Leadership the Hard Way

My passion in New Zealand has been to build a business and reputation of solving tough customer challenges through the use of technology. In my specific world this means being an expert and providing a platform for others to launch their dreams. As I think about this at Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for the bravery of so many business owners, department heads and CxOs to have trusted their goals to my advice.

I've mentioned before that building solutions isn't something that can be done in a void, or alone. A side-effect of working for globals is that in remote and emerging markets you have neither as much support (proximity bias, understandable) or lowest latency decision-making (local management) - something that's often not realized by those closer to HQ.

A couple years ago, I and a colleague ideated how we could solve for this without adding headcount, threatening reporting lines or wasting company resources. Not being in an organizational position of power meant a few things:

  1. You risk threatening the established organizational power dynamics above
  2. No one at your level or proximity can be compelled to do anything
  3. No real budget

One thing that's largely in your control, and hugely powerful, is identity. It never mattered if I was in a remote team in the Midwest, the mountain states, or some South Pacific collection of islands - developing that local identity was something both recognized, celebrated and envied. That's not something I woke up one day knowing.

Identity in this usage means defining and sharing a goal that not only fits into your organizational charter, but results in superior outcomes. Think of it as an emergent quality of a system, if you've been reading lots of AI/ML blogs.

I often referred to this as my work family in my own head, though that term isn't accurate and oversteps the intent of the identity. But in the deep roots of my lizard brain, it still felt good like family does.

That's a genuine benefit and a force which individuals intentionally act on for the combined benefit of their immediate peer group as well as for the company. 

I recognize the things I'm describing here are elementary for those high experienced or trained, but it is something that is very, very frequently overlooked in large tech companies, sales and pre-sales organizations, and field teams of all sorts.

Getting good at coordinating, at managing this, at being a leader in this way, takes lots of practice. Over the years this changed from being just a subconscious thing that I repeated and was rewarded for, to something I did learned to do with intent with intent.

So in 2020 ...

A team existed with 10 individuals, all responsible for a single, isolated south pacific market, and had 9 offshore reporting lines. Additionally we had segmented customer sets, industries, and unique organizational cultures.

How would I ever reach my goal of growing the business to where we earned the revenue and size to have local management (reduced decision latency). I would now put into writing and structure what I'd previously done casually.

  1. We created space for weekly sharing sessions, which turned into weekly strategy & direction
  2. We coordinated our planning sessions to benefit and synchronize our goals (1+1=3)
  3. We defined our personal goals, shared our personal weaknesses & preferences
  4. We built a mission statement that was compatible with the org and served its matrixed divisions
  5. We held ourselves accountable to help each other in our free moments

This established our identity - what we stood for, what we would get done, and where we would focus. And it created something greater than the parts, which we all felt ownership of - and benefited us professionally and mentally.

None of this was done via legitimate or coercive power - it was an effective display of using referent, reward and even a bit of expert power to get things across the line. The biggest failures in managers that I've experienced in my career are the ones who never developed ability to use anything but legit or coercive methods. I'll never forget my first professional manager for this very reason - a lesson with far more value than I ever appreciated at the time.

Importantly, we invited our stakeholders to comment, provide feedback and inform our guiding mission - which provided the support we needed to carry on.

So why am I writing this now? Forward two more years and we've grown the business, we've built a compatible identity, we've earned the right to enter the next stage. It's not signed and sealed just yet - but it appears I have now made the case for organizationally leading this team of brilliant technologists in the very near future.

You don't need a title to get a thing done, just a name. Soft Power > Hard Power!


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