What’s the big deal about senior leaders?

Snakes & ladders

Danny Taylor

Leaders are like weightlifters. Go to a gym, and you’ll notice certain people lifting more than others. In organisations, senior leaders carry the heaviest weight. They must lift the most. It’s important they understand this. And it’s essential that they feel this in their bones. Leaders who are cruising are not doing their jobs.  One CEO said… “any of the simple issues that can be solved are sorted out before I see them; the things I get are what’s left over…..what can’t be resolved by anyone else”.

So at the level we’re interested in, where leaders need to be both strategic and operational, the weight of responsibility feels heavy. It’s why leaders get paid the big bucks; though this doesn’t stop some scurrying back to their old ways.

What’s the challenge at senior levels?

We can think about leaders being caught in an adult version of snakes-and-ladders. They need to climb high; to see the world from elevated vantage spots, and to lead from there. Yet there are snakes everywhere in this game. It takes effort to maintain focus at the right level.

An organisation’s short term success is promoted by focusing on customers’ current needs. Yet longer term success demands something else. It requires the anticipation of future customer needs. And it needs the organisation to act on these, through refinements of current offerings, genuine innovation, or both. Senior leaders are critical to this, needing to support and drive both agendas; to simultaneously deliver for “today” and “tomorrow”.

In essence, the work of a strategic leader is to move the organisation from where it is to where it needs to be; to make choices about products, services and practices that need to be added, and those that need to be removed, while ensuring the organisation works as a well-oiled-machine. Senior leaders need to climb the ladder and understand what the world looks like from there. And they need to stay at that level to drive significant organisational change, while remaining connected with their people. This is great leadership.

Watching out for snakes; it’s not as easy as it seems

Rupert has just been promoted to a big leadership job. He’s climbed the ladder. He is now at a genuine strategic level. The leaders reporting to him, including Jack, are doing work Rupert is familiar with. While there is a lot for Jack to do, with a lot to manage and lead, he can still get his mind around most of the current issues. He can focus on improving life for the customer while delivering on financial outcomes.

Rupert must now hold himself back from getting too involved in Jack’s work, even though he feels comfortable in that space, and focus on where the organisation needs him to now add-value. He needs to consciously avoid snakes, and their invitation to slide back to a more familiar world. Rupert is now operating at a higher level, and needs to consciously step up to the challenge. It’s now his role to move the organisation from where it is to where it needs to be, and not be tempted to either delegate this work, or ignore it. At some level he is on his own; yet at another he has a whole team to support him.

Dealing with wind gusts: it’s all part of the job

But how is leadership at the strategic level different to Rupert’s previous role? Let’s call Rupert’s new level SL (Strategic Leadership), and his previous level OL (Operational Leadership). At OL, the business environment can be seen clearly for what it is. Customer challenges are understood, even if the organisation doesn’t deal with them as they would like; the organisation’s position on what it sells or provides is usually well developed; and systems and processes are in place to support their delivery. So overall there is a sense of order to the way the place works. Or at least there should be. It might not be a well-oiled-machine, but there is a strong element of order and stability about the way the organisation operates.

But at Rupert’s new level (SL) the world is much less stable. This sounds odd. You’d expect it to be more stable as you go up the ladder. People at more junior levels often think senior leaders have a cushy life. But in reality there are wind gusts everywhere. Stability is valued at this level but rarely experienced. This is because customer needs and challenges are anticipated rather than understood; and therefore products and services, and the systems and processes that would support them, are in a perpetual phase of concept and development. The world is more unknown, and necessarily so. Some leaders argue this should not be the case, that everything could be operationalised with effort, but they are only revealing their ignorance of the challenges the organisation faces at this level. They’re always looking to slide away on the nearest operational snake!

Feeling the weight of responsibility

What will this all feel like for Rupert at his new level? It’s certainly different to what Jack feels, or Rupert felt previously. The responsibility is greater, because he’s now accountable for moving the organisation to a new way of operating, while ensuring his direct reports manage and lead for today, and do that well. So the weight of responsibility feels heavier, and so it should. It’s also greater than any consultant will feel at this level. Consultants are responsible for providing good advice, but not making decisions based on that advice. Their commentary on snakes-and-ladders is useful, but they’re not players. As Teddy Roosevelt said, ‘they’re not in the arena’.

Only senior leaders feel the weight of responsibility associated with intended and unintended consequences of decisions. Only they can be held accountable. When good leaders refrain from making quick decisions, it’s not because they’re risk averse, but because they’re considering the consequences of their choices; how will the organisation react?; how will customers respond?; what disruption will be created?; how will this be managed? They’re working hard to stay at the right level. They’re avoiding snakes!

Doing my work while making sure others do theirs

Given this, it makes sense that the relationship SLs have to their OL leaders is crucial. They delegate work to their people but they can never set and forget. Rupert’s boss will hold him accountable for everything. So Rupert needs to ensure he has the right people reporting to him, that they focus on the right things, that he gets the best out of them, and that they deliver and remain motivated. He needs to work with them to get things done. He needs to play coach; and all this while he himself works at the strategic level. It’s a big ask, and even great SLs will say it asks a lot of them, doing what’s required and doing it well. To be an effective strategic leader is a great balancing act.

  Download Article as pdf