My previous article about leadership describes it as an art that takes years of practice, trial, and error to improve on and also requires the ability to hone your skills while never forgetting your older lessons. In this installment, I discuss the more difficult leadership positions where teams might range from 100 to 1 million people.
Here is where all the basic skills of leadership you have learned must be second nature because people expect you to know how to lead competently at this level. People are now watching your every move. Your subordinates are critiquing your leadership ability and trying to determine if you can be trusted to lead them. Your bosses, on the other hand, are looking at your ability to see if you have potential for promotion to even more difficult jobs. Again at each level of this notional career I will highlight at least two concepts that might aid the reader and one pitfall to avoid.
Large Team Leader Period
This is the point when you really start to spend your days ensuring your vision is clear, the tasks are understood, and are getting done on time. You must get good at training other leaders to do your job one day; be a great mentor. Now that you are leading teams that range from 100 to 250 people, you must set the example for acceptable overtime hours so your junior leaders learn how to balance work and personal life.
Things to do
Ask for what you need. That’s pretty simple, but often ignored. When your boss gives you a mission to accomplish, think it through with your own leaders and tell the boss what you need to get it done. If he can’t give you everything you need, at least he will know the costs of not fully resourcing your team.
Learn to deal with bureaucrats. Though it may be frustrating for you, for the good of your people, you need to get along with bureaucrats to help you achieve your mission.
Things to avoid
Don’t be afraid of losing your best people. Learn how to retain your best talent, but don’t be afraid to promote your top people out of your organization or help them achieve their career ambitions. They will be your greatest recruiters wherever they go. You can build someone to replace them.
Team of Teams Leader Period
If you haven’t been doing proper addition, you will struggle at this point. You will need every leadership tool you have ever used to get this right as you will be managing hundreds to thousands of people. You will have lots of very talented leaders below you watching you every day and they will see your flaws. You won’t understand all the tasks that the various teams in your organization conduct on a daily basis, so don’t stop listening.
Things to do
At this point you have to start helping the larger institution by developing the next class of senior leaders. Learn to spot talent and mentor them to ensure they continue to serve in their profession. You will also need to clearly communicate shortcomings to those you will not recommend for advancement.
Learn how to officially reward your subordinates and make it a part of your everyday schedule. The power of recognizing hard work and rare talent cannot be understated. You will usually have an ability to really make someone’s career at this point by the recognition you bestow.
Be an amazing communicator. Value the ability to read and absorb information quickly. Master the ability to communicate complex and confusing ideas in a simple way through writing and speaking. You won’t get many chances to fix poor guidance because you didn’t understand the problem.
Things to avoid
Don’t make everything seem like a no-fail task that has your highest priority. Learn how to differentiate between important tasks and those that you can let slip. Talk to your boss and ensure he agrees with your critical task list. As a leader, be ready to help your subordinates to understand what tasks they can let slip if they are overwhelmed. Everything can’t be important.
Senior Leadership Period
Once you have proven yourself in a very large organization of teams that conducted missions you were very unfamiliar with then you are ready for the hardest of all tasks. Leading multiple teams of teams that vary in size from 15,000 to millions is a leadership position few will achieve in their lifetime and it requires enormous energy reserves and an internal drive to excel. Those who possess all the skills for this job are rare. Failure at this level is often spectacular and success in every mission is expected by those you lead and those who placed you in this position.
Things to do
Be the visionary leader that thinks strategically, understands the real world you operate in, and knows where you want to take the team over the next few years. Then empower your other leaders to accomplish the missions you give them.
Learn how to identify broken systems and how to get bureaucrats to become proactive workers. You are the captain of the ship, so fix the holes or go with it to the depths of the sea.
Learn how to navigate human-resources systems to get rid of dead weight and poor performers in your senior leadership ranks. In large organizations, it is easy for those people to hide and they will lower the morale of your best workers.
Above all, you must be an excellent mentor at this stage. You should spend everyday developing the talent that will replace you as you approach retirement. Show your fellow leaders how to mentor and develop a culture of mentorship in your organization if it is lacking.
Things to avoid
Don’t stop learning to be a better leader. Listen every day to your people at every level from the newest employee to your most trusted senior talent. Your workforce will change constantly as new people arrive and older dependable ones leave. You must ensure you still understand what inspires your people. Ensure they feel they are helping to achieve the mission. Hell, you need to make sure they all actually know the mission. Continue to grow as a leader and encourage others to improve.
Many leadership skills are missing from this list and likely you may have some favorites that you learned in your first few jobs. Every organization has its own leadership culture and you must understand it as you progress inside that team. Keep in mind that when you move to other organizations you will need to study that new culture and ensure you adjust to the best style of leadership. You should adjust your style, unless of course that new organization needs to be overhauled in which case you will need to use many styles of leadership to reach each particular team and hopefully change their leadership culture.
I was often reminded by mentors that leadership is truly a journey and not a destination, and in many ways, it requires both simple math and imagination to refine your art. If you ever feel like you have mastered the skills of leadership you should probably leave your job because you are about to become a very dangerous part of your team.