRs is ensuring you truly understand the specifics of your strategic plan — beyond any bland platitudes emblazoned on posters in your meeting rooms. 

If the strategy isn’t crystal clear — target customers, chosen value proposition, challenges it helps you overcome, etc. — you need to don your corporate anthropologist hat, dig in, and find answers. If that means going to the C-Suite, knocking on some doors, and asking the tough questions, then so be it. The payoff for that investment of time, enthusiasm, and interest is enormous; you’ve now become an expert in your organization’s strategy. With this knowledge in hand you’ll be able to harness the power of OKRs in translating the strategy into reality. 

#2. OKRs require communication of strategy.

You’ve torn the strategy to shreds to find its essence and built your understanding of it back up brick by brick. Now it’s time to perform the Vulcan mind meld and embed it into the consciousness of your team. Strategy execution is a team sport. No one goes it alone in translating your broad aspirations into reality. Heck, even Michelangelo had a team of assistants toiling away with him on the Sistine Chapel. Your job now is to help your team fully understand the strategy and begin to consider their role in its implementation.

In this process, you have to step out of your leader role and instead embrace the persona of faithful communicator and teacher. One of my management heroes, Steven Covey, said the best way to learn anything is to teach it. So, by sharing what you’ve discovered in your analysis of the strategy with your team you’re not only helping them grasp the company’s direction, but you’re once again deepening your own knowledge and communication skills. 

#3. OKRs necessitate the translation of strategy.

How will we know we’ve executed our strategy? The OKRs we establish and faithfully monitor will provide the answer to that most fundamental of corporate queries. The strategy has to be translated into a set of objectives and key results that, when achieved, signal the overall execution of our strategy. Sounds easy, right? It’s not.
We’re now entering the hard crust of the framework: the ability to write technically-sound OKRs that clearly demonstrate the achievement of your strategy. This challenging task occurs at multiple levels in the organization. Company-level OKRs that gauge the overall execution of your strategy must be created and widely communicated. And at every level of the organization where OKRs will be employed, department and team contributions must be determined and codified with their own unique OKRs. 

As a leader you may sit at any of these levels. Perhaps you’re a senior executive who will be part of the team crafting the company-level OKRs. Or you’re a division, business unit, or department leader charged with helping your group harness the power of OKRs in demonstrating how their work is a link in the chain of success. Regardless of your position, at this point it’s up to you to lead conversations that make this translation clear to everyone reporting to you, resulting in powerful OKRs that will drive meaningful business impact. Being seen as a reliable and knowledgeable translator of strategy is a skill that will always be highly coveted. 

#4. OKRs thrive on feedback.

Here’s a quote from “Succeed,” a great book on goal setting by Heidi Grant Halvorson:

It is practically impossible to reach a goal when you don’t have any sense of how well you are doing. Should you speed up? Slow down? Step up your efforts or try a new approach? You have no idea, because you’re flying blind. You might reach your goal by accident, but that is very unlikely, since without feedback your motivational system basically shuts down. When it comes to goals, your brain works on a very simple principle: reduce discrepancies — the difference between where you want to be (at your goal) and where you actually are. When your brain detects a discrepancy between them, it wants to take action to close the gap. But if there is no feedback — no information about how well you are currently doing — then there is no discrepancy to detect. So nothing happens.

Chances are, wherever you sit on the corporate hierarchy, the key results you create won’t all be owned by you or be your responsibility to achieve. As noted earlier, execution is a team sport, and you’ll rely on others in your chain of command to drive outcomes on key results that move the needle on execution. As Halvorson notes above, feedback is what those folks will require most from you. Are they on the right track from your perspective? What do you see is working well, and what’s not working so well? How can you help them move forward? 

Not only is feedback scientifically proven to enhance the likelihood of goal achievement, people love it. No, they crave it. When you provide thoughtful, well-considered feedback to individual key result owners, or to your entire team, you’re deepening your rapport and building bonds of trust that will greatly accelerate their perception of you as a leader.   

#5. OKRs drive learning conversations.

OKRs are designed to produce measurable outcomes for an organization, and there’s nothing like the sheer power of numbers to scrub away any confusion or contradiction that might exist regarding the status of a key result. However, a world of learning exists beyond the realm of numbers and entering that space opens immense learning opportunities. 

The management guru Peter Drucker often noted that instead of focusing on finding the answers, leaders should commit themselves to asking better questions. OKRs foster this dialog, going well past what the numbers are telling you to critically examine what you’ve learned during the period you were tracking the OKRs. Consider asking questions such as:

  • What did we assume going into the period? Were those assumptions validated?
  • Did the OKRs keep us focused on adding value?
  • What did we learn this period we can take into the next quarter? 

It’s been said many times that organizations that accelerate their learning curve will be the winners in the 21st century. Using OKRs to jumpstart that process of wisdom acquisition will not only benefit the organization but by contemplating the deeper issues your results raise, you’ll be hastening your own development as an essential leader.