by Christopher Hoenig

Leadership Demands Change with Organizational Size

May 01, 20016 mins
IT Leadership

Scale affects everything from the physical universe to the man-made construction of systems most of us are involved in. Why shouldn’t it apply to leadership? Leading a very small team is fundamentally different from leading a very large global corporation. Successful careers are a progression from one scale of leadership to another, whether it’s up the ladder to the top of the corporate hierarchy or out and down to captain a startup.

The truth is, most great leaders are challenged to show leadership at both ends of the scale all the time. Small-scale leadership may be what you use with your management team, while large-scale leadership is what you need with your department, business unit or company. To use a sailing analogy, good captains have to be able to demonstrate handling skills in both small and large boats, depending on the need. In my experience, I find that I am most successful at leadership in my own business when I consciously shift gears between leading on a small or a large scale.

So what factors make a real difference in adapting your leadership to scale? Throughout my career, I’ve led very small efforts like startup businesses and special projects to very large-scale efforts like major government reforms that would ultimately affect millions of people. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

At The High End: Large-Scale Leadership

Set Direction. Setting the vision, missions and strategies for a large organization requires not only simplicity and clarity but also a sense of the helm. Just as if you were steering a large ocean liner or tanker, you need to get the lay of the land, look farther out ahead, plan your turns and account for delays in responsiveness. Large organizations, like large vessels, just don’t turn on a dime. I spent more than three years helping to lead a major government reform effort. During this time, I made sure to clarify the ultimate destination and the roadmap well in advance, and used them consistently to guide discussions about vision and strategy. The vision was simple, and the many others involved in the effort could articulate it in their own words without changing the meaning. We still faced tactical situations that required adjustments, but the overall goal and path didn’t change.

Design and Delegate. Work has to be structured, accountability defined and responsibility delegated until you’ve got the right people in place to support your scale of work. As a leader, you need to define the organizational architecture, including your core team, the company, suppliers and business partners. Get the right people and companies in place, and then get out of the way as quickly as possible. If you don’t figure out how to get out of the way and still get all the work done, you’ll run aground very quickly. One of the first things I figure out when leading a very large-scale transformation effort is who the key players are, how to get them on board and how to make sure they succeed and get credit for the effort.

Communicate Often and Well. As your company gets larger, communication gets exponentially more important. Messages need to be that much clearer, with regular boosting, because they are repeated and passed along so many times, vulnerable to noise and interference all the while. Communication–whether with customers or employees–is the critical factor in keeping cohesion, motivating action and setting direction on a very large scale, and it must be tightly controlled and structured. A simple way to make that happen is to draw on a specialist. Put someone in charge of communications right away, and then develop a plan and a regular approach to it that sticks.

Map Your Systems. A large organization is one system with many subsystems, both managerial and technical. Where they don’t exist, you’ll need to build them. The broken ones will need fixing. The immature or fragile ones will need upgrading. And the old ones will need replacing. Set up a means to monitor your subsystems’ performance and maturity as well as their life cycles. Know who is accountable for the major systems on your watch. In each of my large-scale leadership experiences, I’ve tried to quickly create a systems map that everyone can agree on and get continuing attention focused on the health, productivity and yield of those systems.

At The Low End: Small-Scale Leadership

Lead By Doing. Up close and personal, a leader must be a doer and demonstrate hands-on skills and the ability to work with the team to get things done. One of the most effective acts you can make as a leader of a small team is to start working right away and show that you can do the work yourself. Nothing creates credibility more quickly. When I take charge of a small team, the first thing I try to do is get everyone involved in doing some work. I show that I’m willing to roll up my own sleeves and that we are going to work like a real team to get some real results. The impression never fails to stick.

Focus on Goals. Goals are more important than processes and systems for a small team. Set them clearly and early, and then determine whether you’ll need any systems at all in order to achieve them. Buy-in is also vital on a small team, where a lone person who has not committed to the goal can create disproportionately large problems. I make sure that goal-setting on a small team is a thoroughly collaborative process where there is complete ownership among all the team members.

Loosen Up. A tightly bundled team needs a sense of lightness to lubricate work, especially when pressure is high. Sir John Browne, group chief executive of British Petroleum, applies what he calls the three H’s in leading his management team: humor, humility and humanity. Where all three of these exist, you’re sure to find a high-functioning small team. Ever since I heard this, I’ve tried to emulate Browne’s example.

Create Intimacy. Small teams require you to open up and develop close personal relationships. A small team either comes together or it doesn’t. There is little in between. Take immediate opportunities to get to know the people you are working with as whole people, not just team members. Then create situations where all of you are together outside of a work environment to enhance the team-building process. These simple but effective ideas are all too often ignored.

If you can adjust quickly to changes in scale, then you will have mastered an essential aspect of leadership. Most important, you’ll soon be perceived as able to handle any challenge that may arise. That, in turn, will increase the chance that new leadership opportunities will turn out to be yours, and not someone else’s.