19 March 2015
This article first appeared in Forbes.
Countless books and articles have been written about what might be termed “the grander aspects” of leadership – the need to have a vision, the ability to decide on and execute a strategy, the importance of communication, the crucial role of motivation and such like – but rather less attention is paid to the “nuts and bolts” of being a leader. While it is understandable that management thinkers should focus on ideas of leadership, managers themselves need to realise that what seem like little things can assume great importance and have a significant effect on their ability to pull off those great ideas. Quite simply, even managers who think they are fully prepared and equipped to take on top jobs can come unstuck when they finally land the role.
Marcus Agius is a former investment banker who chaired Barclays Bank and the former UK airports operator BAA and has for the past year been chairman of PA Consulting. He says that many people appointed to chief executive or chairman positions fail to appreciate “how very different it is to run the whole show rather than just a bit of it”. A key part of this is understanding that, while he or she may be in overall charge, the CEO or chairman does not actually run anything. Those reporting directly to them do the running. Allied to this is the realisation that, while it is possible to know most of everything when you are running a division, it is impossible when you are in charge of a whole big business. “That’s worrying, because you worry about what you don’t know,” says Agius. “One of the new things you have to learn is how to keep your nerve! How to resist the temptation to interfere.”
Another perspective on this area is provided by Kevin Kaiser, Michael Pich and I.J Schecter in their recent book, Becoming A Top Manager (Jossey-Bass). They warn managers to beware of their expertise. By this they mean that executives spend most of their careers being promoted on the basis of their perceived functional knowledge. This obviously gives them confidence, but, they say, “it may also prevent proper appreciation of the relevance of other areas in the company”. This is a problem because a general manager is supposed to be just that – a person who looks at the whole business – and not somebody who is stuck in a comfort zone based on their own experience and abilities. Worse, expertise in a particular business function “may simply strengthen incorrect presumptions” and close minds to the willingness to take account of new information or insights, say Kaiser and Co.
Delegation plays an important part in helping new managers deal with the realities of a bigger, more complex business than they have been used to. Agius acknowledges that this can be difficult for the simple reason that the typical CEO has a certain degree of confidence, even arrogance, and is therefore likely to take the view that nobody is likely to do what needs to be done better than them. But John Adair, a highly respected writer on leadership, believes that delegation is vital. “Delegating can save you time and develop your staff. You should delegate as much as you can,” he writes in John Adair’s 100 Greatest Ideas For Effective Leadership and Management (Capstone/Wiley).
At the same time, the leader cannot just rely on divisional directors to tell him or her what is going on. There needs to be a means of them being alerted to potential problems. The actual mechanism can differ – some CEOs have chiefs of staff, others rely on their finance director, still others have long-serving personal assistants. Indeed, Agius says that a good and trusted PA can make a huge difference to a leader’s effectiveness through minimising disruption and stress. Conversely, managers who get through a lot of PAs can “get in a muddle” and never seem to be as efficient, he adds.
One of the key ways in which an effective PA can help a new leader settle into the role is through diary management. On being appointed to the top job, the leader will inevitably have a lot of calls on his or her time. While the leaders themselves will need to learn to be ruthless about which meetings they need to attend and which calls they need to take, the experienced PA can be invaluable in managing the mechanics of this activity and – via their relationships with other PAs – in ensuring smooth and effective communications with other executives.
Leaders themselves can help with this, however, by managing their time as well as the business and the people working for them. Adair says that a leader needs to be certain that he or she can define their business role and know what amounts to a successful outcome; that they can spend time thinking and planning for themselves and others; that they have a clear understanding of their business purpose and that they know the balance they wish to achieve between business and private commitments.
But, given the intense demands that are a characteristic of the typical general manager’s life, the importance of time management cannot be overstated. Adair reminds readers of the view of the late management guru Peter Drucker that only when we manage time can we manage anything. This is true, of course, of any manager, but it is especially true for those at the very top of the organization. Adair, and indeed various other self-help experts, offer valuable advice on such areas as handling meetings, avoiding receiving too much paper and travelling. In the end, though, it comes down to priorities and ensuring energy goes into effort that – to coin a phrase – really makes a difference.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for a new general manager is to focus on being effective rather than busy. The problem with rushing around is that, while it looks like the individual concerned is justifying their pay cheque, they are really not in control and so are unable to carve out the time necessary for reflection and making sense of what is going on around them.