In my work with MBA students at Stanford and with many of my coaching clients, an issue that comes up regularly is the importance of making the transition from doing--being a stellar individual performer--to leading--motivating others to perform at their best. The challenge is that throughout our education and in most, if not all, of our early professional roles, we're rewarded for our effectiveness as doers, and when we achieve a more senior position we often assume that our effectiveness as leaders will rely upon the same skills and characteristics that have fueled our success up to that point.
But this can result in the illusion of effectiveness as a leader. We may believe that by working longer, harder, smarter--pick your superlative--than our team on a given set of tasks, we'll inspire by example. We just need to keep doing what we've been doing, albeit at a higher level. And sometimes this has the desired effect--as Daniel Goleman writes in his classic HBR article, Leadership that Gets Results, this "pacesetting" leadership style "works well when all employees are self-motivated, highly competent, and need little direction or coordination." That said, the pacesetting style imposes a high cost--Goleman also notes that it "destroys climate [and] many employees feel overwhelmed by the pacesetter's demands."
Even if we don't feel obligated to outpace our team in a leadership role, we can still undermine our effectiveness simply by continuing to take responsibility for specific tasks--by doing--when we could have a much greater impact by raising our sights and expanding our scope--by leading. And this may involve letting go of work that we find personally rewarding. One of my clients last year was the founder of an online retailer, and he personally built the company's website. Given his familiarity with the code, it was very efficient for him to make changes to the site, and he found this work deeply fulfilling. It was also a total waste of his time and a net drag on the company's performance. He realized this long before we began working together and had been able to compel himself to keep his hands off the code and let his technical team take responsibility for the site.
The challenge he still faced, however, was getting out of the weeds of inventory reports and other quantitative minutia, and the problem wasn't that he disliked this work but that he loved it. "I'm an Excel junkie," he told me. But just as coding had become a waste of his time, poring over spreadsheets was keeping him from spending time with his senior managers and helping them do their jobs more effectively. He eventually concluded that any time spent at his desk, working alone, was an indulgence--he enjoyed it and needed a little of it, but too much of it would hurt the company. His solution was to schedule some "Excel time" each day to clear his head and recharge his batteries, while also recognizing that his most meaningful contributions as a leader were made when he was spending time with his team.
Someone who's gone in a different direction is Theresa Christy, a researcher at Otis Elevator who was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal by Kate Linebaugh. Christy apparently loves her job and by all indications is terrific at it, and a key to her success is revealed in the piece's final lines:
One part of Ms. Christy's career didn't go as planned. With aspirations of getting into management, Ms. Christy got her M.B.A. from Babson College, but the role didn't suit her. "I thought I wanted to be a manager," she said. "But I really like solving the puzzles myself. I didn't like assigning them to other people. I was a little jealous."
Given the importance our business culture places on leadership--and the high status enjoyed by leaders--it's essential that we be candid with ourselves about whether we truly want to lead. Christy recognized that she's most effective and fulfilled as a doer, not a leader, and shifted her career goals accordingly. At the same time, we may be able to tailor our approach in order to find the right balance between doing and leading. My client recognized that the fulfillment he found in doing was getting in the way of his effectiveness at leading, and he was able to adjust how he spent his time in response. There's no cookie-cutter solution, of course--but it may be worth asking: Am I doing when I should be leading?
Photo by Juhan Sonin. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.