Scaling your leadership

Kevin, head of product development for the largest division of a major pharmaceuticals company, called me in June to share some good news: They had acquired a hot biotech company. The new company would remain stand-alone, and Kevin was being promoted to President of the new company.

Nice! After I congratulated him I asked him what his top priorities were. “There is only one,” he answered immediately. “Scaling. I need to scale myself so I can scale the team and scale the business.”

Good answer. Business scale means you create operating leverage: more revenue with minimal or zero increase in operating costs. Scaling your business requires you to scale yourself as a leader.

Here are 3 ways to scale yourself: Shift your mindset, build the team, create more process.

1) Shift your mindset: All of us rise through the ranks getting positive reinforcement for what we do. When we become ultimately responsible for what others do, that requires a different way of thinking.

Scalable leaders measure success, not by what they do, not by what happened in the meeting, but by how capable the team is without them after they leave the room. Did they build capability during the interaction?

Obviously Kevin had learned this as he rose through the ranks, but he was still very focused on “doing.” As we talked through this he realized that he had a core belief getting in his way: he thought he wasn’t getting work done if he wasn’t rolling up his sleeves himself.

This is a classic belief. Kevin – like most people – didn’t even realize he held this belief until we discussed it. What would it take for Kevin to let go of this?

We discussed the “opportunity cost” of his drive to do things himself (opportunity cost is often hard for people to see.) Kevin saw that he felt most productive “getting work done.” His eureka moment was when he realized that every hour he spent doing something himself was actually a low productivity hour. He only got his task done during that period, he didn’t enable the team around him to push their mandates forward and cascade that to their teams. He changed his mindset, deciding that when he was working on his own tasks he was, effectively, a bottleneck.

2) Build the team: With this new mindset, you have to make sure your team is operating at a high level. Inevitably some gaps appear within the team. When executives see those gaps, they often react by stepping back in. Then they become gun-shy and think they have to go back to being more hands on.

Wrong lesson. When someone screws up something you expected them to handle, you have the opportunity to build their capability. Instead of jumping back in and getting more directive, take a moment to ask yourself some questions: Did you communicate to them your intention of stepping away? Did you agree on expectations? Do they have the right skills to operate at this new level? What coaching do they need from you?

Kevin faced this scenario with Richard, the SVP of strategy. Richard was a spreadsheet genius and always provided rigorous due diligence and data – in fact, Richard was the point person of this acquisition. Kevin began to notice that Richard followed Kevin’s instructions rather than proactively bring strategic ideas to Kevin. Kevin also noticed that Richard created the analysis all by himself. He never brought team members in to present. Unlike in the other functions, Kevin didn’t know any of the next level down folks in Richard’s team.

This was not sustainable. Kevin brought this up openly with Richard and they had a frank conversation about Kevin’s expectation that Richard proactively bring ideas and recommendations to him. To free up his time in doing this, Kevin expected Richard to build his own team’s capability so they could handle the analysis themselves.

3) Create more process:

Oooh, I knew you weren’t going to like this one. So many executives are allergic to process! They think it makes them mindless drones; that it will hinder creativity. They don’t like being pinned down.

Rather than think about constraints, think about freedom.

Process is just a set of systems that you put on automatic pilot. These systems free you up (and your people up) to spend precious time and energy on things that are really important.

Higher value, and higher morale – that’s what good process brings. (Mindless process brings red-tape, cynicism, bean-counters and people who quit because they can’t take it anymore. Please don’t mistake good process for bad.)

Kevin, not surprisingly, hated process. He is pretty good at winging it, but even he could see that style would let him down soon enough.

Always the scientist, Kevin decided to conduct an experiment: he decided to set up more process within one group as the their product neared launch. He asked the team leader to map the existing (informal) process out and communicate it to everyone, along with roles and responsibilities. He asked the team to add alignment meetings at the beginning and mid-point, and he asked them to measure two key metrics and adjust based on what they found out.

Incredibly, this launch was the most successful in the company’s history. Even if he didn’t attribute that all to process, Kevin was impressed. He asked all teams to add these process points to their launches.
He also asked them to point out to him processes that the company should institute, signaling his new embrace of process. He even described the experiment and their new focus on process at the quarterly Executive Committee meeting with his peers (there is no zealot like a convert.)

If you are going anywhere in your career, you are going to have to scale yourself multiple times. Use these ideas: Shift your mindset, build the team, create more process to help you do it.

I would love to hear if you have other thoughts about scaling!

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