A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how a breakout project team needs a kedge anchor to succeed.
In sailing, the kedge anchor is sent out ahead of the main ship with a select team of sailors on a long boat. This team drops the kedge anchor in just the right spot so that by pulling towards it, the larger boat can steer deftly through a narrow passage.
This week I want to pick up the point of view of the up-and-coming middle manager.
If you want to lead the kedge anchor team, how do you get yourself chosen?
Great challenges lead to great careers. Bringing a challenging new initiative into existence is no small thing. Done well, and you and your entire team will see the results and reap the rewards. If execution is average or below, there will be personal consequences and the larger organization will likely not invest in a breakthrough strategy for some time to come.
Positioning Yourself for Leadership
Getting into the boat and rowing away is heady stuff, and very hard work. A breakout project is a great crucible in which to develop your leadership skills – and it can be a hell of a lot of fun.
How do you position yourself to be chosen to lead up one of these projects? Setting yourself up for this kind of role is done layer by layer, as you build your leadership career.
First, there are some core soft skills you want to strengthen:
- Find the higher order purpose, frame it cleanly and communicate it often.
- Help others connect with their innate need to make a contribution to something larger than themselves.
- Work hard at building meaning into every project you do, and practice communicating it to those who don’t work for you.
For example, a few years ago, I was giving the opportunity to lead a group charged with taking an advanced communications technology and applying to the connected vehicle space. To keep costs low, we put together a small team and built an advanced demonstration of the technology. We “borrowed” resources from around the world, forming a virtual team, held together only by the project mission. I needed to make sure the mission was front and center daily in my far-flung team members’ minds.
The only way to accomplish this was to spend time on a daily basis, letting each team member know that they were contributing to a system that would help in saving some of the 40,000 lives lost each year to highway accidents. That broke down to more than 100 per day and more than 4 per hour. Everyone could get behind that. I made the rounds working with the technicians, software architects, engineers, marketing leaders and finance, reminding them in a very personal way what their contribution meant.
We had a very visible demo at a world wide showcase that was won an industry award, and each team member received a miniature replica vehicle – which I would see on desks years later.
Productive Leadership: Your Toolbox
In addition to the soft leadership skills that I just outlined, here are some other important qualities to cultivate:
- Comfort with ambiguity. One of the keys to building high-performance teams of experts is to hold the high-level objectives rigidly, but allow enormous freedom in how these are achieved. This allows your best and brightest to bring their A-game.
- Comfort with pushing back. You need to hold the bar high, and not back down. If something is important to the system you are building, don’t compromise. You will be surprised at how much you need to restate the core objectives, so that they become part of every one’s daily thinking.
- Communicating complex ideas with simple language. Anyone can make the complex sound complex, but true masters can frame their insights in clear and specific analogies.
- Consistently doing the right, hard thing. Be the one who stands alone when customer quality might be compromised. Work the weekend to double check the design before masks are made or die steel is cut.
- Acting with a sense of urgency and direction. People will emulate your cadence. When the group gets stuck, solve tough issues fast with daily stand-up meetings. Make it clear that there will be no dropped balls. When a decision needs to be made drive it, or drive it to someone who can.
- Surface issues fast. Insist on weekly flash reports with red flags in the first sentence. Make it very clear that you need to know about show stoppers instantly, be hard on hiding issues, soft on the people who bring them forward.
- Sharing the rewards. Make sure valuable contributions are recognized and rewarded. Give proportional rewards at the close of the project. Make sure that those who assumed and managed the highest risk receive a larger slice of the bonus pool.
If you actively cultivate these skills, you will be on the short list for leadership when its time to launch the breakout project.
Remember that hidden potential stays that way.
Demonstrate these behaviors in your daily approach to your work, so that the senior team will know who they can count on to execute when it matters most.
What would you say are the top ways to be ready for the breakout team leader role?
I welcome your thoughts, please share in the comments below.