I have worked in a number of leadership positions in my life. You learn a little from each opportunity, but usually there is a moment of awakening that helps you make the step from being a manager to being a real leader.
It is a fundamental transition that some people find challenging. Perhaps a little discussion of my leadership moment will bring things into better focus.
The summer of 1993, I was working as a higher education account executive for Apple computer. I was doing very well in my job. That year, I was named higher education account executive of the year for Apple.
Being a representative for Apple on college campuses was perhaps one of the most difficult jobs in the technology business. Apple pretty well invented the higher education business so we had to create the business as we were developing it. You also ended up being the sole interface between thousands of students, administrators and the company. Sometimes it was like being between a rock and a hard place. To top it off, you probably had very limited resources and the company was expecting tremendous success from you and your sixteen hour days.
That summer I was promoted to higher education district manager for Maryland, District of Columbia and Virginia. I ended up hiring a team of very experienced Apple people who were new to higher ed. I was in the position less than a year when I picked up people covering North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Going from being someone who had to handle all the details himself to being a manager was a huge challenge. Yet it did not take me long to figure out that being a manager with his hands in all the details was a fast trip to insanity.
In introducing the new people to many of the large accounts that I had covered so well, the temptation was to keep my hand in the pot and to continue to be involved.
I soon learned the first lesson of leadership is letting go. I had given these new people accounts to manage. I had to let them manage the accounts even if there were some things I might have done differently.
I could provide guidance for them but for me to try to manage the accounts after I had already assigned the task to someone else made no sense. I was just creating more work for myself at a time when I had far more important things to do like leading the other people.
While I might have disagreed with some of the details and tactics being used by my team, I learned that what I might have viewed as efforts which could be improved to match my tastes were actually exceptional efforts in the grand scheme of things. That was especially the case since these efforts were done with minimal involvement from me.
You can still correct people as a leader. You just have to do it carefully and make sure to not destroy their motivation.
It is a lesson that I never forgot. When I became director of federal sales for Apple, there were a couple of managers who worked for me and perhaps twenty-three or twenty four people in total. When we picked up the FOSE show, it was a large project and the temptation was for me to manage it. I handed it off to a couple of people immediately. They did a great job, and I did not have to do it. I never second guessed them and never pulled a piece of the project from them because I thought I could do it better than them. Actually I was too busy with higher level challenges. What little time I had to help with the project, I usually spent praising them for their efforts.
The praise for their efforts and fully standing behind whatever your team turns out is exceptionally important when motivating people who are going beyond their traditional job and not rewarded for their efforts. Praise is often all you have to give them so it needs to be heartfelt and delivered often. These highly motivated folks were not being paid for their extra efforts so praising them was crucial to getting them to commit to another year’s effort.
You do not get to leadership quickly or easily. It is a journey. Usually you grow into it if you can learn to let go, be appreciative, prioritize, and stay out of the way of the capable people that you have hired for the job. You need to be the person who carries the bucket of water and makes sure no one interferes with the efforts of the team. Run interference for others, don't try to make all the decisions.
If you second guess your team or correct them when you should be thanking them for their efforts, you will never make it to point where you are a real leader. On top of it all, you will be worked to death trying to accomplish stuff that other people want to do and can do. You will have also turned off people who could be helping you.
I have always found it refreshing to look back and see the difference between managing a team and leading one. Next time you run into someone who is swamped with too much work, pay attention to how they prioritize and delegate to others. Likely you will find that they have their hand into too many pots that others were already doing a good job of stirring.
I am proud that some of those folks who worked for me that first year went on to being leaders in their own right.