The promotion from managing one particular function of a business to overseeing multiple functions requires a shift from left-brain analytical thinking to a right-brain, more conceptual mindset.
In practice, this means spending less time on tactics and how things are done, and far more time looking at the relationships between contexts, solutions, needs, changes and stakeholders. In short, it’s knowing and understanding the why of decision making as part of the wider business strategy, while you hold the vision for your organisation and steer it in the right direction.
This evolution from left to right brain is the foundation of a leadership framework known as the ‘Seven Seismic Shifts’. Developed by career transition expert Michael Watkins, it defines a series of related skillsets that executives need to develop as they move into higher-level positions within their organisation.
In part one of this series, we explored the first shift: Specialist to Generalist. In this instalment, we’re focusing on the second: Analyst to Integrator.
Your role as a business leader
As the leader of a single business function, your role includes recruiting, developing and managing people who focus, in analytical depth, on one specific area. It requires you to have detailed subject knowledge of the function in question too.
However, as you move upwards, you’re required to manage and integrate the collective knowledge of different functional teams in order to solve important organisational problems. This involves holding the company vision for your reports and continually reviewing and potentially evolving the strategy to meet it.
Replacing detail with the bigger picture
A whole generation of women are now entering the C-suite, observes the Harvard Business Review, and they ‘owe their success to a strong command of the technical elements of their jobs and a nose-to-the-grindstone focus on accomplishing quantifiable objectives. But as they step into bigger leadership roles — or are assessed on their potential to do so — the rules of the game change, and a different set of skills comes to the fore.’
This ability to envision is key.
Rise to the challenge…
Your previous role was transactional — organising the people doing the doing. Now it’s transformational. You’re asking the questions Are we doing it in the right way? Where do we need to be? and most importantly: What’s best for the business as a whole?
Svetlana Stavreva, an IBM Communications Manager, echoes one of Stephen Covey’s enduring 7 Habits with the suggestion that you begin with the end in mind — which she believes can combine detail with a bigger picture perspective.
‘The better you “see” the end result in terms of quantitative and qualitative features, the clearer and shorter will be the path to make it happen,’ she says.
According to Covey, beginning with the end in mind also means beginning each day, task or project with a clear vision of your desired direction.
And then, for matters that require input from your teams, the next step is following it up with effective communication, the invaluable link between vision and execution, according to Holly Tate, growth strategist and member of the Forbes Communication Council.
She suggests developing a simple, one-page ‘North Star Document’ for projects outlining the vision, desired outcome, team responsibilities and timeline.
‘This way,’ she says, ‘throughout the project, everyone on the team has a central place to reference for clear expectations. This helps you know who is doing what by when.’
Becoming a master of trade-offs
Managing multiple functions within the business inevitability requires you to be the arbiter in decision making when two or more teams may have their own agendas. This involves understanding and managing the core trade-offs that must be made.
Typical trade-offs include long-term versus short-term goals, innovation versus execution, sales versus operations, supply versus demand, current financial targets versus investments for the future.
Rise to the challenge…
Data is your friend in these situations. You may not have an in-depth understanding of the different functions at play, but you can let the facts and figures do the talking. As Watkins says, ‘You should always be asking the questions “What does the data show?” and “Can we get better information to help us make a good decision here?”’
However, sometimes the numbers won’t be enough. At the new level you’re operating at, there’s a large degree of complexity and ambiguity. Data may not give you the one right answer. Or you may find there are multiple right answers.
Equally, not all data is useful, says organisational performance specialist Neil Poynter. For example, looking at results over the five years prior to the Covid pandemic wouldn’t have been very useful in decision making during the crisis. At times like this, he says, you need to talk to your people, find out what’s going on for them and draw on their expertise. They have a different kind of data to offer — invaluable intel that can be just as effective in guiding your decision making.
Having gained your promotion through your work within one particular function of the business, you have a natural bias towards it. It’s what Watkins calls your ‘function of origin’. This means that when it comes to trade-offs, you are more likely to favour what you know and what you understand best — and the arguments of the person leading that function.
You may also end up approaching an issue in a way that feels more comfortable or acceptable to you rather than opting for the best solution.
Rise to the challenge…
Being aware of this bias is the first step and then repeating that guiding light of a question: Is this what’s best for the business?
Of course, subjectivity can’t be eliminated and is frequently necessary — after all your knowledge of the company and any experience you’ve gained on the way up through cross-functional project work have value. But self-awareness is critical. Note when subjectivity is in play and then, as Poynter suggests, engage consciously with your decision-making process, the clarity of your goal and what you are trying to achieve right now.
‘Failure to do this means you’re working from instinct, preference and bias rather than consciously addressing what is important and where your focus should be,’ he explains.
‘For example, although the most pressing matter may be operational, you might need to be looking at a separate issue that is a month or even a year away, based on where your level of focus and attention should be. Delegation is key.’
Being risk averse
As a new leader, you’re trying to learn about complex domains and making decisions that have significant consequences for the business. You don’t want to make a mistake, or as Watkins puts it, ‘break things right away’ — but the result is that you may be excessively risk averse when strategic risks are what’s needed to move forwards.
Rise to the challenge…
Companies never develop new products or services if they don’t take calculated risk and innovation is the lifeblood of competitive business practice. Equally making decisions and learning from the outcomes can be one of the most powerful ways to develop your skills as a leader.
However, it’s wise to avoid learning from too many mistakes while you’re finding your feet. As you develop to fill the role, drawing on the support of your team and the advice of a mentor will stand you in good stead. In fact, research has shown that those with mentors are happier in their role than those without.
However, according to recent studies, 63% of women have never had a formal mentor — and it’s putting them at a disadvantage. ‘Mentors provide a wealth of knowledge and experience to us, they guide us through challenges and increase our likelihood of success, they lift us up and take our success personally. They are invaluable,’ says Christine Comaford, a leadership and culture coach.
Talking fondly of her mentor and British perfumer Jo Malone CBE, Alice Ashby, founder of Blake LDN, said: ‘To have the support and advice of such an inspiring woman in business has been invaluable to me. Hearing about the struggles and setbacks she has faced keeps me going when things are tough. With every challenge there is an opportunity.’
Mentors can help us find the opportunities.