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Leading By Example Doesn’t Scale
As your team grows, you can’t lead by example anymore.
I meet a lot of leaders that thrive when their teams are less than 10 people. They have a clear vision for the future, and they organize their team around that vision. Execution is easy and the team moves extremely fast to produce results.
However, when their team grows to more than 10 people things change. Execution gets harder and things begin to move more slowly, with more mistakes being made every day. The leader is quickly overwhelmed with how many discussions they have every day, and the burden of communicating with everyone. It’s the same leader and same team (just slightly bigger), what is going wrong?
Before we answer that, let’s talk about implicit and explicit leadership.
Most people find it easiest to lead by example. Instead of writing down a list of principles, processes and other operating guidelines you just do what you think is right. Your team learns by watching you, and over time they know your principles, processes and operating guidelines without you having to write them down. It’s like they are reading your mind!
Leading by example is implicit leadership.
If you have a huge team, say 200 people, implicit leadership doesn’t work. Most people on the team will never meet you or see you in action so they can’t learn by watching you. Your role as a leader also changes, and the team sees you as a representative of the business instead of an individual. You cannot convey much nuance to everyone, and context is difficult as some employees will have years of experience while others just started.
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In between those two extremes, there are a number of points where the company changes and your leadership style needs to change as well. You need to shift from implicit leadership to explicit leadership in steps, eventually moving fully from implicit to explicit leadership.
What is explicit leadership? Being explicit about what you need the team to do and how. In explicit leadership:
Your goals are written down where everyone can understand what they are and why you chose them.
Your processes are written down. For example, your interview process will have a set number of stages with clear requirements and rubrics at each stage.
You explain the big decisions you make and why. For example, if you’re going to change your pricing you explain the reasons and expected impact.
You repeat yourself. Not everyone will remember everything you say the first time you say it, so you will need to repeat important things so that everyone will remember.
In short, explicit leadership means you write things down.
In implicit leadership the burden is on the team to learn from your example. With explicit leadership that burden shifts to the leaders, who are responsible for ensuring everyone knows what needs to be done and how.
What you need to write down depends on your team and your business, but the common thread is that communication is clear and information easily found. When your team is small this is unnecessary overhead, but as your team grows it becomes a critical foundation that holds everything together.
Going back to our first example, when the team grew past 10 people the leader continued trying to lead by example. Instead of starting to shift to explicit leadership, the leader kept trying to lead by example but it became less and less effective. As a result, the team starts struggling as the implicit signal is lost and there is a vacuum in leadership. The growing dysfunction is a sign that the style of leadership needed to change in the past, and definitely needs to change now.
None of this is unique to the CEO! Any leader of a growing organization goes through this same evolution. It happens with not just executives, but the manager of a new region, the head of a new vertical or the leader of a new product line. This means the same organization will go through this evolution in recursive stages, both at the company level and then at each sub-organization level.
For leaders who don’t have experience in explicit leadership, these transitions can be hard. It is especially hard for leaders who start companies very young and may never have worked at a company before. Without seeing how the tools of explicit leadership work, it can seem like “big company” stuff that you want to avoid. In reality, it’s a necessary tool in any growing organization.