Tag Archives: leadership

Leading From Behind

I have a quick lesson in role reversal for my billable AEC colleagues.  Imagine you work for a large, Fortune 100 public relations and marketing firm. You lead the in-house team transforming all their global facilities. Sound good so far?

You report to a leadership team that knows everything about marketing, and a little about workplace design. Thus, you need to learn the language of the marketing industry to communicate well in your job. Some of the billable staff don’t respect you because you’re overhead. Some of the people you are called upon to mentor sign your paycheck, and they are more accustomed to leading than being led. So how would you guide that firm’s leaders? What about those who don’t see your value but need your expertise?

For the architects, engineers and contractors out there, relax. This is not your job. For the marketing folks at AEC firms out there, I think you’ll recognize that this is exactly your job. Learning how to lead from behind is an essential skill to master if you’re going to do your job well. I was raised to command and control, so it took me a long time to learn how to lead from behind. Eventually I got it and I have some experience to share.

The term “leading from behind” comes from Nelson Mandela who compares being a leader to being a shepherd. Mandela says, “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

He stays behind the flock

Leading from behind requires one to inspire or nudge rather than direct. It provides a vantage point from which to see those who are confused about or distracted from the path, and to help these stragglers along. My first boss, Jerry Irvine, was excellent at this. In my 20s I was an eager and arrogant college grad. When I came to Jerry with an ill-informed idea, he never said, “Don’t do that; do this.” Instead he asked me questions about my idea. By answering his questions I figured out myself when my idea was flawed, which helped me make better decisions going forward.

“Letting the most nimble go out ahead,

If you’re going to bring up the rear, you need to inspire someone to lead the charge, and make sure they benefit from going out ahead. I learned this lesson my 30s when I taught college. Having practiced and studied my craft for over 10 years by then I had forgotten how I learned what I knew, so I wasn’t teaching everybody well. I made a deal with whatever students had “As” going into finals. If they would run a study group with at least five of their classmates, they could opt out of the exam. When test prep was done by their peers, more students attended and everyone in the class did better on the exams. All I had to do was let my own ego get out of the way.

“whereupon others follow”

Change happens on a bell curve. While early adopters may “go out ahead”, innovation is always in danger of dying until the majority adopts it. The majority needs to see the benefits before they opt in and my job is to show them something better than what they have now.   Lest you be tempted to disparage them, we need followers. I learned the value of following by taking dance lessons with my husband. Ballroom dancing only works with a leader and a follower. With two leaders, it’s just stand-up arm wrestling.

“not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind”.

Good leaders found the genius in me that I didn’t yet see in myself. Can you think of a more remarkable gift? They gave me the credit when things went well and took the blame when things went south. They didn’t just tell me the way, they showed me, so in watching how they handled themselves, I learned how to become a professional.  Just as you appreciate your own parents more after you have kids, so it is with some leaders.  You often only recognize them once you’re a leader yourself.

Those who have led with humility, by example, have been my greatest teachers. Their reward came from seeing light bulbs go on above the heads of those they have guided. Nowadays, I see the advantages of being the kind of leader most people can only see in the rearview mirror. I’ve been given many gifts. They need to be paid forward.

 

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React-Respond-Lead

It seems there a trajectory we marketing folks go through in our career development within the AEC industry.  (It may well be that this pattern crosses industries, but I can only speak from a certain kind of experience.) I believe how one moves through these phases determines, in no small part, whether one’s career advances or not; whether one is trusted by clients or not; whether one controls his or her destiny or not.  Here are the three phases as I see them:

React – At the outset of one’s career, I think there’s a lot of reacting going on.  When someone asked me what my average day was like, I used to say, “Well, I start by making a to-do list, then I work all day, then about 4:PM I pick up my to-do list and get started on that.”  I think this is because there’s a lot of urgency in our field, mostly driven by business development opportunities or publication/submission deadlines that must be met.  This is a boon for adrenaline junkies and a fine way to start developing a sense of competence in our field, because it’s about meeting and exceeding expectations.  But it only gets you so far.

Respond – Eventually I think we get weary of living at the mercy of externally-generated deadlines.  We know they come with the job and we accept that.  We’ve learned that some of them are predictable, and we recognize the need to approach predictable goals/needs with at least some semblance of strategy behind them.  We desire to establish and manage priorities and expectations, not just meet them.  We begin to ask not just what someone needs but why they need it.  Then we need to gauge where that person’s top priority fits among the eight or ten tasks that are the top priorities of each other person who has tasked us with something.  We learn the importance of asking questions, offering feedback, challenging logic and offering perspectives that lend additional expertise to decision making.  Finally, we start to get a better handle on the delicate balance between the urgent and the important.  I think most people who have earned the title “marketing manager” have done so because they know not only to react, but to respond.  They have the ability to make compelling arguments to support their approach to problem solving.  In this way they become not only trusted doers, but trusted advisors. 

Lead – Leading is the next level, and I believe it is more of a leap than a step. Leading suggests you’ve looked into your profession and your practice of it deeply enough and critically enough to create the marketing and business development path rather than just to traverse it well. It means you can both listen to what people tell you they want, and ask enough questions to know whether what a client, colleague or firm leaders says they want is actually what they need.  Where you find discrepancies, you also have to be able to help that person get to the same conclusion you have reached.  It involves sharing what marketing is up to at regular intervals rather than just waiting to be asked.  It means not only sharing what is happening, but why it is happening and to tie strategy and tactics to results.  It also involves being able to articulate how those results affect the bottom line.  Leading also involves having the ability to speak truth to leadership as a consultant does, while being as deeply invested in the outcome of one’s decisions and direction as any principal would be.  It also means understanding how your practice professionals do what they do well enough that you can tell whether they’re good at it. 

For my part, I like leading.  How about you?

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