I just returned from a week long backpacking trip and I learned many things. First, I truly appreciate humans domesticating burros and horses! Second, this is probably a sport best begun in your teens or twenties, instead of my age. But it gave me a lot of time to think and realize how much backpacking is like managing business team leaders.
You see, while you are trekking, you tend to look down at the path in front of you a lot. Especially if there are roots and rocks and sudden changes in elevation along the trail. What that means is you are so concerned with the obstacles that you rarely pick your head up to take in the views, look ahead to what vistas are coming or look back to see how far you’ve come. By concentrating on each step, you tend to miss the journey.
Conversely, there are those trekkers who are so caught up in the views and the surroundings that they don’t watch their own feet and fall or twist their ankles nearly every day.
And I realized how many times I have worked with managers who are the same: Some folks are so enamored with the strategy and the long-term outcome that they don’t even realize their teams are struggling with maternity leaves, vacations and off-site training that have them straining to meet deadlines. Under those conditions, the oblivious manager over-commits the team to more work and is usually surprised to find defectors leaving the team or the company. These are usually the people who do such a great job of “managing up” that leaders may not realize how poorly they “manage down” until it is too late. Frequently, they were hired from outside the company into positions of leadership.
Internal managers tend to focus on the here and now, always ready with reasons why each week is a harrowing journey and prevents them from tackling important strategic work.
As a seasoned leader, I appreciate having both types in my management team. But I manage and listen to them differently. I challenge the strategists with “run the business” questions and make sure I have regular opportunities to interface with their teams directly to assess their capacity. And I regularly challenge the “eyes on the trail folks” to see the bigger picture. They are a tough bunch and need to be reminded of how far they have come and be validated that they have the capability to change and be change agents repeatedly. Again, I try to have regular contact with key players within their teams to make sure that they hear key strategic messaging and understand how their day to day efforts fit into a broader picture that their direct managers may forget to reinforce.
On the trail, I was happy to have folks who pointed out the fox and moose I may have otherwise missed as much as the person who took time to point out a loose rock or overhanging branch. I needed them both on the trail to have a successful trek. I need them both on my business team to succeed at work as well.