If you own a business or are on the leadership team of a business, you’re tasked with strategically defining what the future of your business will look like. Who will lead it into the future as you and your leadership team think of future transitions? How will you grow? What are you missing in terms of innovation, talent, information, processes and systems that would allow you to grow profitably and scale efficiently? The answer to these questions begins with developing others and eventually putting yourself out of a job. The best quote I’ve ever heard describing this is “You’re not a leader until you can produce a leader who produces a leader.” Until you are able to do this, you will not have freed yourself from your business enough to take it in new directions, move on to your next thing, scale, retire or sell. Until you have developed those who report to you who then successfully develop those who report to them, the organization will not be able to function without you. The handcuffs will remain in place and you’ll only dream of the freedom you seek running your own company or ascending to your next level of leadership.
By successfully developing two “generations” of leaders beyond yourself, with the intention of each of them being better than you are, you will make your company more successful than you ever could focusing on your direct reports alone. Your Company culture will also be infused with leadership principles and accountability that has resonance and staying power. By creating a leadership legacy in your business, you will transition from doing and leading everything yourself to igniting a culture of “we can do what I can’t.”
So what is leadership? It’s written about, talked about and referred to ad nauseam. Yet in order to develop another leader, you must first have a clear definition of what leadership is. To me, leadership is having the character, skill and courage to respond effectively in any situation – good or challenging. True leaders create certainty amidst chaos and connect with their followers in a way that catalyzes fear or anger into forward action for the greater good. These leaders care deeply, are driven by a higher purpose and step up when no one else will, even at a cost to themselves. Great leaders create action with and through others and are able to remove obstacles and barriers, empowering those around them to do their best work. Although they may be the one charting the course, these great leaders credit those around them for the progress and success occurring. Their humble confidence allows others to rise as they do.
Producing a Leader
Producing other leaders requires patience, commitment, and letting go. I believe this development process is a combination of mentorship, coaching, management and leadership. You mentor by providing guidance and offering wisdom, sharing the path you chose and guiding them away from predictable mistakes. You manage by teaching them the tactical pieces of the larger role, measuring results, focusing on the long and short term targets and being accountable. Throughout the process, it’s important to take the time to help them identify their strengths and how they differ from your own; you can’t expect them to be just like you. This is where coaching is necessary; you must become a keen observer in order to identify their talents and skills, inquire into their thinking, and nurture their greatness. You must ask questions, provide insight, share experiences and most of all listen as you help them expand how they reason through situations. Seeing them as the leader they are in the future, even if they don’t see it yet themselves, is key. When you are able to create certainty during times of uncertainty and your followers know you believe in them, they will become more confident and grow into the leader you’ve seen them as. Possibly the most difficult part of developing other leaders is learning to let go of doing the work yourself. You must become comfortable with them making mistakes as well as being better than you: a better leader, manager, tactician – whatever the role is. In the end, if they aren’t better than you, your work with them is not done.
For those of you developing leaders from the millennial generation, a nuanced approach is necessary. You must invest time in their development and communicate frequently on a daily or weekly basis. Learning to manage your expectations about what they know or don’t know is also beneficial to both you and them. They may benefit from what older generations considered basic business etiquette. They come with other skills and a breadth of knowledge. Most millennials will readily improve once they know what your expectations are. Framing this development as a collaborative partnership engages them, since they are often adept team players. In our business, I’ve been mentoring Ali for over three years. This approach has worked well for us; “I stay motivated by my desire to provide value to our business and clients,” Ali shares. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from Sue and be mentored by her, and understand that it truly is an opportunity, not a right. I need to bring my best every day to make the investment of her time, effort and resources worthwhile.” Ali is a rock star and has exceeded all my expectations because of her unwavering commitment to our company and clients.
Leader Producing a Leader
You’ve begun to produce a leadership legacy when your leaders then produce other leaders. If executed well, they will do this independent of you; if they still need your help your work isn’t done yet. When you start to see that third “generation” leader rise, you know you’ve done your job. You created a leader better than you who has created a leader who is in turn better than they are. This allows everyone to rise as the company wins. This means everyone must become more comfortable surrounding themselves with strong people who challenge ideas and thinking at every level. You’ll experience your leadership legacy most dramatically in your company’s culture – it’s visceral. Your team will have each other’s back, and become a trusting, healthy team. This isn’t just a feel-good concept; peer accountability is the result and is the biggest catalyst for team health and everyone’s collective success.
Once You’ve Let Go, Then What?
As difficult as it can be to let go when developing your direct reports, it can be even more challenging once your leader has successfully developed their direct reports. At this time, you become no longer necessary; teams are now in place to take the business further than initially imagined. Now it becomes imperative that you don’t swoop in and meddle in the day-to-day operations or make end runs around the other leaders in charge who are successfully functioning without your direct help. Although not being necessary can feel like a loss in perceived value or a blow to your ego, it actually creates freedom and space for exponential growth. You are now free to create bigger opportunities and space for the business to grow into and this makes the entire company better.
Creating a legacy of leadership in your business offers more meaning to your employees and more impact for your clients. Embracing this kind of intentional leadership produces a culture filled with people doing the right thing, with discipline and accountability throughout the business. What started as an “I” becomes a “we,” and ultimately results in “us.” While most of us start a business for the opportunity and freedom it affords, at a deeper more fundamental level, it’s about the impact we’re making personally and collectively in our world. Letting go of what business is supposed to be allows your team to make it into what it could be. As a leader producing a leader who can produce a leader, your legacy awaits.