With Martin G. Moore

Episode #7

Working At The Right Level: What got you to here won't get you to there

In this episode I talk about why what got you to here won’t get you to there. I’ll cover the following:

  • A resource that I believe to be the definitive work on managing the transition through different layers in an organisation, and how to approach each transition, both for yourself and the people you’re leading

  • The fact that the higher up you go, the more you lose your original career identity – this can be really challenging and confronting for a lot of people, especially those whose self identity and worth is wrapped up in their professional expertise

  • I’ll talk about at what point you need to let go of your technical expertise – when do you need to become a leader instead of the expert in your field

  • I’ll finish up by outlining a five-point plan for how you ensure your transition to the next level is successful (download this PDF below and keep it handy so that the next time you’re promoted, you can go back and refer to it, helping you to navigate your way through that transition a little easier)

Once you’ve listened to this episode you’ll recognise that working at the wrong level has an incredibly negative impact on a leader and their team. Their inability to work at the level they’re paid to leads to micromanagement, team demotivation, excessive hours and a dysfunctional culture. It’s near impossible to deliver brilliant results when you’re suffering from this.

It will also help you identify when leaders around you are having difficulty transitioning, and may give you some insights into their struggles. If there’s a leader who you know is struggling with working at the wrong level, please share this episode with them! They may have never heard the concept of getting stuck at level, and this could truly change the trajectory of their career.


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Episode #7 Working At The Right Level: What got you to here won't get you to there

Many leaders fail to work at the right level. When you’re promoted, there is a subconscious tendency to remain at your own level, trying to do the same things that you did before in the same way. Just because you were successful at that level, and as much as it might feel comfortable to stay there, this is a sure way to kill your career and to disempower the people around you.

  • We’re going to cover why what got you to here won’t get you to there.

  • We’re then going to talk about the fact that the higher up you go, the more you lose your original career identity, and talk about at what point you need to let go of your technical expertise.

  • Finally, of course, a five-point plan for how you ensure your transition to the next level is successful. So, let’s get into it.

I don’t do this often, but before we go any further, I want you to go onto Amazon or iTunes, or if you prefer reading in hard copy, walk into a Barnes & Noble or a Dymocks or a Waterstones and purchase a copy of the book The Leadership Pipeline. It was written by Ram Charan, Steve Drotter, and James Noel. Now, I have no affiliation here, other than the fact that I was fortunate enough to work briefly with Steve Drotter in the pre-IPO days at Aurizon. I’m pointing you to this resource purely because in my humble opinion, this is the definitive work on managing the transition through different layers in an organisation, and how to approach each transition, both for yourself and the people you’re leading. It’s also a blueprint for managing the talent in your organisation, which will become vital to building a successful enterprise as you take on more senior roles.

What got you to here won’t get you to there

Let’s get one thing really clear: the object of the exercise, at any level and in any organisation, is to get the best results you can for the people who pay your wages. Of course, your employer isn’t the only stakeholder group you have to satisfy. Every organisation has customers, shareholders, community interests, suppliers; there’s a whole range of them. But let’s just keep it simple for the moment and talk about how you deliver value for the organisation as seen by the management or board above you.

At any level, if you perform well and stand out from others, the rewards will flow, and being the best at your level is generally how you get promoted. Now, in broad terms, there are two major career transitions. The first is from being an individual contributor to being a leader of others. The second is being from a leader of others to a leader of leaders. We all start as individual contributors. This is where you rely solely on your own performance to get results, and let’s face it, this is what you were trained to do. So whether you’re a mining engineer, an accountant, construction manager, a marketer, or a professional salesperson, it doesn’t matter. At this level, it’s all the same; it’s simply about how well you perform and the behaviours you display. You rely on your own skills, training, intellect, attitude, and experience. Interestingly, we spend years studying our respective disciplines before we even become entry-level employees. So what makes us think that we would be great leaders without a similar amount of effort, attention, and commitment to becoming professional leaders?

Let’s talk about the first transition to leader of others. In this role, you directly control the results of a team. It’s about how well the team performs, and what results it delivers. Now, if you’re really smart, and I’m assuming most of you are, you can function almost as you did before, without paying any great attention to the leadership elements of the role, and you can largely get away with it. You can compensate for people’s weaknesses; you can still be the hero who delivers in tough situations. You can wallpaper over the cracks in team capability and performance with your own capability and effort. You can also do this without completely breaking the accountability model, although there are always impacts on your people if you do their work for them, or if you micromanage them into doing it themselves. I won’t go into the accountability impacts here. There are complete modules dedicated to both working at level and driving accountability in the online course that we’ve developed, Leadership Beyond the Theory.

The second major transition is to a leader of leaders role. In this role, you have to influence and coach the leaders below you to get the results from their teams, without directly doing the work and making the decisions, and you can’t do their jobs for them. Every layer you move to above your first leader of leaders role, this effect is exacerbated. Results through influence is quite often extraordinarily difficult, and can be extremely frustrating at times, as many of you would know. Paradoxically, you have more power, but you also have less direct control. So it’d be worth going back and listening to episode five of this podcast series on the use of power.

But influencing is an essential skill, because getting results requires not just influencing your team, but your peers and others in a company. And this is especially so with today’s complex organisational structures. Now, The Leadership Pipeline book comprehensively explores the transition through the different leader of leaders layers. They talk about functional managers, group managers, business managers, and finally enterprise managers, so I really recommend you get into that.

Now, we quite often underrate how difficult it is going up through the layers psychologically and emotionally, because the higher up you go, the more you lose your original career identity, and letting go of your identity is really difficult, because you spent years studying to become a doctor or a lawyer. It’s what you enjoy, that’s the discipline you chose, and you’re clearly good at it, because you got promoted. The outcomes are really finite and measurable for a lot of those professions, like engineers and accountants, at least initially. And there’s a fear of losing the value that you’ve worked so hard to create, and your market worth.

Don’t forget the fact, too, that you’re just transitioning, when you get promoted, from expert to novice. It seems to work counterintuitively. As an expert engineer, you then become a novice manager. Coming to terms with this psychologically is really difficult, and you have to recognise that, because it is something you’re going to have to do. But at what point do you actually decide to let go of your technical expertise? Each promotion takes you further away from the detail of the work and requires a broader skill base, but this happens really gradually, not all at once. As I said before, as a frontline leader or a leader of others, you actually need to be pretty close to the detail of what your team’s working on if you’re going to be successful, so your technical stills are still very important in being able to deliver results through your people. However, each promotion requires less detailed content knowledge and more strategic and contextual oversight.

So let’s just project forward from where you are today to a point at which you become CEO of a major business, as I’m sure many of you have the ambition to be. Wherever you are now, once you’re in a CEO role, you need to cover a lot of ground, so if you’re originally a finance person, and you’re currently going through the ranks towards a CFO job, those skills will be important, don’t get me wrong. But at CEO level, you need to be competent across a wide range of disciplines: marketing, law, regulatory, competitive strategy, market intelligence, economics, operational performance, public relations, media, technology enablement, customer trends. The list goes on and on and on.

Now, as I said, this transition is generally a gradual rather than an abrupt process, but my observation is that most leaders tend to focus their time, energy, and attention at the level of their last role, rather than their current or their next role. And it’s important to make conscious choices to actively work towards the next level if you’re going to stay in the right place. This will come out in your language and your contribution beyond your job, so that you can ensure you think above your level and stay out of your people’s knitting. We all hate micromanagers, but it’s amazing how many of us unwittingly become micromanagers. Very few leaders think they’re micromanagers, just like very few people think they’re bad drivers.

Now, an example of this is when I first went in to run shared services in what at the time was Queensland Rail. Now, this is a business we restructured and took to IPO as Aurizon, which is now an ASX Top 50 listed company. But shared services at the time had around a thousand people, about a $250 million OpEx budget, so a reasonably substantial division, and my first presentation to the CEO and the executive team was around the performance of shared services and my reform plans. But I spent most of the conversation talking about a couple of things they didn’t expect: capital productivity, driving efficiency improvements across the business, and increasing working capital by lifting inventory turns. Now, it was immediately obvious to the CEO and the executive team that I would be looking at the big picture in reforming my part of the business, and I wasn’t going to get stuck in the minutiae.

Five ways to transition successfully to a new level

Regardless of what the transition level is, regardless of your organisation, there are some generic things that you should do at every transition point to ensure that you can make the step successfully.

#1 Take stock and understand what’s different

The first thing you need to do in a new role is to ask yourself the key questions about the transition. So, for example, “What new relationships do I need to form?” “What does the company and my boss need from me now?” “What unique value must my team create for the broader organisation at this level?” “What time horizon should I be focusing on?” So, for an individual contributor, for example, it should be between a week and a year; for a CEO, it should be five to ten years ahead. “How has the scope of my role expanded?” “What are my objectives now, and how are they different from the last level I was at?” “What’s less important than it was in my last role, and what’s more important than it was in my last role?” And there are a whole range of questions; you could add a lot to that list. But it’s really about just standing back and thinking about what’s different, not just stepping up and doing what you did yesterday.

#2 Reset and confirm expectations

This is above, below, and beside you. No matter what your position description says, your boss will have expectations about what’s important in the role, so make sure you understand his expectations. But it’s also about you defining what you think the role needs to entail, and what results need to be delivered. Now, to do this, conversations need to be held, and they must be explicit. Some of these conversations may be a little difficult, so you’ll need to get your head around how to hold the conversations and make sure you plan them properly. But people need to understand that your role is different, that you’ll be focusing on different things, and that you’re actually changing more than just your title.

#3 Understand and develop the priorities for value delivery in your new role

Your team, and other teams in the organisation that rely on you, need to understand what you’re trying to achieve. And make sure you have a plan for communicating your objectives widely and with real clarity. Now, we’ll cover off on how to prioritise and structure your work program in future podcasts, but the basic rules of thumb are to keep it really simple, don’t try to do too much, and ensure that you’re driving value, not just activity.

#4 Work out the areas in which you’re weak, and make sure you have those skills in your team

If you don’t have it, you’ve got to buy it, and at any level, the best team is the team that has a balanced combination of skills, different approaches, experiences, and capabilities. Now, personally, I realised a number of years ago that I enjoy context a lot more than I enjoy detail. Ironically, I’m actually quite good in the detail, but it’s just not my preference, so my most often made mistake as a leader is not being close enough to the detail and giving my leaders too much rope.

So, once this dawned upon me, I realised that I needed to get some really good detail people around me to make sure I didn’t leave any holes, and I’ve always found really competent, excellent, smart detail people to make sure they’re covering the gaps that I don’t cover. And that’s why I’ve become so good at execution: I found it was a weakness, I set out to resolve it many years ago, and I managed to turn it into a strength by understanding what I needed to build that wasn’t me. The key here is self-awareness. And just taking a step back for a moment, a lot of the concepts I cover in this podcast series require a modicum of self-awareness, honesty, and reflectiveness to get any value out of them.

#5 Assess team capability quickly and build what you need to succeed

The most often cited regret of leaders in the twilight of their careers is not having acted quickly enough to move people out who were not cutting it. Now, I’d strongly recommend you going back and listening to episode two of this podcast series about building a high-performing team, if you haven’t done so already. But if you don’t build the right team capability, you can’t ultimately be successful, and upwards management will only take you so far.



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