3 Skills To Vault You Into Leadership (And Help You Stay There)

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Meg* and I were lunch-brainstorming how to help one of her direct reports who is struggling to “fit” into her recent Director-level promotion. Meg noted that this woman – we’ll call her Kathy* – found it hard to see the forest for the trees. Meg thought Kathy had tons of potential but was frustrated and wanted to grab her by the collar and elevate her perspective every time she gave Kathy a new project, and she wanted my business coaching suggestions on what skills she could help Kathy acquire to help her be more successful.

We listed out the challenges Kathy was having and tried to decide if these were issues more challenging to women than men. We concluded that they really weren’t women’s issues but were more related to the “Leadership Stretch" that requires us to take on a broader perspective when we are ready to – or just have – jumped up a major level in management responsibility. We also agreed that it was possible men received help with these issues more regularly through mentoring than women did.

Here is what we identified Kathy was struggling with, and how Meg could help her.

Get a Grip on Magnitude

Meg was pulling her hair out watching Kathy prepare for a board presentation by micromanaging her staff to the decimal point when the overall message and theme of the presentation were still weak – two days from showtime!

Kathy didn't have a sense of magnitude and where she should be spending her own energy. When you start your career as an individual contributor farther down the food chain - i.e.,  before you get promoted into leadership - you’re typically held accountable for details your superiors don’t have time or skills to manage. You’re rewarded for focusing on the weeds and then later on the trees. Quite often you spend years of your career wandering the forest without even realizing there are such things as oceans, plains and moonscapes. If the trees are all you know, you take them for granted and get fixated on the smaller stuff. But when you want to rise in the ranks, or survive a bit higher up, you’ve got to get a handle on the magnitude of challenges at ecosystem, forest, tree and weed level. Most importantly, you need to learn to spend most of your personal time at the higher levels. When you have a problem to solve, learn to rely on your staff -  i.e., delegate the trees and weeds to them - and manage the forest-as-ecosystem level issues. Good leaders understand the magnitude of each issue and problem they work on and allocate their time and energy accordingly.

Meg's job was to help Kathy understand that her energy was needed on the higher level messaging issues and she needed to let go of the details she was no longer paid to spend all her time on.

Master the 80/20 Rule

Kathy struggled with tackling a big project that landed on her desk where she had an extremely short turnaround time. Meg had told her she didn’t expect perfection in the first client deliverable – knowing Kathy didn’t have time to get fully up to speed – but Kathy flailed around trying to decide where to start. Meg realized that if she’d understood the 80/20 rule, Kathy would have been in Meg’s office the next morning with the question, “What one thing can I do to knock this out of the park for the client? What about you?”

Focus on what matters most. No matter how complex the situation, there are only a few things that will actually make the big difference you’re seeking. The 80/20 rule traditionally refers to what customers care about. It goes something like “we spend our energy getting right the 20% that meets 80% of our customers’ needs” and the implication is that by meeting 80% of the customer’s needs you’ll gain their satisfaction. This approach isn’t necessarily enough if you’re in a precision environment that requires .99999 reliability, but even in those environments, if you become adept at sussing out the 20% that meets the 80% need, you quickly focus on what to do first, then second then third. It’s a good way to put the details – even the ones that matter – into immediate perspective so you can focus on what will give you the biggest bang for the buck.

Mastering this rule requires that we get better at thinking like our customer/audience/superior. Many of us find this challenging – not always having walked in their shoes. Those that master this skill, however, learn to ask good questions and find out.

Meg's job was to help Kathy understand the 80% - and to help her see that it was her responsibility to ask about the customer and boss' perspective until she felt like she understood what a home run looked like.

Delegate In a Project Planning Framework

Kathy struggled with pulling together an internal report on the accomplishments of her new group. She blasted out the detailed reporting requirements and final deadline to the whole team, but her people were confused on which part they needed to deliver when. Kathy was crestfallen since she’d taken time to spell out every detail and thought they would appreciate her thoroughness. Meg decided she needed to coach Kathy on how to lay out the high level deliverables, accountabilities and interim deadlines and let them bring the details to her in the time frames she gave out.

Even if your work has nothing to do with project management, there are a few tricks that project managers learn to do intuitively that will help you delegate. This approach can also help you anticipate where your projects are likely to go haywire so you can make sure they don’t. The key is understanding the critical path and its key dependencies, which becomes the focus your energies personally. If you're a detail person, go ahead and list out everything that you know must happen in order for a project to be completed, but then go back over it with a highlighter and highlight the major tasks that can only happen in a certain order (this is the critical path). Choose the fewest most important ones that must happen correctly and on time and in that order. Even in complex projects, that “must do right and on time” list should be fairly short with lots of other subtasks feeding into them. You take accountability for the short list and manage your team to this short list of "must-do-right item, concentrating on looking for and helping them clear obstacles to the short list. This puts all those little subtasks into perspective so you can assign broader accountability to your team and help your team members manage them in light of their importance to the delivery of the overall process – a process you now understand at a higher level and own.

Meg's job was to help Kathy develop the high level project approach and see that she learned how to do it on her own, focusing her energy on the big deliverables and holding her staff accountable to everything that contributed to them.

You’ll notice all of these issues relate to perspective and detail. Your perspective changes – about what issues are at stake, who will pay the price, and what your choices and resources are for approaching the challenge – as you move up the food chain. The main competency of managing “the stretch” is to recognize that your perspective must shift as you go higher and that your best strategy is to tackle this challenge proactively. Taking on the Leadership Stretch is a great way to position yourself for a promotion, to show you understand the broader perspective, and it’s a must-do once you’ve been promoted to demonstrate you can handle it.

It was interesting, by the way, that when we identified these things to help Kathy, Meg recognized she also still dealt with the same issues at the executive level - just another level higher. No matter how high you go, the stretch is there.

What’s your experience with the Leadership Stretch? Did I miss something else to help Meg and Kathy in the stretch between management levels?

*The real Meg has agreed to give her persona over to Everywoman Executive and will become the lightening rod for “typical workplace power vs. powerlessness issues” that women often face. These issues will be suggested by Meg, other women executives I know or meet or – you! What power and powerlessness issues would you like “Meg” to confront? If you’re an Everywoman Executive, what issues have you confronted and handled you’d like me to share with my readers?Contact me to speak to - or through - Meg! (“Kathy” will be a recurring theme too, as Meg helps her with your issues.)

Dana Theus

InPower Leadership Development & Coaching- Helping you live into your purpose through your work. Sign up for my weekly 1-minute coaching newsletter.

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