To the Leader Juggling Roles, We See You

By Michele Porterfield

Unlike in the past when jobs were much more structured and clearly delineated from one another, leaders in today’s organizations are in much more fluid contexts that are continuously evolving and changing. One day they may be asked to spearhead a complex, cross-functional project and the next they may find themselves buried in the details of a very technical task. One day their car ride is consumed with thoughts on how to remain competitive in a changing industry landscape, and the next day it is spent wordsmithing a presentation with a colleague over the phone. Sometimes their decisions are grounded in preserving the culture, while others are grounded in ensuring profitability.

A recent experience with a client helped me to more fully appreciate some of these realities. In particular, I was struck by the conundrum of a leader who was struggling in his new hybrid role where he was asked to flex between being the leader while also contributing as an expert. He understood the expectations on the surface, but navigating it in practice was far more challenging, particularly as a newcomer to the organization. While many aspects of his situation were different than my own, I could definitely relate to some of what he was experiencing and leaned on my own personal background to offer advice and guidance.

Leaders sometimes struggle to figure out how to focus their efforts to make the most difference. Some have a hard time delegating because they worry that no one can do certain tasks better than them. Others become focused on teaming up with certain individuals to collaborate on results but lose sight of the needs of the broader team and what is required to keep the entire group functioning at its peak. In settings where the demands are high, leaders may bury themselves in the details of execution and not invest enough in communicating the vision and rallying others around that vision.
He and I had a number of great conversations that yielded some fundamental advice that I think other leaders can reflect on and learn from:

  • Look In the Mirror: Acknowledge your own personal reality. All of us have natural tendencies that play into how we behave and what we gravitate toward, particularly when we are under stress. For some, this may be rolling up their sleeves to dive into the work. For others it may be stepping away from the details so that they emerge as a leader who can guide the process. Some leaders may be naturally bottom line oriented while others worry more about preserving relationships and culture. If you acknowledge what your natural inclinations are, you are in a more powerful position to consciously choose how to engage in order to make the difference that is needed.
  • Redefine Success: Part of your success in operating effectively across different circumstances depends on being able to broaden your personal definition of success. For some, losing that concrete sense of accomplishment that comes with producing tangible outcomes as an expert is difficult. When you lead others, success is defined by far more nuanced things like an engaged team or a satisfied client. It can take a while to reframe how you think about what it means to be successful, and to feel that similar sense of satisfaction.
  • Embrace The Inherent Conflict: The inherent conflicts are unavoidable, so just get on with embracing them. Maintain your focus at the highest level, which is ultimately to protect and advance the organization’s best interests. Think of it as your fiduciary responsibility to do so. With this mindset, it becomes a bit easier to navigate through tough decisions or to allocate your time and energy. Take the time to engage others where appropriate, and to communicate why certain decisions are being made. Doing so can help you garner respect and support from others.
  • Figure Out What Is Needed: As a leader who plays multiple roles and operates at multiple levels, you will need to stop and think before simply diving in. What does the situation need right now? How can you be most useful? What skills and capabilities do you have around you and how can you best complement them to make the greatest difference? What is at risk if you get overly involved in the details? Taking the time to think things through so you can be deliberate will go a long way.
  • Earn Your Way: Depending on your history with those around you, it may take time to move fluidly in and out of different roles. If others know you as a peer and/or expert and then you transition to a hybrid role that requires broader leadership (formal or informal), others may need time to adjust to seeing you operate in a different capacity. You may need to show them that you are still willing to roll up your sleeves and get involved side by side occasionally as a way of developing trust and garnering their support. Be patient with the process and know that your every move is noticed by those around you.
  • Leadership Is The Answer: When in doubt, choose leadership. Leadership is ultimately about putting all of the gears into action so that the entire system can work at full capacity. It is about compounding the output by being the one who can clarify direction and make sure everyone knows what part they need to play. In most situations, there is plenty of expertise to get the job done, and the leader needs to trust in others’ capabilities even if it comes with a degree of risk. If you want to be successful, you may need to sacrifice a level of perfection on the details in order to focus on the leadership aspects that will in the end make a much bigger difference.

The leader I am working with didn’t get it right at every turn, and neither have I for that matter. That is just a part of how it goes. Yet, in the process he learned a great deal about himself and how to manage across a wide range of contexts. He recognized that even with the inherent challenges came the opportunity for variety in his work experience and the chance to have a much greater impact. I look forward to continuing to work with him and to learn some things about myself along the way.

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