Regardless of whether you have two or twenty employees, leadership matters and for what it’s worth, there are few natural born leaders. That’s why leadership skills need to be learned and relearned all the time.
So here’s a question I bet most entrepreneurs don’t ever consider. Do you lead from the front or the back? Some entrepreneurs know instinctively when to lead from the front or to lead from the back. Others though need to consciously work at trying to balance between the two. But sadly too many haven’t got a clue and nor do they care.
To say that leadership is a large and fragmented topic, would be an understatement. A recent search of Google on the word “Leadership” returned an astronomical 4.7 billion results. That’s “B” as in billions. Therefore it’s safe to assume that there is lots of interest in the topic.
To be sure that with this many results there is bound be a fair amount of repetitiveness in the advice given. Fortunately, there are always those tried and true nuggets of wisdom that have stood the test of time.
One of those truths is that good leaders tend to be good leaders regardless of the environment. Having said that, one of the biggest challenge facing leaders today is that they may have to up their empathy quotient. This is so that they can accommodate the current crop of employees, as many appear to need more hand holding than previous generations.
Why step back?
Although every situation is different, the good leaders know when to assert themselves and take charge or when to back off and let someone else lead.
They’re confident enough to know they don’t always have to be out front. By relinquishing control, they give their staff the opportunity to grow their leadership skills.
Ultimately, the more you lead from the back, the more freedom you’ll have, allowing you to tackle more strategic issues, or to simply cut back on your workload.
The trick is to know when to take charge and when to let others do so. Finding the right balance is tough and should always be determined by the situation.
So when do you lead from the front?
So how often do you lead from the front? Unless you have a very green team, it’s a lot less often than you think.
There are a number of situations that require you, the owner, to step up and lead the charge. These tend to fall into two buckets, crisis or opportunity.
A crisis can best be defined as a showstopper. It’s any situation that can negatively affect the company’s reputation or performance and has a high degree of urgency.
Many times in crisis situations you don’t have the luxury of sitting back and letting things unfold in a natural way. It often requires immediacy of action.
This is where experience and knowledge comes into play, whereby the leader can react far more quickly to the situation.
Opportunities on the other hand may require someone to lead from the front for political or strategic reasons.
Here are some situations that may require you to be out in front and leading the charge:
Let’s first look at some crises situations:
- Having a large client threaten to stop dealing with you after all attempts by your team have failed, would rank high.
- Needing to defend the actions of your team with a client would be another situation. Many times the “customer isn’t always right!”
- A massive competitive threat that comes out of nowhere might also qualify.
- A product or service failure. You need to own it!
And now opportunity situations
- Depending on your industry, you may need to lead the charge on launching a new product. This gives you the chance to get direct feedback, good or bad directly from your customers. Equally as important, it can show your customers and team that it is important.
- Setting the vision or direction of the company requires you to lead from front. It’s not something you can delegate. Your actions speaks louder than words.
- Matching is another situation where it’s important to be visible. Matching means exactly that. It’s where you match client title with your own.
For example, a new clients wants a presentation on your services. In attendance from their side will be mid-level person along with their company president or vice-president. In those case you should be visible and lead the conversation. It also shows the client that they are important.
Regardless of whether it’s a crises or an opportunity, the goal here is to ultimately relinquish the relationship to a team member.
This is done by stating something to the effect “Going forward Mary will be your key contact”, or “John will follow up with next week to discuss next steps”. By making that statement, you go from leading from the front to leading from the back.
Additionally, whether you lead from the front or the back, these situations must be used as teaching moments.
These teaching moments include taking the time to explain to your team the rationale for the given course of action and will be open to input.
However, being open to input doesn’t mean that you are obliged to act on it. So to counter this, you must take the time to explain why it will or why it won’t be incorporated it into the plan.
Equally important is that, when leading from the back you must let the individual know that you have their back and are available for consultation if needed.
In conjunction with this support, your job is to run interference for their team. In other words, you need to make sure they don’t get distracted with other people’s priorities.
Don’t jump in
The hardest part for any leader when taking a back seat is to avoid jumping in and rescue an individual when it’s clear that their chosen course of action will not achieve the desired outcome.
This was a lesson I learned many years ago as a newly minted district manager at a major consumer goods company. A big part of my job was to monitor, motivate and train a dozen or so sales reps.
Fortunately or unfortunately, very little of this could be done remotely. For the most part this was a feet on the ground undertaking, riding shotgun for hours or days as we visited dozens of accounts.
One of the golden rules when leading from the back, was never to interrupt or critique the individual, while they were presenting to a buyer. Sometimes this was painful, when it was clear that things were going off the rails or there was a missed upsell opportunity.
Had I jumped in to save the day on any of these calls, we would have surely walked out with a bigger order, but at what cost?
Taking control in those moments risked destroying the individual’s self-confidence and undermine their authority with that buyer. Not a fair trade to my way of thinking.
Instead, the right approach was to wait until the call was completed and undertake a post-mortem. Unless the individual was brand new, these after call reviews only took a few minutes and happened in the car on the way to the next call. Simple teaching moments that paid immediate dividends throughout the rest of the day.
Time well spent.
In hindsight, working this closely and exclusively with any team member for a day or two pays huge dividends. Unfortunately, that’s a rarity today and that’s a shame.
Fortunately though, time spent working with your team to show them how to be more effective is always a good investment. It gives you a chance to share your knowledge and experience, usually in real life situations instead of in hypotheticals.
People go to work to be successful!
Developing your team’s leadership capabilities by knowing when to lead from the front or the back is critical if you want to grow your company.
By developing a more capable workforce, it frees you up to spend more time on strategic initiatives, such as goal setting or keeping the organization on point vis-à-vis your vision. And let’s not forget the freedom to seek out new opportunities.
Understanding that if employees are enjoying their work and feel appreciated, they’ll perform at a higher level. There’s nothing new or complicated in that statement, but it’s surprising how misunderstood this simple concept is.
As with any delegation initiatives, the goal here is to free up your time and increase employee’s satisfaction. Always keep in mind that people go to work to be successful. Being bored with their work is a sure fire way to increase turnover.
There’s a time and a place to be that hard charging entrepreneur and there’s a time to step back. Knowing the difference can really help you and your company grow.
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Get More LIFE Out of Your Business
You shouldn’t be the hardest working person in your company.
Many small business owners find that even after the struggling start-up years, they’re working too many hours and still managing every aspect of their businesses.
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