By Anthony Zecca
One of the biggest obstacles to a firm realizing its potential, its partners and staff realizing their potential, and a firm leader maximizing his impact on the trajectory of the firm is when the line between leading and managing gets blurred.
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Too often, center leaders believe their job is telling everyone what to do and how to do it (managing things) versus providing the tools, authority and clarity on the firm’s strategic objectives and then getting out of the way (Edge leadership). Leadership at its most basic level is about inspiring everyone toward a common shared vision and ensuring that the decision-making hierarchy is clear and consistent within the firm’s mission and core values. Edge leadership is not about tactics and how things are done, but about making sure everyone is doing the right things, with accountability for results.
“The manager administers; the leader innovates. The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.” – Warren Bennis (author, teacher, leadership coach)
“You manage things, you lead people.” – Grace Hopper (Admiral, U.S. Navy ret.)
A great quote from Steven Covey (author): “Management is about climbing the ladder successfully and efficiently, while leadership is making sure the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”
Another way of saying this is, it does not matter one bit if your team is successfully getting things done if what they are getting done are not the right things. Managing is getting the team to get things done, which is what most center leaders focus on. Leading at the edge is making sure they are doing the right things and holding those who are managing (team leaders) accountable for making the right decisions and climbing the right wall.
One of the reasons so many firm leaders operate at the center versus the edge is that they spend too much time managing and not enough time leading. Center leaders are more comfortable telling their subordinates what to do, solving problems for them and going home at night exhausted from a busy day. The problem with that is things are getting done, but not the right things – the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
The story below is a composite from a number of different experiences with leaders from multiple firms I have worked with or had a relationship with over the years. It tells a fictional story about a firm leader (managing partner) in a medium-sized accounting firm who is stuck in the center and can’t see why or what to do in order to become an Edge leader. I use this composite firm to illustrate various concepts without referring to a specific firm(s) in order to protect their identity. This composite firm, although fictional, reflects many actual firms and is therefore not that fictional.
Center Leader Working to Lead from the Edge
Mary, the firm leader of a $40 million reasonably successful accounting firm, is sitting in her office at the end of the day. The night before, she dutifully prepared her to-do list for the next day that included a number of critical tasks she had to get done. It is now the end of the day, and she is sitting at her desk looking at her to-do list from the previous night, realizing that most of it was not done or even thought about during her busy day. As she reflects on her day, her frustration grows as she acknowledges that she seems to face the same challenge at the end of every day – not being able to get firm-critical items on her to-do list done. She reflects on her day and realizes that she spent way too much time solving problems for others and telling them what to do – making decisions for them. She thinks about where she should be spending her time versus where she is actually spending her time. She starts thinking about her leadership and how ineffective it is and her frustration grows.
She places a call to her leadership coach and says she needs to see her to talk about this challenge and her growing frustration. A few days later, they are together having breakfast and Mary starts to relay her quandary regarding how she is spending her time. She says, “I don’t understand why I just don’t seem to have the time to do the more critical things I should be doing as the firm leader. You and I spoke several times about what leading from the Edge means, and I just can’t seem to get there. It seems that I spend most of my time solving other people’s problems. Any advice?”
Her coach only needs to think about this for a few seconds, because it is a challenge that many of her client leaders face. Her coach says, “Mary, over the next few days, maintain a T-account and list where you spend your time. On the left, put down the day-to-day issues you spent time on. On the right side, put down firm-critical issues you spent time on like longer-term strategic actions/thinking, or spending time with your team coaching or any of the other things you should be doing if you were leading from the Edge. Let’s meet again at the end of the week to go over your list.”
The end of the week comes, and Mary is again meeting with her leadership coach. When Mary starts the conversation with a bit of frustration, she says, “Obviously, the left side of the T-account is way too long compared to the right side.” Her coach asks her why, and she says, “Partners, admin department heads and others are constantly streaming into my office and asking my advice on how to handle something. We spend time resolving the issue, or at least I point them in the right direction.” Her coach then asks her, “Why do they come to you on matters that they should handle on their own?”
Mary responds, “Look, I know where you are going with this, but helping them does not take that much time, and what’s wrong with them coming to me if they are not sure what to do? Isn’t it better that I give them direction versus them making the wrong decision?”
Her coach sits back, smiles and says, “Mary, the real question is how many of the situations they bring to you are mission-critical versus tactical; issues they should be resolving without you? Without actually sitting in on your meetings, I would tell you that close to 100 percent of the issues they come to you with are issues that they should be able to resolve with zero input from you. After all, aren’t they in their leadership positions to deal with the day-to-day, and to solve issues that come up every day? Do you think that maybe you have created the culture or expectation that you are there to solve their problems? Mary, is the issue you don’t have confidence in their ability to make the right decisions, and that you want them to come to you for answers and approval? Do you talk about empowerment but keep the power to yourself? What I have found is that what you encourage, you give permission for it to continue – you set the behavior expectation in their minds regarding how they are supposed to act. You are treating them as center leaders by solving their problems and not allowing them to be Edge leaders and solving their own issues within the boundaries that you established.”
Mary thinks about what her coach shared and says, “You might be right, and I think what you are saying is that I can never be an Edge leader if I don’t have a leadership team that I have confidence in. I will think about what you said and thanks as always for your direct and helpful feedback.”
That night, Mary is consumed with thinking about what the coach said. Are her actions cultivating center leaders and not Edge leaders? She realizes that she is spending her time managing and not leading. She knows that her vision of creating a standout, high-performing firm can’t succeed if the firm does not have a standout team, and if her leadership team are not standout Edge leaders. She also realizes that the firm will never become a standout, high-performing firm if she is managing the firm and not leading the firm.
Although the above story is quasi-fictional, it reflects the reality of what happens in so many firms. The question for you is, are you managing your firm and team or leading the firm and your team?
In so many firms the line between the two becomes blurred and leaders tend to fall back on managing versus leading, because it is easier and provides the false impression that you are doing what you are supposed to do. Center leaders are most comfortable in managing and telling people what to do and see that as their job.
The problem is, if you are managing and you are the firm leader, then who is leading the firm? If no one is leading the firm, then the firm will continue to climb ladders that are on the wrong walls.