Leaders Get Out of the Middle

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Are you focused and calm or have you got too many things going on and rushing around? Do you come away from meetings with your leaders clear on what’s needed and focused – or confused and frustrated?

In the early 1990s I spent about two years in Atlanta on transfer. During my time there I reported on projects to two different people. The first one I’ll call Bob. Bob was a partner in Deloitte who specialised in systems implementations. Bob knew detail and was methodical.

When you were with Bob you had 100 percent of his attention and it was laser like. For all that Bob knew detail, he didn’t seem to want to know everything. He knew what made projects succeed and fail and he was very clear about what he wanted to know.

I was amazed at how he could zoom in on issues that were critical and provide concise guidance to help move the project and I forward. I learned early on that I had to prepare for meetings with Bob or they were not pleasant, but if you were prepared you got a lot of value from these meetings .I learned a lot from Bob and I loved working with him.

The second I’ll call John. John was a senior manager with Deloitte and was the client lead for my major client. John was very, very busy and always seemed to be juggling five or six things. John had an opinion one very thing. He was clear how he wanted a task done and expected you to do it his way. He was a smart guy and so usually he had value to add and what he wanted made sense, but not always. On the occasions it didn’t make sense usually it was a case of not knowing the detail and background and not being prepared or able to get to know the detail. As a result, he made sweeping and often wrong assumptions. Often his directions stalled progress as you had to go over old ground each and every time. From my perspective John was a meddler or perhaps more colourfully a seagull who would fly in and @#$% all over you and then fly away.

I have come to realise that Bob and John are good examples of two different ways to lead teams.

Bob leads and inspires through context. His focus is on how do we deliver a successful project, and he uses detailed enquiry to help him understand if the project is on track. When he sees signs of things going well he would usually give some form of softly spoken praise or recognition. When he saw the signs of issues he would provide guidance and coaching. He was very clear what he wanted/ needed you to do but he seldom if ever directed. Bob switched focus often from big picture context to confirming detail.

John, on the other hand, manages and controls content. His focus is predominantly on, is this report or deliverable right and he essentially QAs the content and provides directions on changes he requires.

Never was there a time where the document was “perfect” son ever was there room for recognition and or a sense of a job well done and often there were large lurches in what needed to be done depending on his focus at the time. John’s focus was never switched it was always on the content.

He seldom communicated the big picture and never got detailed as he didn’t have the time. He lived in the grey middle area of the meddler and seagull.

Nowadays I get to observe a number of different leaders and leadership teams in action and as I do this I look to see if they are Bobs or Johns. I listen to their conversation. Are they leading to a context of what’s needed for success and asking confirming questions or are they managing content to ensure the words, templates and method are perfect. I observe them inaction. Are they focused and calm or have they got too many things going on and rushing around? I watch the impact on their team. Do they come away from meetings with their leaders clear on what’s needed and focused — or confused and frustrated?

Unfortunately what I find is that in our industry we have a lot of Johns, who manage content and “get in the way” of their teams and not enough Bobs who lead through context, confirm with detail and guide their team to success.

Interestingly Bob was seen as one of the most effective partners in the business. John on the other hand never did make partner.

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First published on cio.co.nz

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