Listen to "Interview with "Great at Work" Author Morten Hansen" on Spreaker.

Morten T. Hansen is the author of “Great at Work: How Top Performers Work Less and Achieve More. “ He is also a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley and formerly a professor at Harvard Business School. Hansen has been ranked as one of “the world’s most influential management thinkers” by Thinkers 50. The NCMM recently caught up with him to discuss how middle market leaders can be more productive, and make their organizations more productive.

 Why did you write “Great at Work”?

 Hansen: The first inspiration came back when I graduated from school and joined Boston Consulting Group in London. I thought I had a brilliant strategy for success:  work crazy, long hours. So I’d put in 70 to 90 hours per week trying to do great work. One night I was looking at a teammate’s slides and noticed that her work was better than mine, more crisp with sharper insights. I asked another guy working late with me, “Where’s Natalie?” And he told me she’d gone home, that she almost never worked late. That was an epiphany. How could Natalie work less but perform better?

 A second inspiration came when I worked with Jim Collins on our book ‘Great by Choice,’ which was a sequel to his book, ‘Good to Great.’ Both of those books are about corporate performance. I thought, “What about applying the same kind of data-driven methodology to evaluating individual performance?” I said, “Okay, I'm going to tackle that Natalie question,” which this book does.

 You found seven practices that promote productivity. Four impacting individual work and three impacting collaboration. Can you describe those first four (individual) practices?

 Hansen: All seven practices are based on a data-set of 5,000 people ranging from senior managers to individual contributors to factory floor workers. And these seven explain the majority of the difference in performance between people, so they’re significant. The first principle is about “doing less, then obsessing.” Top performers know what to focus on and they are all in with those few things. The second practice is about what to focus on. Top performers focus on what really provides value for customers and for others in their organization.

 The third principle is that productive people are really good at continuously learning and developing themselves: they grow. The fourth one is passion and purpose. Don’t let passion alone dictate what you do. Purpose is about what you bring to others, your contribution. So, if you're a manager, you’ve got to make sure your people have passion and purpose.

 What about the three practices related to collaboration?

 Hansen: Top performers are really good at advocating, and inspiring others so that they’ll support whatever they're working on. In middle market companies, you don’t get work done by just issuing commands. People might have different agendas, goals, and be working in different departments and geographies. You’ve got to be able to persuade them, and that’s part inspiration and part political maneuvering. I call these productive leaders “forceful champions.”

 The next principle is “fight and unite.” You want to have real debate among your people, because that supports the best decision-making. If you get a collection of the right people and they have a really good debate, where they’re listening and openly expressing views, you’re most productive. But the team also needs to unite behind the final decision. The last thing is what I call discipline and collaboration. It turns out that the best performers collaborate less because collaboration takes a lot of time, and if people are not collaborating on the right things, it’s not productive.

 Let’s dig into some of the specifics. How can middle market leaders begin implementing “do less and then obsess?”

 Hansen: Any middle market leader could spread themselves thin across too many customer categories, geographies, products, internal projects, meetings, and so on. As a leader, you need to say, “We need to focus our activities,” because we all have limited resources of money, staff and time. You’ve got to prioritize and subtract things that are not vital.

 My good friend Jim Collins likes to say, “If you have more than three priorities, you have none.” As a leader, you need to clear the clutter for others below you. You also need to go all in on those few things that matter most. If you're only going to do three things, you need to excel in those three things.

 How can middle market leaders start implementing the “learning loop” you discuss in “Great at Work”?

 Hansen: If you're a leader, you need to get better at what matters most. For example, how do you go from good to great in running meetings? This is where the learning loop comes in. Break the meeting into critical skills: agenda setting, asking the right questions to generate debate, managing debate, getting to closure, and deciding. So how do you generate debate? If you're a leader who comes into a meeting and you state your own opinion, then the rest of the room is going to fall in behind you and the meeting will be biased. So you should start by asking open-ended questions.

 Go into the meeting, ask these open-ended questions, and then ask for feedback after the meeting, Then you modify. That’s the learning loop. You do something, you measure the outcome, you get feedback, you modify your behavior. If you want to be a productive middle market leader, you need to be open to feedback and continuous learning.

 What can middle market leaders do to assemble productive teams that, as you say, will fight and then unite post-debate?

 Hansen: You want diverse people with diverse perspectives. Hierarchy tends to get in the way, so if you're a middle-market leader, don’t start talking about your opinions. Start with a junior person, because that person is not going to speak after a senior person. Make it safe for people to take chances. If somebody offers a contrarian view, don’t shoot it down and go after the person. You're creating a safe space for the debate to happen.

 Once the decision is reached, you need to unite. When you take that decision, you want everyone to be completely behind it. First, you’ve got to be very clear about what the decision is: after the meeting, sit down and write what was decided and send it out in an email. And then assign responsibilities in a crystal clear manner. Everybody can see what they need to do and by when. That’s a productive practice.