"My team is smaller than ever but the demands are greater. Now, with business coming back I can probably add three heads to the team — but I know I'm still going to be buried. It seems like my future is just going to be more work, less help. I need a new management model. Or else a new job."
The above comments, from a guy I last worked with back in 2003, came to me via a recent e-mail request for help. A senior executive in a large organization, he is a hard worker and a "company man." He cares about the organization and his performance in it. He's also one of those individuals who truly values life balance. I believe he's going through a situation that a lot of leaders, at various levels, are facing now or will be shortly.
The outlook for the economy and business in general is iffy. Reports and forecasts seem to indicate that the global outlook is modestly positive and that the worst is behind us. But, with capital still tight and still reeling from recent experience, most organizations are cautious about rebuilding previous levels of headcount.
This presents a paradox.
If business opportunities arise, you want to jump on them. On the other hand, if it slows down quickly, you don't want to have a lot of human overhead, have to start layoffs, and hurt employees.
Outsourcing presents another approach. Compared with hiring, it's often less expensive while at the same time it can provide great intellectual bench strength. But, outsourcing isn't exactly the best way to get the economy back up and the unemployment levels back down. So many leaders treat it as a course of last choice.
So how can a leader make enough time to actually lead, while — at the same time — try to get the best ROI from her human capital and not increase potential problems if the world recession doesn't improve?
Here's an idea that may work for a lot of leaders, regardless of the size of their team. (I'll warn you right now that although it's pretty commonplace for many of my clients, it's not an approach that most execs in North America have used until recently. So it could be something that takes a while to create in your place of work.) It's based on the idea that although a leader's time is limited, his or her thinking, experience, and perspective are one of the most valuable assets in the organization. This approach leverages the leader's ability to lead more effectively and when done properly benefits the entire organization. It does so by adding a new role to the team, usually achieved by eliminating another role.
Among the more-common titles for it, this role is frequently called Special Assistant, Executive Assistant, Chief of Staff, or Assistant to the (Boss' title). It's been used very effectively for many decades across Europe, Asia, and South America by a wide swath of organizations of all sizes. In North America, some of our more enlightened organizations depend on this role. Ones I've been involved with include Disney, Cablevision, The LA Times, Rainbow Media, and Power Corporation, which is one of Canada's largest entities. Other well-regarded organizations using the approach include AOL, ING Group, and Aflac. I'm not talking about flaky, flavor-of-the-month organizations.
The role allows the leader to be more effective and allows the team to move more quickly while keeping access to the boss. It can be a wonderful development role for a high-potential individual allowing her or him to see how things "really work." The role can also be a great place to use a seasoned company player who knows what is needed and can attend meetings and discussions on behalf of the leader, briefing that exec later.
Rather than simply replacing existing positions, give serious attention to new roles like this time-tested and well-proven approach. Today is the right time to optimize your performance.
John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion dollar organizations and launching start-ups in both the U.S. and Canada. The author of two published books, he is frequently seen providing advice on TV, in magazines, and newspapers.