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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