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Business Well Done™

On the challenges faced by leaders of established businesses.

The Big Shift

Identifying and developing other leaders is one of the most fundamental jobs of leadership.  True or False?

We often find new leaders just before or during one of the most common, and most difficult, transitions in a career: the move from Doing to Directing.

Directing is the job when we must structure, plan and coordinate resources to accomplish a team’s worth of work.  Yes, this is Management 101, but few organizations provide Management 101 to people who need Management 101.  More often, we toss a Doer into the Directing end of the pool and hope they swim.

This transition doesn’t occur when someone gains the title “manager.”  There are plenty of Managers – and Directors and even sometimes VPs – whose primary job is Doing, maybe with a little Directing on the side.

But when Directing is the main job, it requires an enormous shift in mindset and method.  Many leaders do not recognize that the job is not just a bigger version of Doing, but a different thing entirely.  So they need our help to identify that reality and redirect their momentum.

This article is about helping them make the shift.  We’ll talk about:

  • The simple math at the crossroads
  • The psychological hurdle they face
  • A routine practice to instill the discipline

We hold this truth to be self-evident: that a well-directed group will outperform a gaggle of individual contributors lacking good direction. “Well-directed” means the members of the group have clear purpose, coordination and coaching/equipping to do their individual jobs well.  Someone has to do that.

The basic math in Directing vs Doing answers the question: what is the leader’s biggest contribution to the performance of the group?  All contribution can be thought of as positive, but what produces the largest effect?

Let’s say we have a group of eight contributors and one leader of the team.  If the leader decides to Do, she is adding significant value through her direct contribution.  Eight people “doing” is 12.5% each.  When the leader jumps in to “do,” that’s another 12.5%... or maybe more, since the leader is usually a super-doer (15% more? 20% more?).

But what is the potential performance of the group if the leader instead chooses to be an effective Director?  What’s the value of clear purpose, of coordination of resources, and of coaching to the total performance of the group?

There’s no way to calculate it definitively.  But it makes that 12.5% look very, very small.  We know the bigger contribution is in Directing.

So why don't emerging leaders move right into Directing?  Even if they understand the math, they face a tall psychological hurdle.

Doing is familiar, and therefore more comfortable, than the newer and less familiar Directing.  Doing also delivers more immediate gratification.  When the world is on fire around us, it sure feels more effective to pick up a hose and spray more water.

Directing is a form of indirect action, with indirect feedback, and it takes some backbone to choose less direct interaction with critical issues.  In the short term, the former Doer gains more satisfaction, with less internal friction, from continuing to Do.    

Where Doing is an instinct (“I must jump in and help!”), Directing is a discipline.  It is something we have to believe in, something with principles we must understand, and something we have to work on routinely in order to master.

Recently I heard Juliet Funt, the CEO of Whitespace @ Work, describe a clear, actionable practice to combat what she calls the four “thieves of productivity.”  It’s a powerful, accessible routine for those learning to Direct.

Funt recommends that we take a “strategic pause” frequently, and ask ourselves four questions:

Is there anything I can let go of? (to combat the tendency to bite off more than we can chew)

Where is “good enough” good enough? (to combat a perfectionistic tendency)

What do I truly need to know? (to combat information overload, or paralysis by analysis)

What deserves my attention now? (to combat a tendency to be hyper-active but not invest our effort in the most critical opportunities)

What does this look like?  Rear Admiral John Kirby (USN, Retired) relayed a story recently in a CNN op-ed piece about a young Marine platoon commander during the Korean War.

The lieutenant and his men were surrounded by the enemy, getting attacked on all sides. Every few minutes the young officer would dash behind a boulder and take a knee, then dash back out and issue new orders. 

 When the firefight at last ended, he had saved his men. One of his troops asked him what he had been doing behind that rock.

 "I was asking myself three questions," he said. "What am I doing? What am I not doing? And how can I make up the difference?"

The gravitational pull for most emerging leaders is not toward Directing.  They will continue to Do.  They need our help to identify the dilemma, convince them of the greater potential, and coach them to embrace the necessary discipline.


Paul SchwadaComment
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Necessary Perspective

"At this level, it's all grey area."

If you've been in a leadership role for more than a month, you've run into this thought, or something like it.  At a certain level, pretty much the whole thing is judgment.  There are no easy, black and white issues.

  • How should we handle this?
  • What decision should we make?
  • (and very, very often, should we make a decision at all right now?)

When we're dealing with complex dynamics - personality, culture, market conditions, opportunity cost - we need something more than just our best guesses.  Our own pre-conceived notions or default viewpoint can be a constraint as much as an advantage.  One of the most valuable assets for any leader is access to useful perspective.

Do you have that?  Where do you find it?  And how should you define "useful?"

There are the typical perspectives we seek out: those of people with more information on a particular issue, or people who have more experience in a key area.  But if I'm committed to being the best leader I can be, there's one kind of perspective I must seek continually.

The most potent perspectives are just plain different.  They come from:

  • People who interact with the same market or organization in a different way.
  • People who come from a different background.
  • People whose wiring is different.
  • People we think are "wrong" about (fill in the blank).

Considering different perspectives is like tinkering in a lab.  We get to try on different concepts, imagine how things could be put together in a better way, figure out what is critical and what is not.  The constant challenge for leaders is not ultimately to be right, but to be effective.  And seeking out different views enables the creativity and insight we need to help a bunch of heterogeneous people move in a common direction.

Of course, not every angle from every perspective is instructive.  Some help us understand the challenges we face.  Some give us better ideas on how to get where we want to go. Some may even help us identify a better direction in the first place.  But others prove to be less helpful.  In fact, often the useful is mixed in with the discard-able.  How do we know the difference?


After all, that's the job.  So said a leader who gave me access to a different perspective... a leader who was wise, respected and, most of all, effective.

"At this level, it's all grey area."

Joe Wilson, 1957-2017

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What Are We Doing Here?

A new CEO takes the helm at a famous organization after a multi-year downturn.  His challenge: restore it to greatness.  His starting point: alignment.

The CEO in this case is a coach, Tom Herman, and the organization is Football at The University of Texas at Austin.  Football (the oblong kind) is a big deal in the state of Texas, and UT-Austin is the biggest college program in the state.  But the Longhorns have been mediocre for several years, and it's Herman's job to turn it around.

At his introductory press conference, according to ESPN, Herman identified alignment as the most critical principle for success.  But why would that be worth his focus?  Everyone knows that success at Texas looks like lots of wins every year.  Isn't "alignment" that simple?

Everyone knows at your company that success looks like plenty of revenue and profit every year.  Does that make you aligned?

Here's the problem: winning is not something we can do.  Winning is an outcome, whether it's wins on the field or wins in the market.  Our job is to help the organization do the things that are more likely to lead to wins.  And there are infinite options for what those might be.

That's why Herman, quoting a mentor, defined alignment as a unified culture, strategy and purpose.  Alignment is critical in who we will be (culture), and what approach we will take (strategy), in order to reach our goals (purpose). 

Too often companies are aligned around the outcome, winning, but disjointed when it comes to how they expect to win.  One team member thinks they're trying to build the best mousetrap, another thinks they're competing for mousetrap business at the lowest price.  The head of Sales thinks they're pushing full speed into overseas markets, while the CFO is not so sure they want to go there.  HR thinks they're building a collaborative culture for the long haul, but the CEO likes the idea of internal competition, and frankly sees the long term as less important than the profit metrics he promised to hit this year and next.

No wonder we don't make the progress we want.  We're all trying to "win," but our ideas for how to win - and sometimes even our definition of a win - are different.

If your team doesn't discuss this out loud and regularly, it almost certainly isn't aligned.  It doesn't happen by accident.

So if your key players and coaches can't tell you off the cuff, in their own words, who you are, your team is not trying to build the same culture.  If they can't tell you what you're trying to accomplish, your team is not striving for the same goals.  And if they can't tell you how they're going to get there, your team is not pursuing the same strategy.

Does that sound like a formula for winning?


LINK: First step In Tom Herman's takeover of Texas: alignment (

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