Life After Leadership

May 2008


By Chad Broadus

Most of my career in the tech industry has been spent in fairly high-level leadership positions. I’ve held titles such as regional IT coordinator, IT director, and most recently director of products and support. I generally was given wide latitude in doing my job and I was trusted to do the right thing – as long as it fit into the budget. I grew accustomed to defining bold new initiatives and directions, then delegating the tasks out to top-notch people to get the job done. My teams always pulled it off and we did some phenomenal work. All that changed about two years ago when, after a corporate buy out, I was sent out the door with severance package.

After taking some time off, I took a job as product manger for a small start-up that had just been acquired. It sounded like a great opportunity to roll up my sleeves and get back into some hands-on work with a product, which was a pretty big departure from the high-level work I’d been doing for the previous years. Frankly, I was a bit relieved to be taking a break from “leadership.”

Initially, the job was a dream come true – especially for someone with my personality bent because I relish the opportunity to do an extreme makeover. The company badly needed some more structure to the development process; my mind was awash with all the things that we needed to start, stop, or keep. I came on pretty strong, letting everyone know what was wrong with the organization and product. I voiced what we needed to do to fix them. And now I will introduce the key phrase – from my perspective. I was able to get maybe 40 percent of the changes that I wanted. The rest were met with polite, indirect declinations.

I experienced a mix of perplextion and annoyance. I had said jump, and not only had no one asked ‘how high,’ they had said: ‘no thank you.’ After I got over the annoyance, I began to realize it wasn’t the most enlightened path to come into an organization and be frank and blunt about why all of the work they’d been bleeding and sweating for over the last three years more or less sucked.

I took a new approach because I still believed that facets of my initial assessments were on the mark. I tempered my zeal for streamlining and improvement with some more inclusive methods I’d inexplicably lost since my early days in leadership.

I began to funnel my suggestions through a modified Socratic Method in which I asked a central question about a proposed change, and then moderated a dialog, either through email or face-to-face meetings, where we debated the relative merits of my suggestion. That has, repeatedly, been a really interesting process to watch unfold. Not surprisingly, the group almost always came up with something much better than I would have suggested on my own. And the real power of the process was that, since everyone had input to the final decision, there was real ownership and buy-in of the final outcome. Antoine de Saint-Exupery really captured the spirit of that kind of group buy-in when he said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to go to the forest to gather wood, saw it, and nail the planks together. Instead, teach them the desire for the sea.”

I also began to be more aware of my communication style when giving constructive criticism. Building on a great tip I’d gotten from a Buddhist monk, when communicating something that could be perceived as a sleight, I ask three questions: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it welcomed? If what I have to say meets those criteria, I plow ahead and generally have a great dialog.

I now know that leadership isn’t tantamount to authority. That leadership is less about titles and more about people. I now believe that the greatest leaders don’t succeed based on their authority but probably in spite of it. Leadership without authority is hard work. You have to lead all constituents to the common goal, and this often will include your boss. You can’t dictate your way to the kind of success inclusive leadership provides.

Moving from a position of broad responsibility to one of more focused responsibility has been rewarding on many levels for me. I’m grateful for the lessons relearned and the realignment of my ego during my transition from executive leadership to inclusive leadership. If you are an executive looking to get back into a more hands on position, realize that there will be many challenges for you in this transition. With a dash of introspection and pinch of flexibility, you’ll do just fine. Just don’t expect you’ll be taking a break from “leadership.”

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Mathew Schwartz is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Cambridge, Mass.

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