One Small Step

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I distinctly remember the confidence I felt when I first began leading a team. The promotion from individual contributor to team lead is empowering. The ability to muster the forces of a group of people together to solve a problem is so invigorating. You can get many times the amount of work accomplished, and can coordinate to solve enormous challenges. You see firsthand that the whole often is greater than the sum of the parts.

From a quality perspective, there is confidence in knowing that, as a front-line manager, you can peer in at all the work being done, and ensure that it’s being executed at least as well as you might. Often even better. I quite clearly remember feeling, “this is great!”

That first promotion, from doing the work yourself to building a team, is often cited by people as the turning point in their careers. It’s the moment they realize that rather than being a mediocre individual contributor, they can be a good, perhaps even great leader. The light bulb of leadership clicks on. For many, it feels life changing.

That second-level promotion is often the true turning point in any leadership career

But in practice, the next promotion — to the manager of managers — is often the true turning point in any leadership career. Though it seems like merely a step up in the ladder, the entire process of management changes with this one jump. The elevation to higher management requires the most critical pivot in their behavior. That one deceptively small move determines for many whether the life of a leader is really in their future.

The change that happens with that second level promotion is an unexpected reduction in the number of tools available to a leader. One would think that, as you climb the ladder, you’d have more options at your disposal for how to coordinate and manage teams. But in reality, the opposite is true. The further away you get from the front line, the less direct impact you as a leader can have on the direct results. There are more layers of people in the way, more teams to coordinate, and thousands of details that are no longer in your direct line of sight. 

As a front-line manager, if something isn’t going well you can just jump in and rescue it. Sure, that makes the person you pushed aside feel terrible, but the job gets done, and the problem is solved. You can work to remedy the individual situation with them once the challenge is behind you.

But a higher-level manager who does the same undercuts not just the front-line person, but each layer in between. Entire teams who witness the spectacle feel violated, frustrated, and confused. The direct reports who were bypassed are completely undermined and left humiliated, in both their mind and in the eyes of the team. The whole organization lives in fear of future similar strokes of micromanagement.

Further, because of the distance from the problem, the higher-level manager rarely fully understands the many implications at the detail level. Even more likely, they never even see things at that level of resolution in the first place. Problems arise, they see the impact and jump to intervene. The overreaction will likely be a spectacular misfire, and make the problem worse.

A budding leader must learn to lead by remote control — by indirect influence.

All of this makes that promotion to second level manager a turning point in a career. A budding leader must learn to lead by remote control — by indirect influence. To leverage, rely on and trust their own team of leaders. People who excel at senior leadership are communicators first, deciders second, and doers a distant third. This is exceptionally frustrating for some, and they often retreat to front-line management or even back to individual contribution. The distance from the action, and the coordination requirements, are just too much to bear.

But there are those who see the growing impact they can make with each step on the ladder as worth every bit of the challenge of indirect control. They revel in shaping the future, creating the culture, helping to nurture future leaders. To them, the communication that is so critical to leading effectively is not a hassle, but an opportunity. It is what they live for. Those are the true leaders.