Thursday, November 3, 2016

Head up or head down?


Every couple of months you’ll see an article, presentation or infographic trying to define the line between a leader and a manager.  Often they’re full of platitudes like leaders listen more than they talk and surround themselves with “A” people.  One of my favorite useless platitudes is that leaders have their heads up while managers have their head down – meaning that a true leader will come up with ideas and delegate the execution to people more capable of pulling it off.  While those who have ‘only’ reached the manager level, will still keep their heads down focusing on the work right in front of them instead of thinking the big thoughts.

For many of us in small departments, it really isn’t a choice.  There’s just no one there to delegate to, or if there is, they are so far in the weeds that it’s not fair to pile more on them.  Of course that doesn’t relieve you of the obligation to think outside of the box and come up with innovative solutions to the problems your company is facing. 

So does that mean that we’re not leaders? Or all hope to developing leadership skills is lost?  Of course not.  Everyday leaders of all stripes are able to inspire others while getting their own jobs done well.  The trick is to know when to put your head down and when to look up.  Every day there is real work to be done.  And that’s what our company’s pay us to do.  Sure, they love the great ideas that increase efficiency or improve the bottom line, but they expect us to do our day jobs too. 

The first thing you lift your head up for is increasing the efficiency in your day job - contract management, process development, alternative fee arrangements, etc.  This gives some breathing room so that your ‘heads up’ time doesn’t just occur between the hours of midnight and 5 am. 

Once you’ve established that, you use what you’re learning from your ‘heads down’ time to inspire and innovate.  Your day job gives you unique insight into the challenges of multiple areas of the business.  For example, knowing what contracts are in the queue gives you a unique view into the direction the company is actually heading regardless of what is being said at the quarterly all hands.  Being able to raise your hand to call attention to a department entering into outsourcing agreements because they can’t meet unrealistic project deadlines can highlight the issues with the project.  It also gives you the opportunity to identify synergies between departments – IT has just contracted for a ticketing system that has a lot of the features that marketing is looking for in project management, have the teams talked?  Dealing with employment claims allows you insight into areas of the company culture that need improvement. 

The list goes on and on.  There’s a reason why a good general counsel is worth their weight in gold, and you don’t have to suck at your day job to get there.