In the last issue, we looked into the intricacies of the first loop: managing a small team, i.e. reaching specific results with budgeted resources.
Most people, as they walk on the straight towards the second loop and as teams get bigger, realize quite early on that they cannot manage everyone in person – and that, ultimately, they have to deeply rely on just a few people. For some, it is easy to let go; for others, it’s a highly unwelcome realization. We will come back to who tends to suffer, and why.
So what happens on the straight that follows the first loop? Without going into much detail, all straights are „just“ about becoming better with experience. Let’s define experience in this context. It describes the result of the many “firsts”: the tests and trials that happen on a straight. I might add that straights of course never even remotely resemble a straight line. This is just my simplification, or what things could look like from a helicopter perspective. People’s direct experience can be like chaotic movements without a clear pattern, and some frustrating infinite loops thrown in that they have trouble breaking out of… yet, in combination, these challenges trigger a lot of learning. Plus of course, this phase is where a lot of helpful management training takes place: people learn about the importance of, and then improve, various relevant skill sets that are often called „soft“: presentation skills, management skills, feedback skills…
Depending on the organisation’s complexity, this loop can last many years, and take the form of several lateral promotions. For some, it is followed by a first-hand experience of the next level, preceded by a loop. This place after the second loop is still a career level many professionals would love to reach at some point. However, this is already no place in which all people are comfortable and can learn to perform well, quite irrespective of their intelligence, skill, and even motivation.
This links back to one of the central questions of the Leadership Questionnaire that I will share with you after we’ve discussed the next two loops: gain clarity on how far you need to go before you feel that you have left your mark. For some, the sky is the limit, they just get more and more comfortable with new levels of challenge, and bored in less complex roles. But these people are definitely a minority!
I always find it unfortunate when I see people who are clearly an uphill struggle, yet never even dare to question why it is worth going through the agony if they have no expectation of enjoying a job at this level… Most will eventually notice that it was never really, truly their own goal, but rather something they felt “was expected of them”. For some, this realisation comes late – and its effects can be quite brutal.
Before we get to what happens when people reach the second loop, let’s sum up the challenge of the straight. This is the place where the focus shifts from managing individual performance and being responsible for team results, to managing a lot fewer people, who manage others in turn. Of course managers stay responsible for the team results, except that they now need others to drive them.
And here’s the struggle: Not just is there no way of knowing all the details any more, or all the people involved. The challenge of this loop is to let go of the fallacy to “need to know best” and “jump in when there is an issue”. It’s about refocusing from TELLING to ASKING about people’s needs from you. For many people, this is counter-intuitive, so it’s a huge asset to have role models to observe and learn from, ideally in one’s own company.
As I’ve said, this level is the final stop for those who haven’t fully learned to delegate responsibility and still largely manage tasks, simply because the stress level becomes unbearable otherwise. I believe we all know people who have looked ashen and had a really hard time enjoying time off, because they were no longer able to switch off and let things rest. If you picture yourself in such a situation, you’ll probably agree that this is only possible to do when you trust in the line of control you have established, and are confident that, in 9 out of 10 cases, your people will raise whatever issue you really need to know about – and just deal with the rest by themselves.
The place of the spider in the middle of the web used to be an appropriate model in the less complex structures of a bygone era, but in modern organisations, it is more like a space of exhaustion and overwhelm than of control – very unlike just a generation ago. People who fail to realize that they are holding the wrong mindset here may see their relationships, and ultimately wellbeing and health crumble. This should be a wake-up call.
At the end of the day, a career is just a career, but putting one’s relationships or health in danger is affecting quality of life long-term – although it doesn’t always feel like a so much more dangerous sacrifice at that moment, especially to men.
And if you’d like to discuss some development in your life or career that you are losing sleep over, and would like to work through, let’s meet!
In the next issue, we will look into the 2nd loop as a starting point for high-level relationship building. After this, we’ll explore the Leadership Spiral Questionnaire!