Effective leaders must learn to balance their team’s need for expertise with the need for high-level, strategic thinking and making connections across functional areas.
Leadership is a balancing act. Almost every quality of great leaders can be overdone, and their opposite can even be needed on occasion (except for integrity). For example, being outspoken is a great quality, but there are also times to hold back from giving your point of view so that others speak first. Great leadership requires constant adjustments in style and approach to get the best out of a broad range of people.
The one leadership balancing act we speak too infrequently about is the balance between knowing, doing and executing—in effect, being the go-to expert who can help the team solve any problem—and enabling, orchestrating and not knowing—something I call “spanning.”
In today’s knowledge economy, expertise is highly valued. Leaders use their expertise to gain credibility, to win the loyalty of their team and to solve team problems. Expertise-driven leaders add value because of their ability to provide answers, do the work, and control quality and risk. However, expertise-driven leadership keeps the leader from stepping out of the details, letting the team wrestle with problems, and taking a broader view. “Spanning” leaders add value by focusing on priorities and direction, by connecting across the organization and by tapping their broad network for information and perspective.
Keeping Your Balance
Every leader needs to understand how to add value to the job, how to get the right work done and how to interact with people. Leaders must learn to lead at times as the expert and at times as a non-expert facilitator—that is, as a spanner who can span across domains. The core challenge is how to balance the two approaches.
Karen, for example, is the chief of internal audit. She is very intelligent, highly personable and brings much-needed depth of audit knowledge to her team. The challenge Karen faces is not about abandoning her expertise—those strengths are definitely valued. However, her company also needs her to weigh in on the broader challenges they are facing, not just represent her functional perspective. She needs to be able to drill deeply when necessary but also quickly come back up to the 30,000-foot level to think strategically. In effect, her challenge is a balancing act between the depth of expertise and the breadth of spanning.
The Spanning Checklist
If you're unsure of how to strike the right leadership balance for your team, here are some considerations.
- Understand what you do that adds the greatest value to the team and organization—the things that only you can do. As an exercise, think about a leader you admire and value. Write a list of all the things this person does that adds value to you and to the organization, especially the things that are unique. Look over that list and circle the qualities you need to be practicing more often. Also note the ones you think you already do well, and keep doing those.
- How much to you really need to know? Do you need to know the details of a particular functional area, or do you need to understand how all the parts fit together? Ask your mentors and senior leaders.
- How much of your time and energy should be spent on being the expert and how much should be spent in the spanning space? Ask your manager or senior executive how they think your time should be divided. Then monitor your time in a given week to make sure you are roughly sticking to those guidelines.
- At times, you may need to dive deeply into the details to understand a problem or to resolve a conflict. The challenge then is how to come back up to a higher-level mindset and not get stuck in the weeds. As you find yourself diving deeply, ask why you are doing so. Ask yourself who else should be taking this deep dive with you or even on their own. If you bring your direct report(s) with you for each dive and each meeting, you will find it much easier to turn over work to them, because they have been on the journey with you and learned from you.
- To delegate more effectively, avoid simply dumping an issue on someone else while you remain hands-off. That is ditching, not delegating. Instead, jointly create a set of milestones, next steps and a timeline with the person you are delegating a task to. Do so by asking questions, not by dictating. Then, touch base on progress at each milestone, during which time you can also provide updates on new insights you have gained and you can track that work is progressing as expected. You can also give feedback along the way.
The balancing act that great leadership requires is achievable. However, you have to be thoughtful about when the opposite leadership style of what’s in your comfort zone is needed. You cannot simply default to your preference every time. Instead, ask yourself if your team needs the expert or the spanner.
Wanda T. Wallace, Ph.D., managing partner of Leadership Forum, coaches, facilitates and speaks about improving leadership through better conversations. She hosts the weekly radio show and podcast “Out of the Comfort Zone” and is the author of You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise. Learn more at leadership-forum.com, wandawallace.com, and outofthecomfortzone.com.