Doing Less, Leading More

Our first accomplishments as professionals are usually rooted in our skill as individual contributors. In most fields we add value in the early stages of our careers by getting things done. We’re fast, we’re efficient, and we do high-quality work. In a word, we’re doers. But when we carry this mindset into our first leadership roles, we confuse doing with leading. We believe that by working longer, harder, and smarter than our team, we’ll inspire by example.  Sometimes this has the desired effect–as Daniel Goleman wrote in his 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.” But the pacesetting style can also carry a high cost – Goleman notes that it “destroys climate [and] many employees feel overwhelmed by the pacesetter’s demands.”

Instead simply doing more, sustaining our success as leaders requires us to redefine how we add value. Continuing to rely on our abilities as individual contributors greatly limits what we actually contribute and puts us at a disadvantage to peers who are better able to mobilize and motivate others. In other words we need to do less and lead more. Sometimes this transition is obvious and dramatic, such as when we’re promoted and obtain our first direct reports or hire our first employees. Suddenly we need to expand our behavioral repertoire to incorporate new leadership styles as a means of influencing others effectively. (“Leadership That Gets Results” provides a useful roadmap here, highlighting the styles that have the greatest positive impact or are used less frequently by managers.)

Subsequent transitions may be more subtle and nuanced, such as when we go from leading front-line staff to leading managers, who themselves must navigate this same transition. A coaching client realized that he was running his company as though he were the “Doer-in-Chief,” and this model of leadership had permeated throughout the organization and was holding everyone back. He revamped his role, delegating almost all of the tasks on his to-do list to his senior managers and had them do the same to their direct reports. Rather than simply creating more work for junior employees, this emphasis on leading rather than doing resulted in greater efficiencies throughout the company. In my client’s words, “We went from being firefighters to being fire marshals,” taking a more strategic approach to the business, redesigning inefficient systems, and solving problems before they became crises.

This emphasis on leading and not merely doing has had a profound impact on management education. In 2010 Dean Garth Saloner of the Stanford Graduate School of Business (where I’m an Instructor) told McKinsey that, “The harder skills of finance and supply chain management and accounting…have become what you think of as a hygiene factor: everybody ought to know this… But the softer skill sets, the real leadership, the ability to work with others and through others, to execute, that is still in very scarce supply.” We expect our students to have solid technical and analytical skills—to be effective doers. But we also expect that within a few years of graduation our students will be managing people who are even more technically and analytically capable than they are—and this requires them to be effective leaders.

Many of my executive coaching clients and MBA students at Stanford are going through a transition that involves a step up to the next level in some way. They’re on the cusp of a big promotion, or they’ve launched a startup, or their company just hit some major milestone. Very few, if any, of these people would say that they’ve “made it”; they’re still overcoming challenges in pursuit of ambitious goals. And yet their current success has created a meaningful inflection point in their careers; things are going to be different from now on. The nature of this difference varies greatly from one person to another, but I see a set of common themes that I think of as “the problems of success.” You can read my first and second posts on “the problems of success.”

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