Monday, June 27, 2011

Leaders Have a Different Job

The HBR blog is running a series on leadership lessons from the military. I’m not part of that culture—unless my fascination with Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign counts—but I was intrigued by the idea and have been following the posts pretty regularly.

One of the latest posts is a mini interview with Ken Hicks, the CEO of Foot Locker and a graduate of the United States Military Academy who spent six years in the army just after the Vietnam War. And here’s the exchange that most resonated with me.

Tell me about a couple of things you learned from your military experience that have made you a more effective CEO.

When I took over my artillery battery, at age 25, I could shoot a cannon better than any of my section chiefs. And I had six guns. The only problem is, I could only shoot one gun at a time. I realized that what I had to do was train my section chiefs to be better cannoneers than I was. Because shooting 18% of the battery isn't going to be effective. And my job really wasn't to shoot a cannon, it was to develop an entire artillery battery.

So I learned that you're very dependent on your people to be their best. You train and develop and motivate them. People think in the army that you tell somebody to do something and they do it, and that's far from the truth. They actually have more options and pressures that can be very intense. Think about it — if somebody in Afghanistan screws up, they get sent back home. If they don't, they stay in combat.

I think that’s a common story in the association world—people promoted to positions of leadership because of demonstrated excellence in managing programs. Hicks was the best cannoneer before given command of an artillery battery, just like that CME Director was the best educational program manager or that Executive Director was the best membership services manager before getting their current jobs.

So I think Hicks makes a critical observation for association leaders and leaders-to-be. The job of the manager and the job of the leader are fundamentally different things, and success in the former won’t necessarily translate into success in the latter.

To help bridge that gulf, new association leaders can use their managerial excellence to train better managers, but they can no longer do that work themselves. To use Hicks’ example, your focus is no longer on firing one cannon really well. Your job is to create a team that consistently fires all the cannons as well or better than you once did.

That's a lot harder. But also a lot more fulfilling.

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Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Such an important point. Leadership has to be about building the capacity and infrastructure for an organization to thrive in the future.

Joe Rominiecki said...

This reminds me author of Douglas Rushkoff's thought leader session at the 2007 ASAE Annual Meeting. He used the example of a cobbler and asked why it's standard practice in organizations to reward someone who excels at a skill such as making shoes with a promotion to managing other shoemakers. Being good at making shoes is no indication of being a good manager of shoemakers, nor is it an indication of even wanting to manage other shoemakers. And yet, in most organizations, the only way upward in both pay and rank is by moving away from a skilled position and into a management position. Rushkoff argued this leads to a lot of managers who reluctantly take such jobs without having the skill or interest in managing that's necessary for effective leadership.

To be honest, I remember this conundrum more vividly than any solutions that Rushkoff might have suggested in that presentation (so they must not have been that great), but I think this should provoke thought for organizational leaders in two ways. One is that it's vital to look for actual leadership skills in potential leaders rather than skill in execution. The other, however, is that organizations should find ways to continue to engage highly skilled individuals who would prefer to stay in skill positions in order to continue to get the most value out of their work.

Eric Lanke said...

Thanks, Jeffrey, and good points, Joe. Continuing to engage highly skilled individuals in positions where they excel and get value out of their work often means consciously not promoting them to management--something that often runs counter to their own expectations for rewards and remuneration. Associations of the future should find ways to reward people for what they bring to the organization, not for where they sit on the org chart.

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