At our company, we have a training program to offer our people the opportunity to grow through continuous learning and personal development. As it turns out, the program is best at addressing the developmental needs of our least experienced people; project managers. That’s because it is geared toward teaching the art and craft of managing complex research projects under circumstances like tight budgets and timelines, and working with dispersed teams and clients. The training focuses on craftsmanship and the acquisition of skills. By that, it runs out of steam at the director level and beyond. Because we want to offer directors the opportunity of personal development too, a colleague approached me to discuss what we should do to train them, and how to do that? Well, it is hard to say, so I just tried to describe what has helped me to advance to the director level.
What did I learn when growing to a director level?
I made the transition from ‘managing in’ to ‘managing on’ the business
The progression to the director level was marked first by the fact that I was expatriated to the United States to set up a market research team for a $300 million business. It was challenging because I had moved two comfort zones away; first, by moving to a country with a different culture and second, by picking up a managerial instead of an individual contributor position. The first thing I learned was to make the transition from managing in to managing on the business.
When I came out to the US, the position had been vacant for a while so there was a backlog of project work to be done. I started to worked hard to get the project work done, and I had no time nor energy left to recruit team members. I was swamped and disaster was waiting to happen. A defining moment was when a VP of Product Development came out and offered me a brochure listing training programs about project management. It was embarrassing. So in one of our weekly meetings, my manager, gave me a lecture, of how I had to make the transition of ‘managing in’ to ‘managing on’ the business. It was the transition from doing everything myself to creating the conditions to getting things done – which was in this case hiring the right people. So I did and I built a strong three-person team, which lasted for years after I had left to move on to the next assignment.
I learned to make initiatives scalable by detaching them from individuals
One advantage of working with others is that activities can become scalable if one focuses on developing people. Even having a team of market research professionals does not mean that activities become scalable; in order for activities to become scalable, every team member should impact others . It does not mean that we should all do the same. Instead we should develop trust in each other and give access to each other’s strengths so that the team as a whole becomes scalable. Scalability means leveraging synergies so that the collection will achieve more than the individuals could have done by themselves.
An example can be found in this mission: our organization had completed many claim studies, so we felt that we had the potential of becoming claim study specialists. But in order to do so, we should see the golden threat across the claim studies ; the communalities between the claims tested, and their impact on consumer claim appreciation. We did an analysis across the claim studies to identify drivers of claim appeal. It extracts the insights from the studies and helps us develop a framework of drivers of claim appeal that anyone involved in claim studies could apply. Through the framework, everyone can contribute and it offers a great way of disseminating knowledge.
But having the framework and the knowledge base is not enough; it should reside in people. That’s why we started a claim apprenticeship program. The director identified a team of people with a knack for language and he engaged in a training program to share his knowledge of claims. It extends the reach of the program beyond what we can individually do in the 24 hours of a day, seven days a week.
I (hope to have) made the transition from being a ‘manager’ to being a ‘leader’
The previous two points helped me becoming a manager but it were just necessary but insufficient steps toward becoming a leader. Becoming a leader takes having a 30,000 feet perspective, connecting the dots about what we’re doing and why we were doing it to create a common vision and encouraging others to get there in an inspiring and intrinsically motivating way. Managing is about creating the conditions for others to perform; leadership is about showing the way. In fact, it is just leading by example, but I do not really know any other form of leadership.
Examples of (my) leadership in action are few and far apart. It was hidden in the previous example of how we wanted to be a leader in claims and how we encouraged one of our directors to pick up the glove. Another example is the presentation about pricing by two of our directors at the annual 2010 ESOMAR conference. The presentation it was the culmination of more than two years’ worth of work on analyzing 10 years of pricing studies. It was part of a mission to become a recognized pricing specialist, and the ESOMAR presentation was the pinnacle of our work. My contribution was to keep an eye on the goal and orchestrate the effort among a team of contributors.
I learned to trust people
One thing that comes with being a manager or leader is that you cannot longer do everything yourself. You need to trust other people with the tasks, and the outcomes. And that is still a recurring battle, especially if, and because, I want everything to be done in a certain way (“my way”). So I have to accept that other people do things differently, with a different result – not better or worse, but different. It is a matter of staying in touch and agree on reciprocal expectations.
The most challenging part is to trust people. What I learned is that I had to put markers in place to see if I still trust you. Point of departure is that I trust you (“trust by default”) instead of wishing you to fight for my trust (“trust by evidence”), which I will continue to do until you have breached my trust and disappointed me. After that, it is hard work to restore the trust that’s lost; probably more difficult than it would be to build someone trust in a “trust by evidence” situation.
In terms of tasks, I discovered two ways of trusting people, delegation and empowerment. Delegation means that I trust others with tasks that I conducted myself before, after training them. Most likely, I would look for replication of task and outcome, seeing if you do it the way I would. It is the best way of warranting a certain quality level of execution, but the risk is that it creates clones not leaders.
The alternative way is empowerment, which means that I ask for an expected outcome without telling you how it needs to be done. It is a good way to get surprised by an unexpected path or outcome. The risk is a higher likelihood of disappointment and that I won’t get the desired quality. So empowerment only works with people who know what they do, or are so resourceful that they quickly compensate for their limitations. A leader who empowers should avoid to be naïve, and build in as many “markers of trust” as the person who delegates – perhaps even more.
The pledge of “I lead”
This was ‘just’ a series of challenges that I went through. It is not a recipe for others to copy; every person should find its own way. That’s the most difficult part of creating a training program for directors. Training programs are by default prescriptive because it has been proven to be less effective to deviate from the path. But it is less clear how to continue to make progress once has achieved the director level, so I believe that we can only work through case studies: by describing how one person has done it, the next person may be inspired to go out and find its own way. It takes coaching not teaching to help a person find its her own way, allowing her to make mistakes but actively learn from it.
Perhaps that’s the most important thing to understand when trying to make progress: one needs to be intrinsically motivated to do so. It means putting yourself on a mission, taking your future in your own hands and accepting higher risks and demands. Not everyone is ready for it. So the first thing I had to do was to answer the questions: do I want to lead (“I lead”), what do I lead in (“the mission”), and what am I willing to do and sacrifice for it?