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Leader vs Administrator: Which are you?

How many books and blogs have you read offering you an ideal model for leadership? As leaders, we are constantly faced with new ideas and frameworks that offer this ideal profile.

There are some great ideas and frameworks out there but a lot of the time they miss the point. We will never be ideal leaders in the way that leadership books describe. The reality is that, for many Chief Executives, the challenges they face, the industry they operate in and the scale of the businesses they are overseeing makes it impossible to live up to the leadership ideal.

Certainly, this is something I see a lot with the business leaders I work with. Even the best leaders struggle to bridge the gap between the leadership ideal and having to deal with the real world. In the end it comes down to time prioritisation.

Of all the challenges that leaders face, time prioritisation is at the top. Time is the most important commodity for a leader and as much of it as possible needs to be ON the business, not in it.

Again, there has been plenty written on how an ideal leader allocates their time. However, in a real company that is facing numerous operational issues at any one time, lifting that gaze from putting out fires and actually managing time effectively is incredibly difficult.

The many hats a leader has to wear

Every year I ask my TEC groups to reflect on where they spend their time; in particular, how they fill their month between the different roles that a Chief Executive is expected to fill and operational and administrative tasks. I then ask them to map out where, in twelve months’ time, they wish their time to be spent.

Excellent CEOs have to spend time between becoming a visionary, understanding where their industry is going, as well as developing a strategy to match. They have to represent the company as an ambassador for the brand and they increasingly have to take on a mentoring and coaching role. Lastly, great leaders also have to be constantly learning and absorbing new knowledge.

Fast forward to 2016, and that theory is still useful but it’s incredibly hard to actually implement. Terms such as ‘Innovation’ or ‘Disruption’ might be overused but leaders I work with are recognising these factors are increasingly changing the way business models work. There is even more need to be strategic and not get sucked into the operational mire.

Even industries that just a few years ago would have looked like they will never change are now facing the need to restructure and move in a very different direction. In my groups I have seen this in food service, distribution, logistics, insurance, manufacturing and a massive shift in social and community services.

Operating at two levels at the same time

These transformational changes require the CEO to operate at two levels:

  • At strategic level

To ensure the organisation and in particular the senior management team has the capability and resilience to act with agility

  • At an implementation level

In the last couple of years my members are realising there are just some things you can’t delegate, which doesn’t mean they meddle with operations.

One example, several years in the making, required a shifting of manufacturing to an Asian base. While delegating the project to others, the CEO realised that this was such a massive strategic shift he had to take a more hands on approach to the move. By getting more intensely involved and being on the ground he immediately saw the greater strategic opportunities opened up by the move in terms of quality of design, global logistics and supply chain opportunities.

There are some excellent speakers on this subject. Tiffany Jones, an expert in change management, gives us the analogy of the CEO being the captain on the bridge. While it is perfectly natural for the captain to go down the stairs and help the crew occasionally, there should always be a plan to get back up on the bridge as soon as possible, looking ahead. Mike Richardson, one of the champions of Agile, differentiates between ‘good micromanagement’ and ‘bad micromanagement’ emphasising the difference between being well informed and giving people tasks. Alan Mulally’s approach at Ford as described in American Icon is a wonderful example of upholding the values of openness and transparency combined with a tool of visual management which allowed strategic micromanagement.

Whose job am I doing now?

After my TEC members complete their ideal time profile the changes required are usually fairly stark. In buddy sessions and in 121s they develop an action plan for change. For those with over 30% of time on operations there is usually renewed focus on management structure and accountability. In the last year I have seen several CEOs reduce the number of direct reports so they can spend more time with each and increase their ‘ambassador’ role (aka chief salesperson) while still improving their skills as a coach.

If you are a business leader struggling with balancing your roles, then why not start by mapping out your ideal balance? Then have a conversation with yourself and ask the question ‘whose job am I doing now?’

Speaker Elliot Hayes challenges leaders to consider that if they had to do all they did in a day in just 4 hours what would they focus on and what would they drop. Why not do this exercise with a buddy?

The one role that should never, ever, make a CEO’s list is ‘administrator’. I find it ironic that the premier business leadership qualification is a Master of Business Administration. Time for a better label I think.


Jon LindsayBy Jon Lindsay, TEC Chair