Coffee and a Do Not: Delegating Vision

 The one leadership aspect that you cannot delegate is all too often the one that under-apprenticed leaders want to give away first.  

You see this situation play out all the time…

A person with good management skills flies up the corporate ladder because he can execute.

He can control, direct, and manage details with impunity; and that is a terribly valuable thing early in one’s career.

And then…he gets to a point and a position that requires him to do something very different.  He has to go from being “the guy” to being the guy behind the guy.  He goes from solving the problem to ensuring that the problem gets solved.

Through span of control, volume of work, or simply the sheer complexity the high performing manager has to make the leap to being an executive.  He has to be a leader.

And, wow, what a leap it is.

Why the leap from management to leadership is hard

The complication of the leap is that high performing managers, unlike executives, have the privilege of operating without having to have vision. Vision is provided to them in the form of budget directives, strategic plans, and senior management dialogues.

When our friendly manager makes the leap, he has to figure out how to “do” vision.

But, an odd thing happens to high performing managers promoted too fast…

…They suddenly realize that since vision is coming from no one else above them in the organization, they start to look for it from below them in the organization.

After all…it has to come from somewhere, right?

They feel the need to find things to manage, like budgets, or headcount, minute deal details, or–too often–how their subordinates do their jobs.  They are good at doing those things.

They ignore the need to provide vision because, well, they’ve never had to…and success has come on the merits of a strong management approach.

Thus, they “delegate vision” into the organization.

They say to their subordinates (sometimes explicitly, even!): “I don’t know where we are going. You show me and then I’ll know; but until then, here are some details I’ll dig into.”

The outcomes for our under-apprenticed “leader”

Three outcomes are possible for our manager. Two are good for the organization and one is bad…very bad…

First, if he is a good learner (which typically means good listener) and is able to absorb clues, training, and mentorship about what it is that leaders do vs. what managers do, he makes the leap.  He crafts his own vision. He learns to deliver that vision and to get out of the way.  This is a good outcome.

Second, if he isn’t a good learner but the organization is well governed, he “peters” out.  The Peter principle catches up to him. He has risen to the level of his incompetence, and in well-governed companies his sniff at an executive position is ended quickly, humanely, and soundly.  He returns to a solid management position.  This, likewise, is a good outcome.

Third, if the organization isn’t good at evaluating executive talent and/or acting on evaluations, he–shockingly–sticks.  In poorly governed companies–typically those centered on personality cults and favoritism or those with absentee hierarchies–high performing managers can populate executive positions (albeit ineffectively) for long periods of time.

The third scenario is a bad one:  The brutally bad reality of the manager sticking in such a position is that because he doesn’t know what it means to be an executive, he very often serves as an absolute antagonist to people with real executive talent.  They don’t “manage” like he does; and so they can’t be senior.  He blocks progression by the very virtue of his ignorance.

The more senior the high performing manager “sticks,” the more his foibles and contra-indicated style will metastasize in the organization.  It’s bad for the organization not only because the organization has a sub-optimal leader in an executive position; but also because latent executive talent votes with its feet.  It finds its place elsewhere. They know better.

So what? 

The leap between manager and executive is every bit as big as the leap between a high performing analyst with a spreadsheet and the manager of a pool of analysts.  The skillsets and mindsets are worlds apart.

The lessons of this particular “Coffee and a Do Not” are these:

First, executives should never, ever delegate vision.  Doing so is confusing to the organization and the result of it–a micromanaging executive–is actually a very strong indicator of a disengaged, demotivated organization.  (If you are interested, here’s a study from Stanford University that backs that assertion.)

Second, companies must have solid executive development, evaluation and coaching processes. People can learn. While executive talent is an intrinsic thing to some degree, executive behaviors are teachable. Ideally, high performing managers get to understand these things before they get their first bite at the executive apple.

Third, high performing managers and under-apprenticed executives need to develop themselves. If you are one of those lucky, high velocity, high performing managers who finds yourself in a senior executive role before really being apprenticed well enough…Go home at night and entertain the remote possibility that you might not be all that in your new role.  Be willing to listen…up and down in the organization.  Look for mentors.  Reflect.  Think.  Improve.

Delegation of leadership vision is an upside down, bizarre outcome of a leadership culture that under-prepares people for the next steps in their careers. This is a situation that individuals need to guard against and that companies need to watch out for.

Being a high performing manager and being an executive are very different things.

Executives need to be visionary.  No, not Steve Jobs visionary; but at least “next three years” visionary.

If this is your particular weakness, know this:  Trying to delegate vision will frustrate your organization, handicap its performance, and (assuming a well-governed company) shorten your tenure.

Do not delegate vision.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *