A business leader is so much more than the person who has the final sign-off. In a healthy organization, having the final sign-off means you’re in a position of privilege. This privilege must be earned.
There are many roads that could bring you to a position of leadership, but the path to effective leadership is always marked by three distinct stages.
STAGE 1: LEADING YOURSELF
Leading yourself means managing yourself — not just managing your operational or measurable deliverables, but also managing your relationships and your awareness of other people’s emotions and motivations. Sure, you need to be able to execute your assignments. But beyond that, you need to understand how your assignments impact and ripple through your organization.
Think beyond your current position. Will another department have to support what you’re working on once you deliver it? Are there secondary or follow-up stages to what you are working on?
While doing what you’re instructed to do is good, it’s not a leadership attribute. To become better at leading yourself when given an assignment, seek counsel from others, do research, and go slowly at first so you can go fast once you have the information needed to move forward. Don’t overanalyze; don’t attempt to please all parties. Get your work to a functional stage and then send it off.
A mentor once told me, “I’d much rather reign in a racehorse than kick a mule.”
As an individual performer, are you a racehorse or a mule?
STAGE 2: LEADING OTHERS
When you lead others, you’re in a position of responsibility for other people. You’re the final sign-off for a team or department. Your discipline and ability to deliver is measured and balanced with making time for your team.
You need to learn to delegate and hand off assignments. Resist the urge to measure what your team produces against how you would produce. The members of your team will all have different working styles; they’ll have different skills and abilities than you might have. As long as you’re all working toward the same goal, you’re set. So much of leading others is learning the strengths and limitations of your team members. Your job is to keep your team moving ahead and producing while helping them to understand why the business is doing what it’s doing. You ensure your team knows how they’re contributing to the bigger picture.
Beyond having direct reports, your peer relationships as a leader are now with other leaders. Focus on working across department lines — not every department is going to care about what you’re working on or make time to offer insight. If other leaders aren’t interested in offering their insights into your projects, don’t take it personally. Your peer leaders have their own teams to support and deadlines to meet. Be aware of what they’re working on and what they consider urgent. Your awareness of other leaders will benefit you as you move into the final stage of leadership.
STAGE 3: LEADING LEADERS
Leading leaders means your team of direct reports is made up of leaders. The same people you once had a peer understanding with are now people who rely on you for support and guidance.
In this role, you must continuously work to build and maintain trust between leadership team members. If your leadership doesn’t trust one another, your organization suffers. When there’s no trust, decisions are secretly questioned and silently resisted between departments. As someone leading leaders, it’s vital to have an environment where perspectives can be shared and decisions made final without consensus, yet with understanding. Your role is to field questions, seek feedback, make decisions, back your decisions, and ensure that your team will align.
It’s important to remember that the members of your leadership team represent your entire organization. In leadership team meetings, each person represents their department; at all other times, they are the face of the leadership team. Each person must act for and honor the leadership code in all they do. They must be willing to assist other departments and to back down on an issue for the organization’s greater good. Huge egos are not a good fit for a thoughtful and balanced team.
When leading leaders, it’s still necessary to seek counsel from those who actually produce your organization’s work. Check in with your frontline. Wander around, be present, be seen, and talk with employees; have a method of communication where all employees can offer feedback that you and the leadership team review and discuss.
For you, it’s so important to use care and consider context with every comment. Take nothing at face value without learning more. You must empower your leadership team to make decisions, but the hard decisions and tough calls are your responsibility. It’s your job to keep your eyes on the horizon and your ears to the street.
At every stage of leadership, work to understand your impact in your organization. Take the time for some self-examination as you pass through each stage. Would you want you on your team? Would you want to work for you?
Answering “yes” during each stage of leadership will ensure you’re on the way to becoming an effective leader.
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