In one of the most famous episodes of I Love Lucy (for the youngsters: a groundbreaking early TV sitcom), Lucy and Ethel get jobs in a candy factory. After failing in several departments, they are given one final chance: to wrap the chocolates lined atop a conveyor belt. As the belt speeds up, they fall behind and frantically try to catch up. When they hear their boss coming, panic sets in, and they hide the candy anywhere they can—in their hats, shirts, and mouths.
Learn a lesson from Lucy: You have to keep an eye on both your candy and the conveyor belt. You have to do your own work and, simultaneously, see it within the larger process of everything headed your way.
A balanced leader thinks both functionally and corporately. We all have to fulfill our function in the process. You’ve heard the saying, “Too many cooks spoil the soup.” That’s because everyone wants to be a cook, but someone needs to be a waiter, and someone else has to be a supplier, and someone else needs to clean up, and someone else needs to organize all the ingredients, and someone else… You get the idea.
It’s pretty simple: Find the roles that are yours—the ones that will slip through the cracks if you don’t do them—and then do them. Do them well. Do them on time. Do them the way they are supposed to be done.
I’ve written about the essential tasks for senior leaders, but the principle applies to every level of leadership. Find your role and own it.
Are you an owner of your role? That is what it means to work functionally. It means that you need and appreciate others’ help, but you feel the utmost responsibility for your tasks. It means you’re not a bottleneck; people are not waiting on you to make decisions. You stay on top of email and phone correspondence.
Every seat of leadership has functional assignments to be done, from the board chair to the CEO to the hourly worker just starting. A high-performing team is only achieved when everyone gets their stuff done as it’s assigned to them. By the way, you can’t do all your work and someone else’s work simultaneously. Slippage is going to happen somewhere. The classic workaround is not sustainable for a high-performance enterprise. How are you doing with carrying the water of your specific role? Can you stay in your swim lane? Is your team lucky to have you because of your functional excellence?
The danger, though, is working with your head constantly down, never looking up to see what’s going on around you. Taking in the larger view means thinking corporately. Business is an interconnected organism, and we have to stay connected to its bigger picture to be effective at our small part of it.
This is one of the biggest challenges I see for modern leaders because it’s so hard for them to shake free from the nose-to-the-grindstone approach that was part of their initial training. Most mid- and upper-level managers are extremely competent within their vertical function. They had to become experts within their department, whether it’s sales, marketing, accounting, production, technology, or another aspect of the business.
However, when they’re promoted to oversee multiple departments, they have to learn to think corporately—that is, to understand the business of your business. As Laurence Peter said, “Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”
In a small business, it’s often “all hands on deck” all the time. Small businesses aren’t big enough to allow for silos, and they are small enough that everyone can see into multiple aspects of the organization.
The same principle, however, also holds true in larger organizations. A client in a large public company called me once and said he needed to learn how to work “on the business, not just in the business.” He needed to develop his ability to collect and process the broader range of information he now needed for effective decision-making.
What about you? Do you understand how your department’s performance and decisions affect others? Are you able to navigate the tension between functions and departments? Is your culture dominated by collaboration or competition? Can you stay high and strategic, or are you pulled down into all the silos?
Baseball manager Casey Stengel said, “It’s easy to get good players. Getting them to play together, that’s the hard part.” The VP of sales has to understand the key challenges facing the VP of creative services. The accounting department needs to relate to the demands of customer interfaces, and the local marketing team needs to be fully aware of the numbers and the accounting. Sure, some of this is achieved through cross-training. But it all starts with the premise that employees need an organizational eye, not just functional hands.
Many businesses have been sunk by someone “just doing their job,” head down and focused only on one piece of the puzzle without regard for the bigger picture. The captain of the RMS Titanic, to use one example, became obsessed with one goal. He felt vertical pressure from White Star Line for the new ship to break the transatlantic crossing record on its maiden voyage.
On the other hand, countless businesses have also been sunk because of a visionary leader who sees it all and recruits a bunch of people just like them. Everyone wants to do everything and be involved in every decision, and so nothing ends up getting accomplished.
What’s needed is the power of and.
In conclusion, realize that the best leaders chase both ideas in parallel. You have to have your eyes trained down into your work vertically while scoping the bigger picture. It is the beauty and genius of the both/and, instead of the either/or. As theologian Tyron Edwards said, “Between two evils, choose neither; between two goods, choose both.”
Over the decades, I have compiled a list of complementing capabilities required to lead in the modern world. Remember, you need a bit of both to be effective in leadership over the long term.
- Being results-driven AND people-focused
- Doing Friday’s payroll AND inventing the future
- Having heart AND using your head
- Thinking corporately AND working functionally
- Leading others AND managing yourself
- Feeling confident AND being humble
- Embracing team AND performing alone
I will be releasing short articles on a few of these over the next few months. Keep an eye out for them.