Enableship – Leadership through the Enablement of Others

A few weeks ago I was having dinner with my fiancée, and we started talking about some of the leaders of her company.  She works for a large Fortune 500, and so there are many leaders, at many different levels.  Specifically, we started talking about her boss, and her boss’ boss and how terrific they are, especially when compared to many of her friends’ bosses and others that she has come across.  As we talked, the pattern that emerged was one of “enablement.”  Her boss, more than any other she has come across, made it her business to be supportive of her group – and not just in spirit, but by “clearing the pathway” so that each member of the group could perform the tasks that they were most adept at.  As a result, the actions of her boss were leading to a more coordinated team, smoother operations, and often better performance.

While that conversation sparked my desire to write this post, the power of enablement is something I’ve thought about for quite some time.  Others have too.  For example, back in July, Zach Bruhnke published a great post called You’re not the CEO – you’re the Fucking Janitor, which then incited Jonathan Strauss to post his response, You’re more than the Fucking Janitor: Thoughts on Startup Leadership.  Both were great posts on start-up leadership, and as I read them, saw the very common thread of “enablement.”  At the earliest stages of a start-up, that might mean cleaning-up, ordering computers, making sure payroll is running smoothly, and overall just keeping the product development team happy – the dirty work.  As the organization grows, so do responsibilities, and the CEO might begin dealing with customers, board members, investors, or organizational challenges.  As a company grows towards maturity, responsibilities can shift even further.  The reality is that “enabling” can mean a lot of different things depending upon the circumstances and the individual – for instance, it could mean that you do what you do best (maybe its sales, maybe its coding) while giving others the resources and runway that they need to perform at their best.  Maybe its making inspiring speeches, maybe its meeting with investors to generate investment capital to continue operations (and payroll) or maybe it really is just taking out the garbage.  Whatever it is, there is a common thread in each case, and that is empowering those on your team to perform at their best, and their least distracted.

As I write this I should note that my time as a manager has been limited, however in my decade of work experience, I’ve worked under dozens of managers, and a number of organizational leaders as I’ve held several roles across a half-dozen, unrelated organizations.  I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t; who has driven me to perform, and who hasn’t; which organizations are the most prolific and which simply shuffle along.  My learning to date has led me to the belief that some people view leadership and seniority as indicative of their superiority, and some view it as responsibility to lead (to be clear, this is for managers not all senior professionals – you can be senior and not really a manager (and in all of this there are grey lines)).  In my experience as an employee, those who view a manager role as an entitlement, tend to view themselves as individual contributors, and those under them as their support team.  They view themselves as the team and their personal success as the success for the team or organization.  As a result, those working underneath them are often disheartened and face last-minute deadlines, constant schedule shifts, continual interruptions, micromanagement, long hours and energy deficiency.

On the flip side, the leaders I’ve seen and worked with that view their role as the leader of a team – almost a coach of sorts, tend of have the opposite effect.  They see themselves as more of a keystone – sitting atop the organization in an important role, but as just a single element of it.  I believe that they view their role as a responsibility to those working underneath them, and provide the support needed for those individuals to perform in their individual roles.  These leaders and bosses view success as a team effort, derived from a group of individuals working diligently at their respective roles.  The bosses I’ve had that skew towards this side of leadership have provided visibility in workflow (where available), driven me to learn and develop, and helped me and my colleagues to help them, leading to a highly productive team and a lot of energy and excitement.

Examples of enabling leaders extends far beyond the business world.  Recently, while watching a Yankees/Red Sox game, former Red Sox manager (turned ESPN announcer) Terry Francona began talking about one of things he had learned from Joe Torre, the highly-successful 12-year Yankee skipper.  I don’t recall the exact quote, but the sentiment stuck with me.  Francona talked about the success Torre had during those 12 years (which included 4 world series rings), and how much of it was attributable to what he was able to do off-the-field – and just not off the field in strategy (although that was part of his success), but in the blocking and tackling of issues that kept his players free of distractions and enabled to just go out and play.  Every team has off-the-field distractions – its inevitable when you have big contracts, big personalities and enormous pressure – but until his last few years, Torre’s Yankees had few real mid-season distractions, and Francona stated that much of that was due to Torre’s ability to manage these distractions, allowing his players to concentrate on baseball, and just go out and win games (including six pennants and a 3-year string of consecutive World Series titles).  On the flip side, you don’t have to look much further than this year’s Red Sox team to see what off-the-field distractions can do to an organization (disclosure:  I’m a yankee fan).

Of course, within the business world, examples of leaders as enablers is plentiful as well.  Wiley Cerilli, who recently sold his two-year old company, SinglePlatform, to Constant Contact for $100M is known to be one of those leaders.  Kenny Herman, a good friend of mine, and the EVP, Business Development at SinglePlatform had this to say about Wiley:

“Wiley often compared SinglePlatform to a football team; while every player can’t be the QB or star wide receiver, the kicker who can nail a 50 yarder, or a physical D-lineman unafraid to throw himself in front of the biggest guard each have an equal and significant impact on the outcome of the game.  Often referred to as ‘team captain’, Wiley empowered each of our team members to maximize our strengths and outperform.”

And indeed (and to take the sports metaphors one step further), on the “about us” section of the SinglePlatform website they have a quote from Pat Riley – “Great teamwork is the only way we create breakthroughs that define our careers.”  

Even Steve Jobs, someone that is often looked at as almost a dictator of his organization, said in a 1998 Fortune Article “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”   Earlier that year, in a 1998 Businessweek Article, he also said “You’re missing it. This is not a one-man show. What’s reinvigorating this company is two things: One, there’s a lot of really talented people in this company who listened to the world tell them they were losers for a couple of years, and some of them were on the verge of starting to believe it themselves. But they’re not losers. What they didn’t have was a good set of coaches, a good plan. A good senior management team. But they have that now.

In conclusion, one major takeaway lesson I have from my first decade in the workforce, is that those managers that have paved the way for me to perform (as well as learn and grow) have been the ones that I have wanted to do the best work for, and who I have performed the best for.  In my short time as a manager, I’ve tried to upohold those same principals and I firmly believe that good leaders are good enablers – that leadership is “enableship.”  What that means depends upon the organization, the level and the team – it could mean heavy involvement or light involvement, broad goals or detailed instructions, pressure or leniency, financial resources or other organizational support, vision or execution, optimism or blunt reality, or any combination of factors – but it nearly always means that you support your team with the resources they need to succeed.  When they have those resources, they are empowered to succeed and with their success comes team success and organizational success.  Geoffrey James has a great article in Inc that outlines the individual traits of inspiring leaders.  Many of them line-up with the traits I’ve discussed here and its a valuable read and a good place to continue thinking about this topic.

13. September 2012 by Jonathan Drillings
Categories: Imported from VC2BD | Leave a comment