It was the late ’90s and we had just raised $35 million in venture capital and launched our e-HR services division. I was put in charge and through mergers, acquisitions and manic hiring we brought in over 250 employees in less than 12 months. During that time, our revenue run rate quickly jumped to almost $25 million. Seven days a week, around the clock—my “to do” list always had over 100 items on it. There was no daylight on the calendar, and my mind was in overdrive: I was fired once, quite unexpectedly, because I wasn’t working at the right level of leadership. In fact, I didn’t even know there were levels to leadership. Might you be working at the wrong level of leadership too?
We really need to decide which database to embrace—I’ll fly to Boston to huddle with our dev team on that. The new rep training is taking place in Nebraska at the end of the week, I’ll pop across to welcome the reps and review the curriculum. Big pitch in New York, need to be there. Dang, CEO needs to review the sales forecast again…got to get back to Philadelphia.
It was all so fun and manic and heady, right up to the time I got fired. (OK, not actually fired, just reassigned. Bad enough). What went wrong?
I was incredulous. I had been working my butt off, logging 150,000 annual air miles, taking CEO phone calls on Sunday mornings and in the middle of the night. I was putting out fires left and right. Smacking out decisions like nobody’s business. People even liked me!
And yet, I was working at the wrong level of leadership and didn’t even know it. Until I got canned.
What are the levels of leadership?
An excellent discussion of the levels comes from the official leadership manual of the U.S. Army, wonderfully titled FM 22-100. The levels are:
- Direct—direct leaders use face-to-face continuous contact with those under their command.
- Organizational—organizational leaders influence a team of sub-teams, without direct contact with the majority of their down-line employees.
- Strategic—strategic leaders must influence a team of organizations, often geographically dispersed, with little direct contact with most team members.
While all leaders in this model exert influence, their methods and focuses are largely different.
Direct leaders are typically experts in the domains of knowledge and skill that their team uses. The “orders” they give are specific, their time frame focus is short, and because their span of control is smaller, the consequences of their actions are relatively contained. Often at this level of leadership, following a consistent process and strict adherence to “rules” is desired.
On the other end of the spectrum, strategic leaders are focused, understanding the context of the current environment, evaluating the long-term impact of choices and setting the strategic direction of the entire organization. More potent than giving direct orders, leaders at this level need to focus on collaboration and alignment for unity of mission.
The organizational leaders must bridge the gap between direct and strategic. Their focus is on medium-term outcomes, and they should operationalize the strategy (i.e., develop the plans and allocate resources) and focus on process and innovation.
It turns out I failed not because I was ineffective, but because I kept working at the direct level even though I was clearly promoted into an organizational level. While I made all the decisions and solved all the problems and was the hero of each day (at least in my own mind!), I was leapfrogging my own organizational and direct level leaders. They were missing out on valuable developmental opportunities, and I was ignoring my real duties that had to do with budgets, forecasts, investor relations, and other higher level items.
What level are you working at today?