We have a great expression in the South that you never want to receive from a friend – “Bless your heart.” It’s somewhere between “he just doesn’t know any better” to “that boy is as dumb as a ‘possum.”
I hear myself saying this a lot when new managers enter the ranks. I definitely heard it a lot when I started. Usually it is because they believe one thing to be true about how to lead and you know that in time they will discover otherwise.
The one that I wish I could get others to appreciate is to not judge their success by the size of their team. So many managers think that they are more important if their team is bigger. I once thought that as well.
The trap we get into is believing that the more we are trusted in the organization the more we will be rewarded with larger teams. There is truth to that statement, but unfortunately most of the truth just appeases our ego.
Leadership is about getting a group of people to go somewhere that they wouldn’t naturally go on their own. You can do this from two platforms – by position or by influence.
Most people understand leading by position. We go the direction our boss asks us to because he is, well, our boss.
Leading by influence is gaining followers because others choose to follow you. Maybe your ideas are good; maybe your arguments are very convincing; maybe you appeal to something within them that makes them want to take up your cause. The bottom line is that they choose to follow you.
When you lead by position it is sometimes hard to know if people are following you because you are the boss or your ideas are good. Oddly enough it is often easier to tell in a smaller organization than it is in a larger one. In a larger organization your title becomes more weighty to throw around and people can become scared to disagree (even though they do when they meet their friends at the water cooler).
It is critical as a leader that you always know why people are following you. It’s kind of like that beautiful girl in a relationship that needs to know she is being loved for who she is and not how she looks. You are in a bad relationship if you believe people respect and follow you because of your ideas but really they are following you because they have no choice.
The problem becomes that as our teams grow bigger we often lose sight of whether our stuff is any good. We become so used to people following us that we can get lazy and use the “because I said so” trump card. I think this is a big reason why many executives lose touch with reality as they climb the corporate greased pole. When you lead large teams you can gain an arrogance of being right more than you deserve credit for and truly need to be re-baptized.
So here is what I have done and wish I could persuade others to do. At some point in your career downsize to as small a team as possible. If possible see if you can be an Army of One. Try to hone your skills of persuasion by getting others to follow based on your ideas rather than where you are on the org chart. See if you still have your stuff. If not work it until you do.
If you are the head of a large engineering team, consider becoming a Product Manager. If you are the head of the sales organization consider becoming a company strategist. Move from a general area into a specialty area. Maybe go from a large company to a startup.
Keep in mind that all of the best executives know that rising up in the company is not by corporate ladder – more like a rock climbing wall. The best climbs don’t go straight up – there are a lot of sideway maneuvers as well as descents to get to better parts of the wall.
Lest you think this is all sermon and no practice know that I have been successful in leading teams from 5 to 150 people and have recently moved back to a small team of three by my choice and the grace of a new boss. I started getting this nagging feeling that people were following me because I was the boss and that maybe my ideas weren’t all that. I very much needed to know if my ideas were still worth a damn.
Now I have a great opportunity to influence at very high levels in my company but I will have to do to by virtue of my ideas not my position. How cool is that?
But the first step in pulling this off is you have to come to understand that team size isn’t important unless your thought processes are weak. Influence is best received by choice.