by Matt Perman
One of the most helpful books that I’ve read on leading in an organization is Scott Eblin’s The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success. Eblin points out that “40 percent of new executives fail within eighteen months of being named to their positions.”
That’s an incredible statistic.
A typical response might be that this is just the Peter Principle at work—people have been promoted to their level of incompetence. But I think Elbin is right that this actually doesn’t make much sense. Most of these people are talented, bright, and motivated. It is unlikely that such a high percentage of them have been promoted beyond their ability.
What is actually going on is that these people are making a classic—but very easy to understand—mistake: when they got into their new leadership positions, they kept doing all the things that got them there. They didn’t realize that leadership is a different sort of thing than management and, even more significantly, than being an individual contributor.
And so they failed. They acted like an individual contributor in a leadership role, and so they ended up doing all the wrong things. They probably even did them extremely well—for it was their capacity for individual contribution that likely got them promoted to a level of more formal leadership—but since they were doing the wrong things, it backfired and undermined their effectiveness in the role.
Don’t Confuse the Roles of the Producer and the Leader
Much of the time, people reach positions of formal leadership because they have proven themselves as fantastic individual contributors. They have done excellent work coding pages for the website (an individual contributor task), for example, and so they become promoted to head up the whole web division (a leadership task).
The problem is that, at the higher levels of an organization, you don’t succeed primarily because of your abilities as an individual contributor (that is, because of your abilities to do the work). Rather, you primary role is now to set direction, align your team, and give thought to the direction of the whole organization.
If you keep focusing on doing the work yourself, or acting like another member of the team whose contribution is simply another chunk of work that is the same in kind as what everyone else is doing, you will be neglecting the things that you are really in your role to do.
In fact—and this is the key—if you keep trying to do the sorts of things you did as an individual contributor, you simply won’t have time to lead at all.
There Are Good Things You Have to Stop Doing in Order to Lead Well
That’s the main take-away you need to get here. I am not saying that you need to start leading in addition to continuing to act as an individual contributor. Rather, my point is that you have to stop doing most of your former functional responsibilities in order to be able to lead.
If you keep trying to do your functional responsibilities, you simply won’t have time to do this. Your individual contribution tasks will interfere with your leadership tasks.
There is a range here, of course. It’s not that the leader has noresponsibilities as an individual contributor. But his primary area of focus needs to be leadership tasks, not individual contributor tasks.
Leadership: Setting Down Responsibility for a Few Results and Picking Up Accountability for Many Results
Eblin talks about eight core things that you need to stop doing (and eight things you need to start doing) in order to succeed at the executive level. His most helpful point is that executive leadership requires “setting down responsibility for few results and picking up accountability for many results.”
To be “responsible” for something is to be involved in the details. You are either doing it directly or closely involved in directing those who are. Obviously, this doesn’t scale—if you are closely involved with the details of things, you won’t have the time to deal with a lot of things.
To be “accountable,” on the other hand, is to be answerable for the results that other people (your team) achieves. Since you aren’t in the details doing things, this scales—you can be accountable for many things, which is exactly what any leadership role requires.
To Accomplish More, Do Less
A leader needs to accomplish more than he did as an individual contributor, not less. And that’s the precise reason he needs to stop acting like an individual contributor.
When you lead, your efforts are multiplied through the influence you have on the contributions of others. Thus, the leader needs to spend less time on individual projects and more time working across the scope of the organization or, if his or her role is informal, the movement.
This means, as Andy Stanley has said, that if you are a leader, you need to “spend the majority of your time at the thirty-thousand foot level while remaining accessible to team members who are closer to the action. Spend more time strategizing and less time problem solving.”
Matt Perman is the former Director of Strategy for Desiring God and is currently in process of launching a new organization devoted to equipping Christians theologically and practically, especially in the developing world. This article was adapted from the bonus chapter of his book, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done.
— In fact, I’m not sure I agree with the Peter Principle at all. It simply doesn’t make much sense to me. People can be promoted outside of their strengths. But to say they’ve been promoted “beyond their ability” implies that that the person has only a certain amount of ability that can only take them so far. In contrast, I believe that people can keep learning and growing and rise to the occasion if they truly desire to. The issue is that the higher role may not be a good fit for what they are most highly motivated and gifted to do. But the problem here is not that the role is higher and they can’t somehow handle the responsibility; the problem is one of fit. There may be other roles of even greater responsibility that area good fit, and in which the person would excel.  Andy Stanley, Next Generation Leader.