You have to make time to lead

I did not agree with this advice when it was given to me. I argued it was wrong. I was young and not ready to hear this advice. However it stuck in the back of my mind and years later I later realized this was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received.

Early in my career I was identified as a High Potential and sent to an assessment and training program. I loved it and was passing tests with flying colors. We worked with actors to simulate difficult conversations, worked on negotiation skills, team collaboration, presentation skills and a host of other management topics. One of the tests was acting as a new CEO coming into a troubled company. There are many issues and tasks to deal with, and your job is to set your agenda for your first week. The trick is of course that you get very little time to complete this exercise to create pressure, and there are many more important topics than can fit in your agenda. I thought I aced the test by focusing on putting out fires, for instance addressing urgent client requests. My assessor did not agree with me at all. His advice was to balance the day to day activities and fires, but immediately make time to work on the bigger picture items that would help move the company forward. In others words, make time to lead. I argued that he was wrong, that we could not put off talking to an unhappy client. As he tried to explain more I argued more. In the end we agreed to disagree, as I could see that my assessor saw me as a lost cause on this topic.

Over time I came to see the downside of my initial approach and started to implement this advice. The simple fact is that if you only work on day to day urgent, immediate, short term execution topics and you will be fighting fires forever. You have to make the time to make structural changes and improvements that will reduce the amount of firefighting that is needed on a day by day bases. Just as important this is not a one and done, this needs to be baked into your way of working as there will always be the next structural change / improvement to tackle.

I now give this advice to my team. A typical manager in my current team has 10 to 15 Project Managers reporting to them and is responsible for supporting a certain business line. I set the expectation with the managers that they should roughly spend 50% of their time providing the day to day support and guidance for their team and business partners and the other 50% on leading and working towards structural improvements. I also tell them this is an aspirational goal and I would be satisfied if the split is closer to 70/30. The structural improvements can take many shapes, but a good example is to work the project slotting and prioritization process with their business leaders. However that is a good topic for a future post.

What was some of the best career advice you received?

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