Navigating by design: Leadership not management

In this exclusive extract from Kevin Uphill's book Navigating the Rivers of Cash, the author looks at the ways leaders can be more effective by taking focus away from levels of management.

In the By Design concept, I have contended that leaders are often over-focused on management, stifling intelligent design and creativity, but why does this happen?

Typically this is due to a mixed recipe – the ingredients being poor delegation, lack of clarity in job roles, ineffective second-tier talent and the leadership not giving themselves permission to take creative time out.

An amusing metaphor with a moral is the one where a group of people are standing by a river. They hear a baby crying and rush to the riverbank to see a baby floating past, half drowned. One of the group immediately dives in to rescue the child. However, yet another baby comes floating down the river, and then another!

Yet again, one of the group jumps in to save each baby. The group then see that the one person still on shore has started to walk away. Shocked, the group cry: “Where are you going?” The response? “I am going upstream to stop whoever is throwing these babies into the river.”

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Being a leader requires you to step back, look at things differently, and not be afraid to stand out and to tackle problems at their cause or source. Management will always steal time for leadership as it has a louder voice and is more obvious, and therefore on the surface more comfortable, but it rarely grows exceptional companies.

In respect of delegation and second-tier talent, this takes careful investment in recruitment, training resource and the right remuneration combined with clarity and accountability. Do your team ask you questions and bring problems that are actually within their remit? Are you answering questions they should or do know the answer to?

Rather than telling people the answer, developing a quality second tier requires the leadership to shift to a coaching mindset as opposed to consulting. That is, instead of giving the answer, asking more often for the team to examine the question and generate the solution. This might be slower initially but ultimately increases second-tier initiative and quality dramatically.

Many businesses have been designed but more often, particularly in the small and mid-tier (less than 100 staff), they were started by someone good at a job with the ambition to make a lot of money. Because they were good at that job and still are good at that job, the business has grown and become quite successful, but at some point in my experience many of those businesses plateau, or hit void.

That is they stop growing at the pace they were and occasionally even decline or fail. This is often because the entrepreneur who is good at innovation and deal making or the job/profession is rarely also good at processes and management.

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However, once a business gets to a certain size, management becomes more important. By their very nature, entrepreneurs are usually mavericks so all these words fill them with dread and instead they rant, “Why can’t my team be more like me? Why are they not as motivated?” The simple answer for these entrepreneurs is that most people do not have the right skills or motivations.

Many people do not have the risk appetite (even more so in Britain than say the US or China) or the ambition to drive business growth. Their ambition is family time, and metaphorically coaching the Sunday football team; they just are not that capitalistic or enterprising. That means a business can never wholly rely on employee self motivation and instead needs to rely on tracking, clarity and responsibility.

As with species evolution (Darwin), it is not the strongest or most intelligent companies that survive, it is the ones that are the most adaptable to change. Too often, business owners focus on strength, maintaining market position incrementally rather than ‘change’, adapting fast to survive.

An adaptive and flexible culture in fast-moving markets actually needs to be designed into the business. The core team need to have the free rein to ’give it a go’, try and fail, not just to manage the status quo. There is always a much better way for you and your team, you just have to find it.

Further reading on leadership: How to influence without authority

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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