Weekly Reid - How to Develop Leadership that Scales

For the past 10 years, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to manage teams of all sizes. From very few to many. I’ve experienced firsthand, the unique challenges that arise at specific inflection points along the way. I’ve shared many of my mistakes and learnings with you. In my journey, the only constant I’ve discovered with certainty, is the need to be humble. Just when you think you’ve mastered the art of management, something changes and you realize how little you really know. There are levels to this thing and those levels are rarely apparent until the next one is staring you in the face.

For all the debates about management styles – collaborative, autocratic, coercive, facilitative, situational – there are not nearly enough about management scale. All styles optimized for managing a team of 2, fail on a team of 20. What works brilliantly managing a team of individual contributors, fails when managing a team of senior leaders with their own teams to manage. Today I’m going to share some of the lessons I’ve learned for building scale into my own leadership style. I hope it will be helpful to you.

1.   Deleverage from You

The most important starting point for leading at scale is to embrace the goal of deleveraging from yourself. Failure to do so will inevitably transform you into a bottleneck to the success of your team. This is a hard one for new leaders. Especially those who have found success up until this point as individual stars. A mindset shift is required.

At a certain point, to be an effective leader on a large scale, you must evolve from being a star in your own right to being an agent for a team of stars. That transformation is harder than it sounds and takes real commitment to execute. There is always a temptation for a manager to dive in and solve problems. To fix things. To save things. To make sure things get done the way you know how. Don’t fall into this trap.

It takes discipline to embrace work from your team that you think is only 90 percent of what you could do yourself. But that is a profitable tradeoff in exchange for scalability. It should go without saying, though it often doesn’t, that a team of 10 people executing at even 70 or 80 percent of what you believe you could do, is more productive than 100% of your personal quality at a scale of one. Yet, so many leaders struggle with this.

If you never give your team the opportunity to operate unburdened by you, you’ll never get the chance to see the truly creative and innovative work that is possible. You will miss out on the opportunity to surpass your own potential. Don’t make this mistake.

My advice to leaders is to deleverage from yourself as early as possible. Your goal, from the outset of management, should be to architect your own irrelevance. If often talk about the best manager I ever knew and how he seemed to do almost nothing. That is the dream. You’ll know you’ve built a scalable team when you no long have anything to do. The good news is, for the career minded managers out there, this is when bigger opportunities and new challenges will be presented to you.

2.   Start by building values and operating principles

Architecting a team to scale means you need to empower people to make good decisions without you. Most teams I observe are not well set up for that. They depend too heavily on one or two leaders to be the source of all judgement and decision making. If you’re not careful, you can inadvertently build a team with no capacity of making well-reasoned decisions without you. I’ve seen entire companies that operate in a leadership vacuum because a controlling leader failed to build the necessary infrastructure for decision making at scale.

As a leader, it can be hard to let go. We all want to empower people to make decisions but we also worry about the consequences of bad ones. When the pressure gets high, we revert to controlling everything. I do this all the time. Like all managers, I am a work in progress. What I have found to be effective is to invest time in building and evangelizing core values and operating principles. Developing a set of principles your team can point to when making key execution decisions. Even though you may not be able to weigh in on each individual decision itself, your values and principles, if developed effectively, can be everything the team needs to make well-reasoned decisions and give you peace of mind in the process.

My advice to leaders is to invest more time building and communicating values and operating principles for your teams. Invest less time making decisions for them. Values can be cultural, but they can also be operational. You should be quite broad in your interpretation of this. For example, I run a marketing team, and we are constantly building campaigns and content that require many decisions and approvals. Rather than make all the decisions about what kind of language and tone our marketing campaigns are written with, I invest upfront to communicate a set of core values and principles for our brand. For example, our language is always smart and fun. We use human imagery whenever we can, and we never use a long fancy word when we could use a short simple one. A very simple set of principles like this can build scale into your model for leadership. Fewer people need to come to me to make decisions now. they have a set of values and principles to point them in the right direction.

3.  Teach models and frameworks

In a similar vein, I try to build scale onto my team my investing more time in teaching the core models and frameworks for the functions I manage. This way I can spend less time investing in day to day approvals and reviews. There are many benefits to leaders and teams in taking this approach. Teaching models is akin to the “teach a man to fish” proverb. Rather than have my team come to me to brainstorm and review messaging every time they are working on a program; I invest time upfront in developing and teaching a model for building messaging that can be applied to most scenarios.

You might be surprised at how few managers invest the time to understand their functions at a deep enough level to be able to build models to support it. If you can do it successfully, you will save yourself countless hours in reviews, you will build confidence in your team members, and the quality and consistency of the work will go up. Moreover, you won’t have to worry so much about key team members potentially leaving. The power will be in the models your team operates on – not in any one person.

The model for messaging I mentioned is just one type of example where investing in frameworks is effective. I do it for everything. As you probably know from my blog, I love building templates. I have templates for annual plans, quarterly updates, strategic plans … everything. By investing time in building templates, I free my team up to be more creative on the substantive things and expend less energy worrying about planning and operational frameworks.  

My advice to leaders is to invest time in building out the models and templates and frameworks for the most important things your team does all the time. Processes, plans, presentations … all of it. These models become a key ingredient in the scalability of your team. They deleverage you or any one individual or group on your team.

Leadership is journey that never ends. The moment you think you’ve got it figured you, you will be shown something that reminds you have far you still must go. In this latest phase of my personal leadership journey, I have been focused on building scale into the teams I lead. I hope this was helpful to you and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.