Why Your Leadership Style Needs to Change as You Move Up

min read

The management habits and activities that work with small groups won't be effective as your team grows. Successfully moving into a larger role requires different approaches to leadership.

Group working in data center
Credit: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock © 2018

Marina was thrilled when she finally became an IT director at her institution. She had been managing a team of five for the past several years. She was eager to advance in her career and was pleased that she could move up within her IT organization. She'd been a good manager, fostering her staff while improving processes and productivity. She figured that overseeing a bigger operation wouldn't pose significant challenges. She had always worked closely with her team, and they were a tight group with open daily, informal communication coupled with weekly, individual thirty-minute meetings. Trust was high, decisions were smooth, and the work product was excellent.

Marina's first few days in her new job were both exhilarating and exhausting as she embraced her new responsibilities. Her open-door policy was still in place. Her new staff were coming in and out sharing what they were working on and what challenges they faced, and they enjoyed the personal contact with the boss. A variety of new meetings (both internal and external) was quickly filling up Marina's calendar, and she was running from one to the next, sometimes without stopping for lunch or a break despite luncheon invitations from new colleagues who were critical to her network. She figured her walk across campus to that 5:00 p.m. budget meeting was just enough time to gulp down an energy bar to sustain her since she missed lunch, as well as a few quiet moments to consider what she was going to say at the meeting. She told herself that she would catch up and plan more carefully over the weekend. Yet her days continued to be squeezed and fast paced, with unexpected issues cropping up constantly, more things to communicate to her team to keep the work going, and increasingly complex decisions to keep track of and make. This frenzied pattern continued, and by the end of her second month on the job, Marina was totally overwhelmed and close to regretting her career move. What happened?

While the basic principles of managing people and systems did not change with Marina's new job, her daily routine that worked so well with her smaller team did not scale in this new position. There are some significant differences between managing small and large teams. Once leaders recognize and understand that shifts in their leadership style are necessary, they then can reorient and navigate the change. Here are a few tips:

  • Moving from Direct to Indirect Managing Style. If, like Marina, your team is small, you can develop a close working relationship with each team member. You're able to understand the details of their work, what their strengths are, where they have challenges, and possibly even what they enjoy outside work.

    However as your team grows, it's impossible to manage in the same way. Marina's new team is now forty. Her practice of thirty-minute meetings with individual staff would balloon to twenty hours per week if she kept up that practice. That doesn't leave much time for follow-up on any action items or, realistically, anything else that would be supportive to the team in any meaningful way. Then there's all the other work that has to be done.

    As their span of control broadens, managers must develop team members below them. Yes, this does mean that you're further removed from your people on the ground and that you're still responsible for the overall outcomes of your team. However, you can no longer be involved in all the details and you must delegate—perhaps more than you have previously or thought possible. Understand that decisions will be made without your direct input. Plus, the way things get done might be handled differently from the way you might have done them. Your job is to set the strategy and overall expectations but to leave the details and how the work unfolds to your team.

    Yes, this shift to more indirect managing can feel very disorienting, and you may even wrestle with feelings of loss of control. Overall, however, it's important for you to make that shift, and it's good for staff to be more empowered over the work they do. Finding the right balance between the deep dive that you may be accustomed to doing (think "subject matter expert") and standing back and trusting that your staff can take care of it is a necessity. Remember, however, that it is a dynamic balance and that your responsibility is providing the right parameters and conditions for success coupled with strong communication. If it doesn't work at first, revisit how things are balanced and keep working at it. Be transparent with your staff and get their input on rebalancing.

  • Constantly Switching Context. When Marina managed her five-person team, she could roll up her sleeves and spend hours with them exploring new processes and other ideas. They often lost track of time because they were so deeply into the workflow. When she moved to her director role, those long, focused time blocks shrank. Her time and attention became fragmented, with more people and projects requiring her attention. Emails that once focused on mainly one topic area tripled and quadrupled and were always on a different topic, much like what happened to her meeting schedule.

    Back-to-back meetings and multiple emails require managers and leaders to let go of the last topic in order to focus on the next one, all of which requires mental preparation. Research shows that there is a real cost to productivity (and sanity!) with context switching. For example, it takes twelve minutes to switch between multiple projects and get back into the flow of where you left off with each one. In Marina's case, she was distracted and overwhelmed, her mind constantly jumping from topic to topic. Devising what she was going to say at the budget meeting while running across campus wasn't a strategy for success—at least not a sustainable strategy.

    While it's natural to grumble about all the meetings and emails, it's also important to understand and accept that context switching is part of your new job. As the responsibilities increase with a new title, your ability to context switch has to keep pace. Some suggestions to make this more manageable include looking at tomorrow's calendar before the end of today in order to prepare for each meeting; controlling your calendar as much as possible to build in time for planning and reflection; and making time for lunch, breaks, as well as timeouts to relax and laugh. These and other activities can be key components for you to thrive in your new role. There will always be a dozen different issues begging for your attention every day—some big, some small, some unexpected—and as the manager of a large team, you learn to accept it and go with the flow. There are very few actual five-alarm emergencies, and being able to distinguish these from the daily grind is important for decision-making, success, and overall good leadership.

  • Let Go of Perfectionism and Learn to Prioritize. When Marina was managing her small team, she often left the office with her to-do list completed, her inbox down to zero, a clear sense of what she was doing tomorrow, and a satisfying sense of accomplishment with the outcomes of her day. As the scope of her new job increased, those days became almost nonexistent.

    As leaders move up in their careers, they face the fact that things aren't always going to go as smoothly as hoped. Projects fall behind schedule, positions are unfilled, budgets get realigned, miscommunication takes time to fix, and the list goes on and on. Brooding excessively over the myriad areas that need improvement is a recipe for burnout. Since you can't do everything, you must prioritize. What are the most important areas for you to put your attention? Where do you draw the line that something is good enough (because perfectionism is not an option)? Learning to operate by making conscious choices about what is mission critical is a skill that can be learned, but it requires time for reflection, thought, and planning before execution. Otherwise, you will become overwhelmed by all the possibilities in front of you, even as your team looks to you for leadership.

  • People Skills Are Paramount. As teams grow, managers spend less time on their subject matter expertise. What matters more is that they get the best out of their team. No CIO is an expert across all technology systems and platforms, communications, finance, and human resources. Still, CIOs are tasked with building and leading organizations that do all of those things.

    At higher levels of management, the job starts to converge regardless of your background. Success becomes focused on mastering key skills, including hiring exceptional leaders, building self-reliant teams, establishing a clear vision, and communicating well. Leaders who master these skills will be well suited to successfully lead teams of any size. And they'll probably enjoy it, too.

The EDUCAUSE Institute addresses many topics such as these. Across the Institute Programs, you'll find interactive learning experiences designed to enhance your higher education IT management and leadership skills at every level from new manager to CIO/CISO. Check it out and embrace your changing leadership style!

Joan Cheverie is Director of EDUCAUSE Institute Programs.

© 2019 Joan Cheverie. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.