Sunday, November 22, 2009

Leadership: Guiding versus Controlling

Having worked in both an innovative environment and a controlling environment, I have observed and practiced varying leadership styles. People manage differently. Allow me to share my story in a couple of situations.

I spent the first few years of my career working for the federal government in the financial and budgeting arena. Most things are rigid. There is a way to do things and there are people who believe in complete structure. There are regulations, policies, extensive training; even a regulation on how to write regulations. This is no joke and it makes sense. I mean, I worked for the military side. Structure is absolutely necessary. Without structure, it is not uniform. Without uniformity, it is unmanageable. You do what you are told and that is the way it is; no debate. Leadership is driven by rank. Sounds harsh, but that is how soldiers are trained. Those who work to support soldiers are not immune to those that manage this way of thinking.

After doing this for 5 years or so, I decided to take a shot in the commercial sector. I worked for a small, niche, innovative company that specialized in advanced composite fabrication and experimental aircraft design and development. I was hired as a program business manager. I knew nothing about engineering, fabrication, composites; even managing in this environment. I remember my first few months; not knowing if I was doing the right thing or if I was doing the wrong thing. It was awkward and at times I felt lost. I mean, I worked for someone, but I rarely saw this person. I was just kind of put in an environment and had to figure out what I was supposed to do; the complete opposite of an established position description. It’s like defining the position. Sounds great, but it can be stressful. Especially, if you are going through it for the first time. After a year, I gathered that this company focused on results. They weren’t going to tell you “how” to do something. This is what they hired you for. There was this broad brushed goal and everything else was up to you and the team.

After a few years, I had the privilege of managing a team that successfully accomplished a major milestone for the program. We experienced record growth; going from 120 employees to 330 employees in a three-year period and had been bought by a major aerospace company. What a ride.

I met a few of the new employees and remember hearing them say after a few weeks they didn’t know if what they were doing was right or wrong. I could so relate, but told them that they should continue what they were doing and it would all fall into place. I realized that the management philosophy was to allow people to learn and be good at what they do. There was no one way to do something. There is room for great success and room for great failure in this environment. Leadership was good at keeping the pulse of things so that if there was failure it wasn’t a detriment to the company. People were motivated. They “owned” what they were doing.

I will not debate the necessity of either leadership style. They both have a purpose in their environments. I will say that having been in both situations, I have seen and appreciate the value of allowing people to figure things out on their own. What matters are the results.

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