Inspired by the LEAD leadership training last year with Mozilla, I’m writing this blog post to share a snapshot of where I am in my leadership journey today. I believe that true learning doesn’t begin until you share, since that’s how you get to validate your observations and see if your reflections hold any value.
One thing I got familiar with last year is the concept of the runway and the horizon — and more importantly, I learned that you can’t have both as your team grows bigger. First, let me explain the concept.
Things like looking after your team, ensuring that everyone is on a growth path and that they’re happy, stimulated, motivated, and that you’re delivering on all of your team’s objectives and projects — that’s the runway. In contrast, meetings with stakeholders, forming healthy alliances with key players in and outside of the org, getting yourself some solid mentors and using all you learn from them to influence your team’s strategy and success — that’s the horizon. Everyone in every part of an organization typically does a bit of both, and generally speaking, the bigger your individual responsibility, the more you need to focus on the horizon.
Here’s the catch: the more you look up at the horizon, the less you get to look down at the runway. You can’t do both well unless you have a really small team. If your team is large, you have to choose what you want to focus on, and you need help with the parts that you choose to step away from.
Finding the right leadership balance is rarely as simple as the classic rule of third!
I used to be a manager of a handful of extremely creative and hard-working individuals. With a team of that size, things were fairly straightforward and it was relatively easy to keep an eye on both the runway and the horizon. It also helped that Mozilla only had one product at the time. Some people say that there’s a breaking point in terms of the size a team can have before you begin to fail to manage it reasonably well on your own. This breaking point is often said to be around 7-8 direct reports; after that point, you begin to compromise on your important responsibilities as a manager and you have to essentially choose between the runway or the horizon — or do a half-assed job with both like I did when I had ten direct reports in 2012. Luckily, all ten were as creative and hard-working as the first handful of people I hired, but it was still too much to manage for one person while at the same time trying to work on strategy.
By the time I had ten direct reports, I found myself unable to do my job well, and this impacted my team, created some conflicts, and probably also led to my team missing opportunities in the org. This was a big cause of stress for me, because I felt like I wasn’t in control of my life. There were things I knew I should be doing that I simply didn’t have time for anymore. I began to realize that I couldn’t handle both the runway and the horizon anymore, so I had to get help to continue to grow the influence and success of my team. The solution was to form another management level in my team to get help with some of the load.
The art of letting go of the runway
This change of structure of my team also changed my own role, because it allowed me to gradually focus more on the horizon and less on the runway. This gradual change is still going on today: as my new managers grow into their new roles, so am I growing into my new role; and vice versa. At first it felt strange — actually a bit empty and saddening — to not have frequent 1:1s with everyone on my team. All of a sudden, I only managed three people directly instead of ten (today that number is up at four again).
It was hard for me to let go of the idea that I need to stay on top of everything that is going on in my team, but I realized that if I tried to do that, I would fail even more to stay on top of what was going on outside of my team. Also, letting go is the only way the people on my teams will be able to continue to grow their own autonomy and influence by being allowed to step up, make mistakes and learn from them.
If I focus less on the runway and more on the horizon, new opportunities arise that would otherwise not happen to the team. And this new focus of mine has the great side-effect that it spills over to the entire team: I’m noticing that everyone in all of my teams is wearing bigger and bigger strategic hats. In short, every single person is increasing their impact in the organization today — the crucial strategic thinking seems to spread like ripples in a pond.
But there is still a balance between the runway and the horizon that I have to strike. I’m still exploring and learning what the right balance is for me. On the one hand, if I focus too much on the horizon, I run the risk of being useless to my team because I’m simply not in the loop on the things that are happening in the teams I’m responsible for. And on the other hand, if I get myself too involved in the projects and people on the teams, I run the risk of missing critical strategic opportunities for my team — and being perceived as a micro-manager! I believe that the right balance for me is to try to do two things well. I’ll share them here because they may be helpful to others, too:
- Runway: Grow the leadership of your direct reports by helping them increase their autonomy, accountability, and ability to communicate and coordinate their work with others. Support them when they make mistakes, cheer for them when they succeed. Don’t micro-manage, but try hard to understand most of what they do so you can be supportive and offer support when needed. Be there for them, but stay out of their way. And help them be the same kind of influence to their direct reports so the ripples continue to spread.
- Horizon: Devote all of your remaining time on the things that influence your teams indirectly: strategic alliances with other teams, coordinating efforts with stakeholders in the organization, ensuring your teams are where they need to be, looking for opportunities for your teams to increase their impact, staying on top of news and activities related to your area of responsibility. Do everything you can to ensure that your teams make a big difference in the organization.
If you do both of these things well, your teams and the entire organization will benefit. Sounds easy? I’m afraid it’s anything but. This should really be seen as the instruction manual for myself, not me trying to preach to anyone else how to be a great leader. I keep making mistakes almost every day, but I try hard to learn from them — that’s my key, I think, to become a better leader in the future.