Leading leaders

Maybe you are a Director, a Head of X or a Vice President, and you now own a department or multiple teams. Moving from a front line leader i.e managing Individual Contributors (IC) to leaders of other teams – requires a shift in leadership style, decision making, coaching topics, and evolving strategic/abstracted perspective. This blogpost and the following posts will attempt to explore these differences and my thoughts on them.

Leaders are not born, they are made from experience – for some reason they stood up and led.  Effective leaders help us overcome limitations, they help us do more and bigger things than we can do alone. They get the best out of people. They build a better future, looking at potential rather than being stuck with baggage of the past.

The hard thing about stepping up leadership through the levels is the number of stakeholders increases, and how you make decisions will have to change to be successful, or you will fail.  This is best laid out in an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review, The Seasoned Executive’s Decision-Making Style.

Are you a leader or a manager?

“Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily; even if you had no title or position.”

Brian Tracy

I believe a Leader is an evolution beyond just a manager. It’s not a title, it’s how you do the job – where you are breaking new ground with your people and with the area/topic/business you are in charge of. You are creating something new. You are defining and evolving strategy. You are inspiring more from your people than they could do alone.

With this said, I have met great managers who were poor leaders and great leaders who were poor managers. Context matters a lot here, as not all cultures or leaders encourage the best from each person. It is easy to forget that we are each unique, especially when we are encouraged to call humans a resource.

Basic managing managers

Here is outline:

  1. Align on goals and agree a learning plan
  2. Observe the leader with the team
  3. “Know” all the team members
  4. Get 360 feedback from the team
  5. Give timely specific feedback to the manager
  6. Coach culture – coach to the values of your organization and how your do things there
  7. Model Behavior – your managers will copy you
  8. Give space/autonomy i.e. let them do their jobs
  9. Protect and Advocate for the manager and their team
  10. Regular one to ones and separate career conversations

Anti-patterns:

  1. Do not pay favorites amongst your leaders
  2. Consider who you are including and excluding and the cost for either e.g. who is in the room vs not
  3. Limiting information flow through hierarchy
  4. Constantly changing your decisions, without explaining the why
  5. Delaying responding to requests, at least give back a timescale that you can communicate fully
  6. Hiding information

Evaluating your Leaders

Great managers possess a rare combination of five talents.

They motivate their employees, assert themselves to overcome obstacles, create a culture of accountability, build trusting relationships and make informed, unbiased decisions for the good of their team and company.

State of American Managers, Gallup

You need a method that helps you evaluate your leaders, and maybe HR already uses one.  Below are a couple others if your organization does not yet have a clear framework for leadership and leadership development.

There are a lot of good tools to assess each of your leaders, and one of my favorites is the Talent Dimension introduced in a report by Gallup on Management:

  1. Motivator
  2. Assertiveness
  3. Accountability
  4. Relationships
  5. Decision-Making

I would strongly recommend you read their report, which gives you a basic view of their capabilities. It’s a good starting place.

Korn/Ferry International has a report that evaluates managers’ skills with a focus on how to develop them. It has 15 skills and a table to define them:

  1. Self-Development
  2. Time Management
  3. Action Oriented
  4. Business Acumen
  5. Ethics and Values
  6. Perseverance
  7. Creativity
  8. Perspective
  9. Building Effective Teams
  10. Command Skills
  11. Conflict Management
  12. Decision Quality
  13. Developing Direct Reports (those you manage) and Others
  14. Managing Vision and Purpose
  15. Motivating Others

Manager

Checking in with a leader’s team on regular basis is also important, as well as with their stakeholders.  After you have gathered this information, make sure you circle back to the leader and get their perspective in a timely fashion. Work to separate the agenda, politics, personality, and the actual work from each person or group.

I would suggest that for each leader you have reporting to you, create a document and write down your thoughts and questions you want to ask, and keep it through out the whole year.  Add wins and feedback you get throughout the year. This will help you during performance reviews and to spot patterns you wish to encourage or discourage. It will also help you avoid cognitive bias e.g. recency effect, poor memory or only remembering the fires/crises.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive, lists three elements of the motivation formula: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In situations where people are paid fairly, this trio drives, engages, and stimulates us to do our best work. Whilst I often see good leaders work hard to deliver all three of these for their teams who are Individual Contributors, I have noticed that more senior leaders begin to neglect Mastery or Leadership Development for leaders at mid level.  There is often an over-reliance on ‘learn on the job’, with little opportunity for reflection or professional coaching. A great leader is great at feedback and coaching.

That said, to a large degree your boss defines your actual level of autonomy and the organization defines the level of discovered purpose (e.g. startups are still looking for market fit, whereas a large company like Apple understands its market fit and is evolving it). In a larger organization, the level of autonomy will often be reflected through organisation culture and will either flow from the top, or else middle “management” will create a level of protection for those under their wings.

On an even bigger abstraction, the sector you are working in will impact autonomy, e.g. Banking is very regulated in most countries, thus the sector is reflected in the risk-taking of C-Suite and Board decisions, which is also influenced by perceptions of investor tolerance.

Support and Grow Leaders

Explicit communication (i.e. no telepathy), effective feedback and coaching for leaders is vital.  Every decision they make can cost money, a project deadline, a member of staff, etc. Thus they need it more than an individual contributor.  The reality is that “we” think managers can manage and thus give them less time or less training or less face time.

Thoughts:

  1. Be explicit about what you need from them and align on goals
  2. Have regular, consistent 1 to 1’s with all the people that report to you i.e. that you manage
  3. Do not build collections of feedback, help them understand what they are getting right and not.
  4. Be careful of building patterns of behavior from separate incidents, ensure you know the real context from all sides. Weak Leaders who are too decisive and judgmental people have a habit of creating a pattern and than forcing all the behavior into that pattern e.g. tunnel vision. And we are all weak sometime.
  5. Agree on a method for separating operational, strategic, and career oriented sessions.  e.g. have your leader send you a regular (weekly) operational email, and ask them to point out what needs to be discussed. Have 1 to 1s every week and have a monthly check-in with them which can be an extended 1 to 1.
  6. Be open and approachable – if people think you are judgmental they will not be open or honest with you.
  7. Grow team strength – Through meeting as a team discussing purpose, review if you achieving that purpose together. Spend social time together. Learn together.
  8. Have a clear plan for growing their capabilities.
  9. Create psychological safety. Have you ever been in a room of leaders where no one speaks up? This is usually a sign of lack of psychological safety. A lack of psychological safety (e.g. when a director is judgmental) limits the risk-taking of managers in suggesting creative or innovative solutions, or in raising real concerns. This can stunt their leadership growth.
    1. High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It
    2. How To Build Psychological Safety On Your Team
    3. Take regular surveys on Psychological safety
  10. Do not make them guess, if you have an opinion or made a decision, tell them, own it. Explain the Why. The worse leaders I have served have all done this e.g. made me guess, hint, telepathy, etc.

Good books/reports on leadership:

Why am I talking about this?

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away”

Pablo Picasso

My own experience so far includes leading teams (24 in total), departments and organizations. Here one post about leading software engineers. In each I have had successes and failures, and both have provided valuable lessons.  I have also been in a leader in multiple countries, and had to evolve and learn multiple national cultures, here is what I learned moving to the US.

My first “department” was running a kitchen (I was the Head Chef). I have since led an organization of 330 staff, then multiple departments with 600 people, and later several departments with 21,000 people total.  My experience is a mixture of Government, Political, Non Profits, and Private sectors.

You can see my full career history on Linkedin.


Whats Next?

I will break up the rest of my thoughts into four more posts. Below is a summary of what I will cover in each post:

1) Leadership by Example

“Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.”

Harold S. Geneen

Your behaviors are contagious 

  • Build trust, with those you manage/reports through being authentic, clear in communication and consistent
  • Stay empathetic and thoughtful whilst remaining proactive and decisive
  • Always be learning and stay open to new possibilities
  • Keep your empathy and humility while you evolve through this journey
  • Be a boss that reports(those you manage) want to work for
  • Manage your Ego
  • Admit your failures and help people learn from failures and grow from them
  • Advocate for your people and their needs
  • Advocate for your Brand and Business

2) Create strategy. Build an environment for execution. Adapt.

“After a business implements a strategy, competitors will react, and the firm’s strategy will need to adapt to meet the new challenges. There is no stopping point and no final battle. The competitive cycle continues on perpetually. Produce and compete or perish”

Thomas Timings Holme

  • Understand the business
  • Align with business goals
  • Have a plan and deliver it
  • Balance the needs of stakeholders and those of your team
  • Measure improvements and failure, but do not let metrics define you
  • Be good at change management through early involvement
  • Advocate for your department
  • Make decisions, be decisive without being judgmental
  • Be consistent in reporting
  • Pay Attention to the real world customers and to competitors

3) Grow others & always be learning

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Jack Welch

  • Catalyze the growth of others by facilitating opportunities for achievement, leadership and learning
  • Encourage creativity and evolve it to Innovation
  • Be great at coaching and feedback
  • Grow Leaders and find the right career path
  • Spend time growing your team as a team
  • Have a framework for Team performance
  • Encourage Diversity, manage the growth it takes to be diverse
  • Be great at handovers, make change easier with involvement and prep
  • Build out training for each career path that is important to you
  • Build momentum through on-boarding in a well thought out way

4) Understand and evolve the culture

“Our number one priority is company culture. Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.”

Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos

How we do things around here

  • Strive to build a positive, transparent and constructive culture
  • Understand and define cultural principles, together
  • Build Psychological safety/Trust across your team
  • Understand failure, how to manage your emotions and make it part of evolution
  • Appreciate Structure and how it creates barriers, silos and stupid behaviors
  • How does your physical environment affect people’s work
  • Authentic recruitment – Culture fit vs Culture Add
  • Celebrate and learn when people leave
  • Encourage everyone to own appreciation and celebration
  • Empathy vs rational decision making
  • Understand when you are overwhelmed

5) Get Results

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”

Sir Winston Churchill

  • Through all the above, produce results for the business and for customers

Within each post I will ask questions and recommend books and posts that I have found helpful


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