The Hands-On Executive

August 5, 2020
4 min read

Leadership. It's the fuel that fires up any successful organization and the heavyweight champ in the grand business arena. So, what's the mystery ingredient that elevates the titans of leadership above the crowd? Spoiler alert: it's simpler than you'd imagine - being a hands-on executive.

Let's cut to the chase and get to why I feel this matters.

The Power of Rolling up your Sleeves

Hands-on? Doesn't that mean turning into a corporate micromanager. No, it doesn't - it's about amping up communication, rallying the troops, and hitting the turbo button on your problem-solving prowess. It's about feeling the pulse, locking into the heartbeat of your organization. And, crucially, it's about knowing when to throw yourself INTO the business and when to take a step back and work ON it.

Down in the Weeds vs. Up in the C-suite

Let's break this down. When you're working IN your business, you're knee-deep in the daily grind. It's about pulling levers, steering the ship, and ensuring your organization purrs like a well-tuned machine.

Working ON your business, on the other hand, is like flying a helicopter and pulling back for a bird's-eye view. It's strategizing, envisioning the future, plotting the course, and living in the C-suite. It's about devising systems and processes that make your business run like a well-tuned machine.

Here's the kicker - you've got to keep both in sight.

From my experience, if you're so immersed in the trees, you're likely to miss the forest. Conversely, if you're forever in the ivory tower, you risk glossing over the imminent ground-level threats.

Striking a balance between strategy and execution, as dictated by your company's scale and growth stage, is the key to unlocking success.

Igniting the Spark and Embracing the Grind

Here's where the magic happens - ramping up communication through your hands-on ethos, stoking morale, and crafting a culture of camaraderie and candid dialogue. Take a leaf out of Jeff Bezos' book - the guy used to dive into customer complaints himself. Such a hands-on approach underlines your commitment, boosts your approachability, and in turn, your team is less likely to hesitate in laying their issues to your table. The result? More effective problem-solving and a much stronger culture.

Now, think of Steve Jobs. The Apple visionary was renowned for getting his hands dirty with everything from design, marketing, and retail. Rolling up your sleeves to understand the minutiae of your operations isn't just good for morale; it's a testament to your investment in the team's success. This hands-on involvement cranks up job satisfaction, productivity levels, and the quality of output.

Remember that keeping a firm grip on the pulse of your organization fine-tunes your problem-solving skills. Stay alert to the operational speed bumps, and you can preemptively swerve them, leading to an organization's lean, mean, efficient machine.

The Range of Touch

While there's a heap of benefits to being hands-on, this method isn't a one-size-fits-all for the C-suite. Not every executive will have the same chance, the hands-on expertise, or need to dive into the trenches.

Design, product, strategy, engineering, and marketing executives are usually better positioned to embrace this hands-on mantra. These roles often shuttle between strategy and execution, demanding a deep-dive understanding of both the big picture and the tiny details.

Exceptions to the Rule

For those playing the big three - CEO, CFO, or COO - remember that always scrambling in the weeds might not be your winning move. This, of course, is dependent on your company's growth stage.

Don't forget, at certain stages of your organization's life, it's more critical to steer the ship than to row the boat. So keep your ear to the ground but ensure you're not so entangled in the nitty-gritty that you lose sight of the horizon.

Closing Thoughts

Look, being a hands-on leader isn't everyone's cup of tea. But for those of us who can pull it off, like GM's Mary Barra, who often spends time on the assembly line, it's about reaching for the stars – igniting profound change and making an impact that echoes.

In considering this leadership style, remember it's a game of balance - strategy, and action. It's about creating an open communication line throughout your organization, fostering a supportive culture, and driving your team to hit its peak.

For those of us in design, product, strategy, engineering, and marketing, remember that authentic leadership isn't always about sitting in an ivory tower. It's sometimes about plunging into the thick of it, understanding your operations' nuts and bolts, and steering your team to success. It's about etching a meaningful mark.

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©Bora Nikolic 2023

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