Leaders Look Up!

One common challenge we see among new leaders is their ability to set clear, long term direction for their teams and help their team members understand how their day-to-day work connects to these overall goals.   When coaching new leaders, I frequently hear them tell me how overwhelmed they are with work and how difficult it is to get it all done.  We sometimes talk about managing time, and delegating effectively as a means to “free up” time. At some point in the conversation, I usually ask where they want to be or what their team will be focused on in 2 or 3 years.  Common responses include blank stares, or fumbling around to answer, or even admission that they just don’t know.  The challenge here is that if the leader of a team or organization doesn’t have clear direction for where it needs to go, it’s pretty much impossible to tell if you’re on the right track.

Clarifying goals for your team and making sense of how the day-to-day responsibilities fit into those longer term goals is a crucial skill for new leaders to develop.  Rather than just always looking down at the work that has to be done, leaders must look up (or forward) at what lies ahead and determine the best overall direction for their team.  Like most skills, this is one that usually requires years of work to develop.  At the level of front line leaders, it takes the shape of proactively defining what you’re trying to create, setting goals for your team, and articulating them clearly to help your team members understand how their work connects to this broader objective.

This sense of direction is critical for establishing priorities on your team and helping team members make good decisions.  Think about the number of decisions that get made on your team every day and the amount of work your team members have to manage.  A clearly articulated set of long-term goals provides context for these decisions, gives team members an important screen for prioritizing work, and empowers your team to proactively help move toward your vision. This sense of purpose can help you as a leader and your team members feel a little less overwhelmed by the work:  Rather than just running as hard as you can without clear direction, your vision for your team provides a sense of purpose.

There’s a famous anecdote about a time when President Kennedy went to Houston to check-in on the space program at NASA and came across a custodian in the hallway.  The president walked over to him and asked what he was doing.   In response, the custodian put down his broom and said:  “Sir, I’m helping to send a man to the moon.”  Someone had clearly helped this person make the connection between what he was doing and the overall mission for the organization.  Think about the difference between a custodian who in his mind is just sweeping up a corridor and this one who was helping send a man to the moon.  The decisions they would make about how clean things needed to be, or how to dispose of the trash or any number of other points would be fundamentally different.  Which one would you want on your team?

The next time you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do, pause for a moment to look up.  Take some time to consider the following:

  • Think about the major goals for your company or division. Where does your team add value to those goals?  How is your work helping to achieve the broader goals?
  • Think about how you and your team add value to the organization and how can you improve that value over time. What is your overall purpose as a group and how can you better articulate that to the team?  What could you be doing in a year or two that will improve your team’s value to the organization?
  • Finally, look for trends or patterns in your team’s work. Are there predictable peaks in the volume?  Can you position your team to anticipate these and take steps to level them out or at least prepare by taking advantage of slower periods?

Regularly pausing to “look up” and think about your future goals can provide you and your team a clear sense of purpose and may even make the work more interesting.  Rather than just sweeping the floor, you can help send a man to the moon.

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