What’s your leadership style?

Do you go out in the field or stay in an ivory tower?

Many of America’s well-known brands, like McDonald’s, have executives who worked their way up the food chain (no pun intended). The corporate philosophy is, “You can’t make decisions for the company until you’ve experienced all the layers of the company.”

As a former business owner, I have always encouraged this mindset, to the extreme of advising budding entrepreneurs to factor in a minimum of one year as the proverbial captain, cook and bottle washer before hiring staff to share the load. Why? You can’t fix what you don’t know. 

Today, as a consultant, I’m often working inside organizations where leadership hasn’t been in the field, and it’s very interesting to see how that impacts their reputation and credibility both internally as well as externally. On the other hand, it’s equally as interesting to study the impacts of business owners who continue to work in the field despite being in leadership positions. 

The challenge, I find, is balance. Balance between being in the field and being in an ivory tower. 

In the early days of my own business, I was an organization of one. As the proud owner/director of a fitness facility, my average day would include everything from cleaning toilets to negotiating contracts. In-between, I’d manage the care and feeding of my clients via class instruction or client services. Was that the best approach? I’m not entirely confident that it was. 

On the other hand, I had peers who had staff to manage all aspects of business operations from day one. These business owners rarely, if ever, did direct work with clients or employees and delegated most personnel or client management to others. They elected to be a “ghost.” Was that the best approach? I’m not entirely confident that it was. 

Today, when I come across these two extremes I often solicit the leadership — or their employees — to share how their approach comes across. The in-the-field approach is lauded by many as a style which fosters deep and meaningful connections with the company, its clients, and its staff. On the other hand, the style is also synonymous with: 

 • Micromanagement

 • Controlling

 • No work-life balance

 • Not sustainable or scalable

What about the opposite approach to business operations? I had an employee once describe the company owner as “he sits in his ivory tower all day, crunching numbers, and has no idea what it’s like for us in the field.” Was that an accurate description of the person? Not really, but that doesn’t matter, because he was being perceived as such:

 • Disconnected 

 • Superior

 • Aloof

 • Unaware 

Yet, staying high-level affords others to develop career paths, more structure and organization, and even smoother operations because there is dedication to that aspect of the day-to-day. 

How does someone struggling to find balance secure it? Is there a magic formula to finding the right balance between being in the field and in an ivory tower away? Yes, I think there is: communication + transparency + stretching + core competencies.

Communication is everything. Communicating why you’re taking your approach helps to assuage and mitigate negative feelings and fosters trust. For example, a person who explains checking and rechecking work products as an exercise in risk mitigation is less likely to be perceived as a micromanager.

Transparency makes a difference because nobody likes secrets. Granted, there are levels of appropriateness around transparency. Still, keeping employees and clients in the loop on goings-on can alleviate curiosity, judgment, or assumptions. Another benefit of transparency is demonstrating the value of being vulnerable. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and being vocal about it makes us human. 

Remember the story about the CEO in the ivory tower? He was uncomfortable around people, so, he avoided talking to them at all costs. Ultimately, he had to stretch and get out of his comfort zone for the betterment of his business. You may need to do the same. 

Finally, honor your core competencies. If your strongest competencies involve clients and their care, then that’s where you should spend your time. Delegate or outsource as much of the other stuff as you can. Influence the aspects of operations which honor your competencies and your values, and try to leave the rest. Doing anything else can mean spreading yourself too thin and hurting the bottom line. 

Ask yourself: what will change if I start to find balance? If you’re already balanced, ask yourself: What do I have to do to maintain this? Answering these questions will touch a lot more than you think, and I want to hear about it. Send me an email at pubali@h-rpartners.com to share your stories. 

Pubali Chakravorty-Campbell, a business operations consultant for Human Resource Partners LLC, can be reached at 603-749-8989 or pubali@h-rpartners.com.

Categories: Business Advice