Lighten your leader’s load

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By Dino Signore

In his book “The 360 Degree Leader,” John Maxwell discusses how middle managers can add value to their organizations by not only influencing subordinates but also peers and bosses, which he refers to as “leading across” and “leading up.” The latter is particularly important for senior managers in second-stage companies — something we focus on in our Performance Accelerator workshop.

One of Maxwell’s principle’s for leading up is to “lighten your leader’s load,” and he gives seven suggestions for doing so:

  • Do your own job well first.
  • When you find a problem, provide a solution.
  • Tell leaders what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.
  • Go the second mile.
  • Stand up for your leader whenever you can.
  • Stand in for your leader whenever you can.
  • Ask your leader how you can lift the load.

The first on the list may sound like a no-brainer, but I’m always amazed how often CEOs tell me that they have to double-check their managers’ work or even do it themselves — which may be a red flag that they’ve hired or promoted the wrong person.

This idea of lightening the leader’s load cropped up during a recent retreat I facilitated at the foundation for a group of second-stage CEOs from the Chicago area. One of the participants, Tim Padgett, told us how much he appreciated his second-in-command, George Couris, and I was struck by what a great fit they seemed to be as an executive team. After the retreat, I followed up with Tim and George to learn more about how they work together.

Dynamic duo

Tim met George 17 years ago at a Tae Kwon Do class. The two literally and figuratively hit it off, and Tim recruited George to Pepper Group, his B2B marketing agency.

At the time George had been working for Michelin in sales and marketing and recently finished his MBA. “George jumped into our world with a spreadsheet mind that we never had before,” Tim said. “He was a perfect complement to me. I’m a graphic designer and communications person. I didn’t go to business school, and I didn’t know how to equate what we did as a marketing company into true value for the client.”

Tim continued to explain that prior to George, Pepper Group was project-based as opposed to program-based: “Someone would ask us for a new brochure, logo or video, and we’d do it. But we weren’t advising them what to do with those tools — or if they were missing an opportunity by not doing something else. I knew in my mind we had to take our game to the consultative and planning side, and George stepped in and owned that. He’s taken us into another realm of being able to help people.”

As president of Pepper Group, George handles the operational side and getting repeat business from existing clients. This enables Tim to focus on being the visionary and rainmaker.

“Tim is great at coming up with ideas,” George said. “He sees things that no one else does. My strength is integration — taking his ideas, especially if they sound crazy, and making them a reality. We view things similarly but also have different perspectives, and having those different viewpoints often brings value to the project and makes it really powerful.”

Leading up in action

 When I asked George what lightening a leader’s load meant to him, he had an interesting response. “It doesn’t mean making their life easier — at least, not in the way they are doing less,” he said. “I don’t think leaders want that. They want to be successful. So lightening their load is about allowing them to focus their efforts on the highest value activity.”

“Senior managers can help by identifying what the leader is doing that’s not adding value to the company and then taking it off their plate,” he added. “There are a variety of ways to do that. You can take it on yourself, delegate to others on your team, create a system to handle the activity, or outsource it.”

His other recommendations for load-lightening:

  • Be accountable. “If someone says ‘I’ll follow-up on that’ or ‘I’ll put this together for you,’ I never need to check back with them. I can forget about it because I know it will get done,” George said, explaining that accountability is a core value throughout Pepper Group. Often leaders keep two lists — a to-do list and a ‘what-I-asked-for’ list, he added. “I don’t need the second one because I know if I asked for something, it’s not going to get dropped. This kind of accountability is important to building trust, and it also prevents a boss from feeling like they need to micromanage.”
  • Adopt an owner’s mentality. Be proactive about identifying problems and finding solutions. “Bringing a CEO what they need — before they even ask for it — shows that you have a strategic view and understand the ‘why’ behind something, not just the task itself,” George said.

Some final thoughts

I especially like George’s point about thinking like an owner. I see a lot of second-stage CEOs with control issues; they’re used to having a spoon in all the pots and often second-guess their managers. After all, the business is their baby. They’ve taken the financial risk and are used to calling all the shots.

Yet in second stage, it’s critical for business owners to build a senior management team, to try to find people like George, and when they do, get out of their way. These people are the ones who can really help scale the company.

And though Maxwell doesn’t include this on his list, I think that helping the CEO stay on track can be part of leading up. Entrepreneurial CEOs who love chasing new opportunities can go in different directions, change their minds and lose focus, which makes for a quixotic workplace. Strong senior managers can help their visionary leader stay focused. By helping the top leader be more successful, a manager ultimately makes the organization successful.

Article copyright © 2019 by Edward Lowe Foundation

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Dino Signore, PhD
Manager of Entrepreneurial Education
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Second stage is an important inflection point for entrepreneurs, says Dino Signore, the foundation's manager of entrepreneurial education. On the plus side, second-stagers have a proven product or service under their belts and have attracted initial customers, so survival is no longer a daily concern. Yet as they strive to gain a stronger foothold in the market and win more customers, second-stagers now face more strategic issues, such as building infrastructure to scale, honing their competitive edge and expanding into new markets.