Leading the Band without Losing Your Rhythm - Next Action Associates

marching band leader with marching band Victoria Day Parade, Vic

My best friend in high school was an excellent French horn player. He was so good, in fact, that he was promoted to drum major of the school band. From this point on, his job was no longer to play the French horn, but to instead beat time with a baton and lead the march across the American football field. Being promoted into leadership can sometimes feel just like this, as the very skills and behaviours that earned you the promotion are now sidelined, and an entirely new set of skills and behaviours become the order of the day. This was particularly the case for me as an IT professional, moving from writing software myself to managing teams of software engineers.

It can be a real shock when you first agree to put away your French horn, or software source code, or trading book, or whatever it was that gave you the tangible sense of contributing real value to the organisation individually. It can feel like the old saying that “What got you here won’t get you there.” Yet invariably when I coach people in this situation, as we step back to gain perspective on their overall career trajectory, the intentions behind those behaviours that led to them being promoted into leadership are still valid and useful in their new situation. They simply need to be examined and “re-routed” into the new job remit.

What does this re-routing look like? For me, it involved taking the same level of conscientiousness that led me to analyse problems carefully and write the best software I could, and translating that into being equally conscientious about setting up effective and practical systems and processes to help the engineers on my team to produce quality software themselves. I took how much I cared about the result, unplugged it from the behaviour of “I do it” and plugged it into the behaviour of “I support and facilitate it getting done by my team”. The same burning desire fuelled a completely new set of behaviours.

The GTD methodology can be tremendously helpful in a transition like this, because it provides a way to objectify and track these new behaviours. As I moved into more and more senior levels of leadership, I found that I began making better use of different GTD lists. As an individual contributor, I mostly relied on my project and next-action lists, with occasional use of a waiting-for list whenever the proverbial ball was in someone else’s court, relative to a project that I owned. Increasingly, as I began to manage more people, I began to utilise some different lists: agendas, waiting-for, projects delegated, and someday-maybe.

Agendas allowed me to cluster topics to raise by team member, so that I wasn’t performing “desk drive-bys” on my reports whenever something came to mind to discuss with them, or raising a one-on-one type of issue at an all-team meeting. Waiting-for items allowed me to track the specific, tactical things people were doing for me to ensure that they got done. This was a great way to get that part of me that wanted to just do it all myself to back off, and create space for others to do the work. I knew I had the “safety net” of my waiting for list, so that I would be reminded to follow up appropriately, and could thereby ensure that things would still get done more-or-less to my own standards of timing.

Likewise, the projects delegated list became another great antidote to the adage that “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Doing it myself was no longer the best choice, but helping others to clarify the outcome and tracking it successfully to completion was. In contrast to the waiting-for list, which I used for tracking simple single activities, projects delegated let me track larger multi-step outcomes–the finish line they were going to cross at the end of the race. It also freed me up from feeling like I had to keep track of every step they took along the way, but instead reminded me to periodically check in about, and keep everyone focused on, the end goal.

Finally, the someday-maybe list gave me a place to collect interesting ideas about technology without actively committing myself or anyone else to doing something about it. My drum major friend certainly listened to a wide range of music, even though it was not his “job” per se. Nurturing broad interests without feeling overwhelmed by them is possible–but only when you have a clear distinction between what’s a commitment and what’s a nice idea, and this means having a place for those “nice ideas” to live (which is not in your head).

It can also be healthy to periodically re-engage with those activities that you are good at in the midst of learning new behaviours–to actually play that French horn from time to time, to keep your “chops”. The key is to keep it in perspective, so that you don’t slide out of your leadership responsibilities and back to the more comfortable place of individual contribution.

Invariably in my life, it seems that once I gain a certain level of competence about something, a new challenge appears. Reflecting on what has worked over time to help develop competence in a new area, I find that a few of my core values–about doing a good job, being conscientious, and thinking about the bigger picture–have been valuable intentions to keep when transitioning into playing a “bigger game”.

However, we all know that holding good intentions alone is not enough without a change of behaviour. By tracking what you are doing in a trusted GTD system, you can gain perspective on what is working in a new role, and effectively and consciously manage that “re-routing” of your good intentions more fully into becoming the kind of leader that makes the whole band swing.

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