Architects and Builders

Architect and builder discussing at construction site.If you have ever built a house, you may have noticed that the architect and the builder are usually not the same person. While it is true that occasionally these two roles are carried out by a single individual, in most cases people specialize in . . . naturally gravitate toward . . . one set of skills or the other. The same is true of leaders. Steve Graves calls these two types of leaders entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders.

Entrepreneurial leaders are your innovators, your start-up specialists, your architects. These leaders are always asking “what if” and “what about”. They are passionate, have a sense of urgency, are continually searching for new opportunities and challenging the status quo. According to Graves, “Entrepreneurial leaders disrupt, motivate, pivot, run fast, and break things.” Every organization needs entrepreneurial leaders.

Enterprise leaders, your builders, figure out how to make the idea on paper actually happen. They focus their energy on coordinating systems, processes, and people for maximum impact. They plan for and respond to the complex realities of a project and determine how to construct something that is sustainable over time. They tend to be more measured and methodical, sticking with something until every detail is addressed. Every organization needs enterprise leaders.

Although architects and builders may not always see eye to eye, if you are going to construct something that has a lasting impact, you need both sets of skills — in varying amounts at different stages of the building process. The creative tension between the two perspectives provides the opportunity for better results than either could achieve alone. Like so much of leadership, it is all about the balance — leaning a bit more in one direction at a particular point in time, and then shifting back toward the other end of the continuum as circumstances change.

The trick is to make sure you have individuals with both sets of skills on your “construction team.” If you naturally skew toward one end of the continuum (and as a result tend to place more value on that set of skills), it is easy to surround yourself with like-minded people. That might make for a smoother process, but not likely a better result. It is the range of perspectives that come from both entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders that yield the greatest impact.

Whether you are trying to build a house or a solid future for your organization, you need both architects and builders on the team.

Knowing when to get into the weeds

Explorer in the weeds

Years ago, I was at an outdoor retreat with members our leadership team, and the individual leading our team-building activities asked that all 8 or 9 of us stand on a small plastic table cloth. The object of the activity was to flip the table cloth over without any of us stepping off the plastic. As you can imagine with that many leaders on a single small square, there were a variety of suggestions of how to accomplish the task. We squished. We wiggled. We debated. And finally, when it seemed we were making no progress, I decided it was time to get into the weeds. (Have I mentioned that patience is not my strong suit?!?)

I squatted down amongst everyone’s feet to get a better look at the options and then came up with a strategy. One-by-one, I would grab a foot, pick it up, flip a corner of the tablecloth, and put the foot back down. Although there were a few times I was pretty sure I was going to end up with someone landing on my head, we eventually managed to completely flip the table cloth without anyone’s feet moving off the plastic.

Some months later, one of my colleagues on the team commented that the activity was a good example of how I lead . . . when I couldn’t figure out a solution from where I was standing, I got down closer to the action. Yes, there was a risk that I would be stepped on, but I knew that was the best way to move the team forward. To this day, I consider that one of the best compliments I have ever received regarding my leadership style.

Sometimes, you simply have to get into the weeds to help your team find a solution, or so you can gain a dose of reality from the troops on the ground. How many times have you received an edict, or directive from “on high” (be that an external regulator, a state agency, fill in the blank) that probably made a lot of sense to the individual sitting in some distant office writing it, but was impossible to implement because of a variable that was not considered? Hitting a little closer to home, what is the likelihood that you have been the author of such an grand plan (written from the comfort of your office) and your staff were the ones shaking their heads because of something that was obvious to them, but you neglected to account for? Guilty as charged. But hopefully I’ve learned.

Seriously, how hard is it to take the time to look at a project from the perspective of those who will be impacted by it? They are likely to have insights that you will never have. We have tried to do this through Process Review Committees, where the staff closest to an issue make recommendations for a solution, with director level staff considering the recommendations, but not creating them. We’ve had “What in the World Were They Thinking” meetings, where staff could ask questions about a parts of a change initiative that didn’t make sense to them. We’ve held focus groups prior to making tough decisions that would affect staff, to get their input on things they would like us to consider when making the decisions.

Do we get it right every time? Of course not . . . but one thing I’ve learned . . . when staff recognize that you are trying to consider an issue from all angles, they are much more likely to give you a measure of grace when you miss something. They are much more likely to let you grab their foot and move it to a different place on the plastic square, if they are confident that you have their best interests in mind. And they don’t gain that confidence by what you say. They gain it when they occasionally see you hanging out in the weeds.