Nearly 20 years ago, I took on my first “real” management position with a responsibility to lead a product development department of about 20 people. I didn’t know what leadership was. I had this vague concept that it was about a guy standing in front of a bunch of folk waving everyone forward over a parapet. The group would then charge forward joyfully into battle. Miraculously we would come out with minor cuts and bruises and no casualties ready to fight another day.
Why would they follow me? Perhaps I because I had said some rousing Shakespearian words. Why were there no casualties? I can’t fathom that one.
I had great optimism and incredible naivety. The result of this was a two year nightmare of making mistakes as my team meandered with no direction in some other field.
I eventually left that job to my great relief and probably my team’s. I had been the boss but not the leader. The two are not directly linked. Being boss gives you control over people’s pay and prospects. But they have a much greater level of control – the boss’s success lies in the hands of his team. This is the first great realisation. It doesn’t help directly because it only tells what not to do.
When I joined a software company as head of product development, I spoke to the directors. I learned what they expected of me and how it would benefit the company. Then, on my own, I decided how my team would deliver it. I stood up in front of them and told them what we were going to do. I got blank faces. I got shrugs of indifference. I got folded arms and frowns. There was a growing low hum of chatter in the background. Anyone observing would have realised that I had failed to convince and the team had moved from neutral to being against me.
I struggled on for a year with an ineffective team who just about kept me in a job but no more. Performance was lack lustre. Our year end bonus was pitifully low. I had a member of staff complain about my performance to the CEO and a salesman too. The CEO had appointed me so he called me in. He gave me a simple piece of advice, “ask for help”.
I asked for and followed the advice tentatively and finally left the company without really stepping up to the job. I had three months off before starting a new job. The separation and the break gave me the opportunity to reflect and learn from the experience.
The first lesson was that that being the boss does not make you a leader. The second lesson was that people chose to follow leaders. Leadership is earned over time. It does not come with the position. It is not a result of authority. A job described as a “leadership position” is one where you are expected to earn leadership quickly. I recruited a soldier into a team of mine who brought this home to me, he said, “the officer may be the boss in peacetime, but when we get on the battlefield, he relies on his men to keep him alive, it focuses the mind”.
The third lesson was that in most situations there are already leaders in place. There are people who are followed by the majority of the staff. They may not be in management positions. They may lead in a direction that contradicts the organizations objectives. But they are there. They are a route to establishing your leadership. You need to build relationships with them and get them to bring the rest of the team along. Since that first disastrous management role, I have always looked for these leaders and very quickly told them that I am putting my trust in them to help me make the team more successful.
I went through a number of transitions in my thinking:
Tell to Listen
I to We
Being above to Being on the level
Arrogance to Humility
Authority to Vulnerability
Being in front of the group to Being with the team
Driving the team to Batting for the team
This is what we are going to do to How can I help you?
Company goals to Individual goals
Going through these transitions is simply good management. Practicing good management earns the manager the leadership role. This was the fourth lesson.
The fifth lesson was that you have to defend your team. I have “been into bat” for my team over pay, grades and conditions and won every time. I won because the case for change was good and I followed through. Other managers who had similar situations but who didn’t have the guts to fight were not happy. I have had stand up shouting matches, attempts to discredit me, threats as a result of this. The weak manager is dangerous when cornered – this was the sixth lesson.
I, and the team as a whole, have expectations of each other. We will always aim to be professional. We cover for one another. We deal with problems in the team. We are like a family. What about the organization? This is tied up with being professional which implies delivering the organization’s objectives – this is the only reason for the team to exist. Failing to meet these objectives is the team’s biggest internal threat. The team will not protect a member that threatens its existence. It expects the leader to either change that team member’s behaviour or to remove them. The seventh lesson is that the leader protects the team from internal threats.
There are times when the organization’s existence and the current form of the team are not aligned. This may mean moving people out. In one role had to fire 12 architects because we were restructuring. My approach was to talk to each one and find out their aspirations. They were clever people, they knew what was happening. I eventually placed 11 of them in alternative roles within the organization; every move was a good move. Only one person left and went on to another organization. The eighth lesson is that the leader “bats for the team” even when managing them out.
There is a difficult balance in all of this. With the team on a day to day basis, you are a team member whose responsibility it is to represent the team to the organization. The organization sees you as the boss in control of a set of resources with a set of objectives to achieve. These views will come into conflict and it will be tough. You have to recognise when changes need to be made. You must not be seen as a wrecker who is just protecting his team – if that happens then you will lose all upward influence. This is the ninth lesson.