Leadership for Grown-ups

Oct 11, 2012

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.

Watch any youthful organization and you’ll recognize a predictable leadership pattern at work: One, sometimes two visionary founders, working with a bunch of high-energy, hard-charging ‘operator’ types.

At this early stage of growth the ‘operators’ are expected to do whatever it takes to translate the founders’ vision into reality, and as a result, they are given a high degree of autonomy. Over time, the more successful of the operators become the ‘big dogs’ of the organization – they build the myths and legends of extraordinary over-achievement, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat on a weekly basis, pulling in customers and clients, improvising exceptional customer service daily, and in the process building a deep pool of sweat equity with the founders.

And so, as the hard work of the big dog operators brings continued success, and the organization adds more people as it grows, when the business needs to appoint its first real managers, guess who’s the natural pick for those positions?

The highly successful big dog operators, of course.

And it’s at this point that the organization begins to experience its first growing pains. What looks like a natural evolution (from founder-managed to manager-managed) becomes instead a stumbling point, slowing – and at worst, halting, the organization’s fast growth.

Why does this happen? Two reasons. The first, simplest reason is that not all high-performers make good managers. Many big dogs either can’t or won’t delegate, and making them managers of others simply turns a previous high-performer into a decision-making bottle-neck.

The second reason is harder to spot, but even more dangerous: Enamored with their success to date (and, often, not aware of any alternatives) the newly-appointed operator-managers attempt to replicate on a smaller scale the model that has successfully grown the business thus far, with disastrous consequences.

A high-performing salesperson, for example, once elevated to the position of sales manager, turns their team into a microcosm of the visionary/operator model, with themselves as the visionary head. Nothing wrong with that, in and of itself – except that, down in the warehouse, the newly appointed warehouse manager is doing the same thing, as is the marketing manager, the admin manager, the HR manager and all the other newly promoted big dogs.

Before you know it, the previously smooth-running business has become a handful of fiefdoms, with each manager defending their own turf and operating with little co-ordination and much redundancy. Increasingly, we drop the baton from department to department, and the customer suffers. Our reputation takes a hit, profitability (and morale) drops, and everyone is spending more and more time firefighting.

Fixing such a situation once it happens is very difficult – unravelling ‘battlefield promotions’ is painful for everyone concerned – so avoiding it happening in the first place is the best policy. Here’s how a growing business can avoid the descent into silos:

1. Recognize that not all high-performers make good managers. Appoint someone as a manager because they exhibit managerial skills, not because they consistently hit their operational targets.

2. Understand that there can only be ‘one company’. Ford Motor Company’s CEO, Alan Mulally, spent years having to break down silos using the slogan “One Ford, One Team”. You can avoid the need to do so by not allowing silos to form in the first place.

3. Understand that leadership models must evolve as businesses grow. As Marshall Goldsmith says, ‘What got you here won’t get you there.’ A parenting technique that works with your 2-year-olds will have limited impact – probably even negative impact should you persist with them when your children are teenagers. Same with business – you need to lead them differently as they grown and become more complex.

4. Mentor, model, teach and reward ‘horizontal leadership’. When appointing managers for the first time, its easy to emphasize the ‘vertical’ aspect of their new responsibilities – managing their direct reports. After all, that’s the reason you’re appointing them in the first place – to manage others. Problem is, that’s not where the main threat to the company lies – it lies in the new managers failing to work well together – horizontally.

5. Recognize that it’s your job to mold the new managers into a team. Implicit in the act of appointing new managers is a fundamental shift in your own job description. As their leader, your primary deliverable is not to oversee each individual manager’s activities (although that’s an important secondary goal), but rather to mold the new team into just that – a cohesive team.