Leaders, get out of the middle

Leaders, get out of the middle

Are you focused and calm or have you got too many thingsgoing on and rushing around? Do you come away from meetings with your leadersclear on what's needed and focused - or confused and frustrated?

In the early 1990s I spent about two years in Atlanta ontransfer. During my time there I reported on projects to two different people.The first one I'll call Bob. Bob was a partner in Deloitte who specialised insystems implementations. Bob knew detail and was methodical.

When you were with Bob you had 100 percent of his attentionand it was laser like. For all that Bob knew detail, he didn't seem to want toknow everything. He knew what made projects succeed and fail and he was veryclear about what he wanted to know.

I was amazed at how he could zoom in on issues that werecritical and provide concise guidance to help move the project and I forward. Ilearned early on that I had to prepare for meetings with Bob or they were notpleasant, but if you were prepared you got a lot of value from these meetings.I learned a lot from Bob and I loved working with him.

The second I'll call John. John was a senior manager withDeloitte and was the client lead for my major client. John was very, very busyand always seemed to be juggling five or six things. John had an opinion oneverything. He was clear how he wanted a task done and expected you to do ithis way. He was a smart guy and so usually he had value to add and what hewanted made sense, but not always. On the occasions it didn't make senseusually it was a case of not knowing the detail and background and not beingprepared or able to get to know the detail. As a result, he made sweeping andoften wrong assumptions. Often his directions stalled progress as you had to goover old ground each and every time. From my perspective John was a meddler orperhaps more colourfully a seagull who would fly in and @#$% all over you andthen fly away.

I have come to realise that Bob and John are good examplesof two different ways to lead teams.

Bob leads and inspires through context. His focus is on howdo we deliver a successful project, and he uses detailed enquiry to help himunderstand if the project is on track. When he sees signs of things going wellhe would usually give some form of softly spoken praise or recognition. When hesaw the signs of issues he would provide guidance and coaching. He was veryclear what he wanted/ needed you to do but he seldom if ever directed. Bobswitched focus often from big picture context to confirming detail.

John, on the other hand, manages and controls content. Hisfocus is predominantly on, is this report or deliverable right and heessentially QAs the content and provides directions on changes he requires.

Never was there a time where the document was "perfect" sonever was there room for recognition and or a sense of a job well done andoften there were large lurches in what needed to be done depending on his focusat the time. John's focus was never switched it was always on the content.

He seldom communicated the big picture and never gotdetailed as he didn't have the time. He lived in the grey middle area of themeddler and seagull.

Nowadays I get to observe a number of different leaders andleadership teams in action and as I do this I look to see if they are Bobs orJohns. I listen to their conversation. Are they leading to a context of what'sneeded for success and asking confirming questions or are they managing contentto ensure the words, templates and method are perfect. I observe them inaction. Are they focused and calm or have they got too many things going on andrushing around? I watch the impact on their team. Do they come away frommeetings with their leaders clear on what's needed and focused -- or confusedand frustrated?

Unfortunately what I find is that in our industry we have alot of Johns, who manage content and "get in the way" of their teams and notenough Bobs who lead through context, confirm with detail and guide their teamto success.

Interestingly Bob was seen as one of the most effectivepartners in the business. John on the other hand never did make partner.

Owen McCall is director of Viewfield Consulting and a memberof CIO New Zealand's editorial advisory board. He can be reached and through his blog at

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