So if you caught any of my stuff last week (like this) then you know that I was traveling for work. I’ve been on the road plenty so far this year and expect to keep traveling throughout the rest of the year. Last week, I was in one of the larger organization’s field offices visiting a small team within my group. We have recently changed some of the reporting relationships in my group and so this team now reports in to me. I’ve been a part of this group for about a year and have not been to this office in this role so, based on the new reporting structure, it was the perfect time to visit them.
Out there for most of the week, I had a lot of time to think about a favorite topic of mine. As these thoughts have now been brewing for about a week, I’m ready to put them down on (virtual) paper. So our topic for this evening is- leadership!
I am a US Air Force veteran (remember this?) and the art of leadership has always been something important to me. My experiences with the team last week really illustrated some of my beliefs about the topic. I’m talking about leadership, not management. This is not a slight to the skill and profession of management. An organization of any significant size needs competent, capable managers. But, hopefully, those managers are also effective leaders. Management without leadership can result in a aimless, unfocused collection of people, maybe not very engaged in what they’re doing, that rarely achieves the group’s full potential. So it’s leadership that I’m interested in right now.
Let me define what it is I’m talking about. I see leadership as the function of setting direction, inspiring people, and getting a team moving in a single, coherent fashion. Again- this is not an either/or skill as compared to management. If you define management as the strategic allocation of resources to accomplish organizational objectives, I think you can see room for both of these functions to co-exist. Sometimes separately, but hopefully together.
Disclaimer- these words represent my personal opinions on the general topic of leadership. They are not necessarily the views of my coworkers or my company. I am writing in a personal capacity unaffiliated with my company and unrelated to any issues or situations occurring within my group or company. There are no trade secrets or proprietary information here- just my own observations based on my varied life experiences. There- legal stuff out of the way…
My group is somewhat uncommon in that we operate as a virtual organization- we have staff and we conduct our operations in a number of the broader organization’s field locations. Meaning, a member of my group has peers or may report to a team leader in another location. Unlike the other 80-90% of the field office they sit in, their leaders work with them via phone, email, instant messaging or virtual meeting. They may work as a team with a peer sitting 1000 miles away. Our group has a broad mission and, again, unlike most of the rest of the field offices they sit in may have peers performing vastly different functions. This can present a challenge from a leadership perspective- our folks are spread out over a number of physical locations, their leaders may not work in the same place that they do, and they may do vastly different work than a teammate- who may or may not be sitting next to them.
These defining characteristics of my group can make it challenging to build or sustain an organizational identity. Our staff and front line leaders may feel isolated- especially when other folks working in the same office, not in our group, have a discrete leadership hierarchy all in one place. It can be easy for folks in my group to feel disconnected or adrift. That’s where leadership becomes all the more important.
It was one particular aspect of leadership- and there are many, all important- that I was thinking about all week. That aspect is visibility. If we go back to that idea of leadership being about getting people moving in a direction then the need to be visible is apparent. The most important two words in a leader’s vocabulary? “Follow me.” How can a leader expect their team to follow when that leader can’t be seen by their team? It sounds obvious to say it out loud but in my life I’ve seen plenty of folks trying to lead without being visible to their teams.
The visit to my team last week was all about visibility. I’m in middle management now- I lead our group’s front line leaders. I’m not performing any of the functions that define the menu of services that my group provides to our customers. Me going to Minneapolis had nothing to do with me executing those tasks. BUT- I believe that by being visible in their office, I am reinforcing this organizational identity and fostering the engagement of our staff. By talking to them, sitting with them, listening to them, I am reinforcing the idea that they are a part of a larger group. It illustrates that their virtual organization has engaged, focused leaders. Visibility is all the more important because of the invisible lines that connect my group from one location to another.
I’m a fan of self-deprecating humor and I’ve jokingly called my travels this year my “Figurehead 2012” tour. Believe me- I’m not curing cancer and my visits to our groups in different offices have not produced any ticker tape parades (although the year is only halfway over). Me sitting in our Minneapolis office for a week doesn’t mean that there was an extra person there handling our primary functions in that site. I am proud of the morale and engagement that our staff have. I think traveling and being visible, as a leader of my group, help sustain that. And that makes the crazy airport schedules, bland chain restaurant food, and the lumpy hotel pillows worth it.
So if that’s you- a leader in some aspect of your life- are you visible? Do your folks see you? Do you interact with them, listen to them? If not, you may be missing out on the amazing privilege of being a leader. If your organization is counting on you for leadership, they may be disappointed. There is a solution, though. Immerse yourself in your team. Connect to them. Be of them, not apart from them. You may be astounded at the magic that can happen!