The ties that bind

In every career there are both milestones and plateaus, which are alike in that they take effort and new skills to hurdle. The single biggest challenge, however, is letting go of what I call the transactional level of leadership.

Remember how hard it was to learn to delegate in your first management job? You were in charge of a unit; suddenly you found yourself leading the organization. You stayed actively involved in the day-to-day transactions. After all, you had been the best salesperson, technologist or whatever in your particular field. You had made it this far on those skills. Therein lay the next challenge — and the key to advancing your career up the proverbial ladder. The things that made you successful in the past could be the very things that retard your growth to the next level.

I once worked with the president of a large company who had earned his stripes as a marketing executive before taking the top spot. Chaos reigned almost immediately. He did not fill the marketing position; he drove his staff through multihour meetings late into the night. He was literally working around the clock. He could not let go of the tasks that had made him successful. During one midnight conversation, I cautioned him, “You cannot do 37,000 jobs, but you can fail by trying.” He gradually grew into the job but not before imposing a lot of pain on his organization and himself.

The challenge of letting go of transactional leadership exists at every level in organizations: when moving from a team member to head of the team, from manager to executive, from departmental executive to CEO. To be successful in these moves, you must move yourself from a transactional style.

There are several challenges that one must overcome in order to move through that transactional level of management to a big-picture leadership style. The term “transactional” as used here may differ from the academic definition, but it suffices to describe the conditions I have observed in real companies.

Letting go of the tasks that you have enjoyed doing and that led to your success may be difficult, but if you don’t, you will remain mired in your experience rather than benefiting from what you have learned. Consider the question: “Do you have 10 years of experience or one year of experience 10 times over?”

A former colleague depicts a leader as a juggler, with more and heavier balls being added as you move up the ladder. Even the best jugglers will eventually drop a ball. Reaching for the lost ball, the juggler drops more balls and thus begins a cascade.

To succeed, the juggler has to learn that he can’t keep an increasing number of balls in the air; he has to let some go. I believe the challenge is to be aware of your changing situation as you progress. In transactional mode, you are initially juggling the transactions of one organization. When you excel at juggling 20 simultaneous transactions in that organization, your reward is to add a second organization. As in the aforementioned case of the president, you cannot manage 40 simultaneous transactions. You must now become adept at juggling the people who manage those transactions while you concentrate on the bigger picture. And so on up the ladder. The next level is to learn to juggle organizations. To avoid failure, voluntarily toss a ball aside before it drops.

Here are some strategies you can consider to help move you beyond transactional leadership.

Get the big picture. Entangled in transactions and day-to-day crises, you cannot see the forest for the trees. But you need to understand the big picture. View your company from the outside without the distraction of politics.

Be cautious of extrapolating from today’s situation. Aiming for progressively higher levels of your current goal may work for a while, but today everyone must consider the potential annihilation of the existing business by some external force.

Keep your finger on the pulse. New leaders often question how they can gauge whether things are moving in the right direction in their organization if they are not personally involved at the transaction level. There are lots of ways to keep one’s finger on the pulse of the organization.

One of my clients has a “Top Two” meeting every Monday morning by phone. Each staff member briefly describes his or her top two priorities. This promotes shared communication and crisp identification of the hot items. Extended stays in the top two may indicate where there are problems that need high-level intervention. Develop critical indexes, such as customer satisfaction measures, ROA or productivity, that will allow you to manage in the aggregate.

Focus on what’s important. Make sure the organization also has an effective process for setting priorities. Boiling things down to the vital few initiatives enables you to avoid the overreaching that is so common in resource-strapped companies. Rigorous priority-setting is always difficult, particularly when you have to say “no” to a business unit or customer. But with the appropriate rationale, the rigor at the front end is less painful than the multiple failures at the back end.

Treat time as the enemy. Does your day drive you or do you drive your day? It is possible to contain the hours but you must take control of your time. Set limits and stick to them. Be sure your assistant knows the boundaries for putting something on your calendar, so that your day is not eaten up with transactional decisions. Be sure to allot an appropriate amount of time to big-picture leadership. Don’t allow yourself to drop back into the old mode.

Look to the future. Initial discomfort with the struggle to break through the transactional level can lead to regressing. I loved the excitement of working with the field organizations. When I was promoted to a corporate position, it seemed more stilted. I felt as though every one whispered in the halls. I missed the shouts of joy from the field.

It took some time and some persistence, along with the support of my mentors, to find the fun that lies in setting the direction for others to follow. I disciplined myself to move forward and not let the memories of the past pull me back. Now the strategy role is my favorite part of work.

Once you’ve moved past the transactional level you can reap the very real rewards. You will see the benefit of being able to leverage more than just your personal skill set.

– You will become a role model for your people, helping them to learn how to make a similar transition.

– Your contribution to the business will be enhanced.

– You will demonstrate your readiness for the next level.

– You will leave a sustainable organization — one that will be able to pursue its mission and goals long after you have moved on to your next opportunity.

The old saying goes, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” To succeed at a higher level, let go of your old job.

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