Thesis: The team member’s view
Over the past few years, I’ve done over hundreds of development plans for senior leaders – individuals who manage strategic businesss units, business functions, and divisions. And in about 40%, I’ve been told by their peers and subordinates that they are very good at understanding the broad strategic issues, but would benefit from a better understanding of the details of the business. In another 40% of the people, they are described as having a great understanding of the details, and really know their business, but don’t seem to have a broader strategic perspective of the industry or the larger business. About 5% don’t seem to have either, and only about 15% seem to be able to move between the broad strategic view and the operational details of the business.
Antithesis: The manager’s view
What makes that really interesting is that the executive managers of these business leaders rarely describe the person as “too far into the weeds.” In the vast majority of cases, the manager is much less concerned with whether the person really gets the broad strategy, unless they’ve totally nailed the business results and are being considered for promotion. For the vast majority, the executive manager wants to know that their business managers have a deep, thorough and detailed understanding of the business.
In one particular case, the general manager of a $250 million business unit was described by peers and subordinates alike as being a great manager, but too caught up in the details, becoming involved in tactical issues that they wanted accountability for. When I presented this to the GM and her executive manager, he interrupted and declared, “Not a chance! This is my most profitable business. I don’t want her taking her eye off the ball for one minute!”
Synthesis: What is really needed
A manager has to balance the strategy and the tactical involvement, and be able to move seamlessly between the two. He may need to know the details of a particular project, depending on how critical it is to the business, and certainly must be able to understand it, see the consequences, and consider the alternatives. She is too far into the weeds if she is telling her team how to do their jobs, or allows no decision-making authority other than her own. Managers like this are not able to move from the tactical to the strategic and back again, because they either do not have the capability or the bandwidth to do both. As a result, they dictate actions, choices and details that enact the mission rather than articulating the mission and the objective, and allowing the team to execute.
The opposite can be found as well. Managers who don’t know the details are not able to differentiate good from poor execution, and are unable to evaluate and develop people, or achieve real business results. These are the managers who don’t know what they don’t know. One manager I worked with supported his with confidence, but wasn’t aware when there were problems or issues that required his attention.
Truly effective managers need a deep understanding of how a problem is solved and what the result is, and should be free to ask as many questions as they need to achieve this. They should also be ready to drill far into the details if the person is unable to meet expectations. They also need to view the clear mission and broad strategic viewpoint, and communicate that clearly and persuasively to their team at a level of understanding that allows the team to execute with confidence that they are acting within the framework of the strategy. This approach is called Auftragstaktik, or Mission Tactics.
How does an effective leader drill into the details, and maintain a strategic view at the same time?
- Make sure you communicate your mission and strategy clearly, directly, and simply.
- Ensure your questioning about tactics and details focuses on the what, not the how (unless the person doesn’t know how)
- Tailor your level of detail focus to the importance of the project, and the capability of the team member
- If you are pressure testing an idea, tell your team that – without context, they are much likely to see it as critical and intrusive.
Bill Berman, Ph.D.
Principal, Berman & Associates
Partner, PrimeGenesis, LLC
Director, APT, Inc.