Leaders Need Trusted Advisors
I recently had a conversation in Beijing with an old friend, who is an entrepreneur at the helm of a fast-growing company. He recently concluded a deal bringing in a strategic investor group as a new partner in the business. As a result, his original business is not only expanding quickly, but changing in size and shape; and his management responsibilities have naturally diversified as a reflection of that.
He is feeling challenged as a leader to keep up with rapid change. Time management is a big issue. Apart from workload issues, his team of direct reports is now deployed in multiple locations as opposed to one central office. His partner also has key executives involved in his business at offices in various locations. He obviously cannot be in multiple places at once. Video conferencing is a wonderful tool, but it cannot completely replace face to face conversations.
He is one of the most respected experts in his field, and the combined reputational strength of his as well as his company’s brands are tremendous assets. At the same time, he has little or no formal training in management. To his credit, he is not afraid to seek advice and counsel from trusted outside advisors, and in doing so, he speaks frankly and realistically of his strengths and weaknesses.
The market niche his company serves is growing fast, but there have been several recent high-profile business failures among competitive peer companies; so the risks of a management mis-step are very real.
One key challenge is striking the right balance in the pace of expansion and diversification of product and service offerings. Overly rapid expansion and diversification involves certain risks; yet he and his new strategic partner have signed off on ambitious growth plans, and as the leader, he is expected to set a brisk pace and tempo.
For the time being, he is feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the magnitude and scope of the challenges; although this is obviously not a feeling he can announce to colleagues or partners. Maybe it’s something he can productively discuss with his spouse, or maybe not. For example, he may be concerned that sharing his uncertainties with his spouse may create unnecessary anxiety, and not really yield productive insights anyway.
Fortunately, in my friend’s case, he has a good network of trusted advisors to quietly reach out to, in order to explore best practices and seek insights.
This is not a coincidence, however. He had the foresight to anticipate his future need for such advice. As a result, he established an informal, unpaid advisory board more than five years before he really needed it. Very smart move.
Of course, an alternative would be to reach out to one or more coaches or mentors, whether paid or not.
The point is, leaders need trusted advisors they can turn to on a confidential basis, especially in times of great challenge and change. Such advisors need to have experience dealing with as wide a variety of relevant life and leadership situations as possible, but above all, they need to be trusted.
We discussed several fairly simple ways to assist with his escalating time management challenges.
One is to avoid the common trap of getting so overwhelmed with daily and weekly workflow that you can no longer see the forest for the trees. Institute a regular (weekly or daily) time for reflection from a higher level vantage point, to renew your overview of progress and priorities. This is probably best achieved away from your desk and workplace. You may find it through sports, exercise, yoga, prayer, meditation, music — whatever works for you. The key is to regularly seek a higher level perspective and reflect on personal and organizational goals and developments from that slightly detached level.
Secondly, find ways to regularly and repeatedly revisit your mission statement. If needs be, write it on a piece of paper, store it in your top desk drawer, and re-read it every Monday morning. The details of how this is done are not important, as long as you find ways to revisit and refocus on a regular basis, to minimize distraction and dilution of effort in your ongoing work. Be ruthless about focusing your time on mission-critical activities, and de-emphasizing time spent on others.
We also discussed internal communications, including the pros and cons of various online communications platforms as well as video conferencing — all of which are great enhancements to the efficiency of management communications. Still, especially in times of rapid growth and change, there is no substitute for face to face communications when it comes to building trust and teamwork between the leader and his or her direct reports.
Many entrepreneurs and executives lack the foresight or courage to reach out to informal advisors in the early stages of their personal and career growth. As their success grows and they become better known in their field, reaching out and developing trusted advisors becomes more rather than less complicated.
My friend’s experience is one worth learning from: reach out and develop trusted advisors, sooner rather than later. It will serve you well for years to come.