What role has the greatest impact?

The leader-of-leaders role is the most significant position in any organisation. With design and decision rights and the ability to influence broadly across an organisation, and even beyond to external stakeholders, the leader-of-leaders role is at the epicentre of staff morale, discretionary effort and staff retention - it can make or break an organisation.

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Leadership as a neural network

The leader-of-leaders role is the most significant position in any organisation. With design and decision rights and the ability to influence broadly across an organisation, and even beyond to external stakeholders, the leader-of-leaders role is at the epicentre of staff morale, discretionary effort and staff retention – it can make or break an organisation. Based on our conversations with industry professionals, it is clear that the relationship between these leaders and their people has a direct influence on the outputs and results of an organisation.

In the human nervous system, an idea in the brain is brought to life in the body through synapses. The synapses, according to Moulson & Nelson (2008), ‘refer to the points of contact between neurons where information is passed from one neuron to the next’.1 Without a synapse, the brain is unable to transmit information and coordinate action to parts of the body. The crucial function in the neurological process allows us to function, to learn, to interact and to develop memories. The hand cannot do what the brain wants without effective synapses to allow the neural pathways to fire.

If we look at an organisation as the human nervous system, the leader-of-leaders role acts within an organisation much like a synapse does within the brain. The neurons represent the people within an organisation responsible for applying their professional knowledge and skills to produce products or services. More than a transmission of information, the leader of leaders (as the synapse) must activate and coordinate action within an organisation. The leader of leaders spurs the firing of neurons to instigate action and provides the pathway for messages to get through, therefore triggering the necessary responses within the body.

Using this analogy between our nervous system and leadership we can see that without effective leaders of leaders an organisation cannot expect to perform well and thrive because it lacks both the clarity of role and good communication and coordination between its people. 

When we over-stimulate the neurons, there is chaos and a lack of clarity. When we do not foster and nurture the neurons, they shrink and disappear. These principles can be applied to people within an organisation, where they need to be inspired and supported to grow. The notion of the ‘multiplier effect’ is applicable to the leader-of-leaders role, whereby the effectiveness of this role is carried through to their people and then in turn, the teams working under them. We all have stories of a leader who proved to be a roadblock due to their tendency to micromanage. Conversely, there are the incredible leaders who empower and support, providing the much-needed clarity that inspires people throughout an organisation. The relationship between the leader of leaders and their team leaders is “make or break” for an organisation. To use a corporate cliche, the cascading effect of this relationship has a significant impact on the people and culture aspects of a business.

Given the significance of the leader-of-leaders role, how do you ensure the effectiveness of these leaders and that their capabilities are equipped to be impactful in that role?

Through conversations with industry professionals, Being Leaders has formed key insights into the leader-of-leaders space. Our initial findings indicate that the leader-of-leaders role is the most crucial component of an organisation’s design, whereby the people and culture impact on an organisation can be equally positive as it can be detrimental. The effectiveness of a person in a leader-of-leaders role has direct implications for broader business outcomes as well. 

Defining a leader of leaders

Before we delve into the insights, it is important to discuss, what is a leader-of-leaders role?

A leader of leaders is where you have multiple team leaders reporting to you. These team leaders typically manage a further three to ten professional contributors. You now have team leaders reporting to you who are focused on shaping results through their own leadership. Think of an engineer – they would have started as a technical expert (a professional contributor) in their field and then, perhaps, moved on to manage a team of other engineers. In this case, they still apply their technical expertise and are still very involved in specific projects. As outlined in Figure 1, when the engineer moves into a leader-of-leaders role, they are not directly involved in the technical elements of the organisation, but instead focused on designing systems, developing and empowering their team leaders and influencing cross-functionally in their business.

Figure 1: Defining a leader of leaders – Becoming a Leader of Leaders, Ian Lees, 2021

The complexity of the leader-of-leaders role

Having recognised the situation – that the leader-of-leaders role is and organisation’s priority – we then move to what impacts the effectiveness of a leader of leaders.  The transition from a team leader to a leader of leaders can be one of the most complex of an individual’s career. Recent research conducted by Dr Ty Wiggins from the University of Wollongong found that leadership transitions can be the most stressful and challenging experiences in a person’s career and life.2 Furthermore, Ian Lees – author of Becoming a Leader of Leaders – indicates how burnout (amongst other factors) starts with the individual but then permeates into the broader organisation.3 As referenced in his book, “the consequences of not realising that the leader-of-leaders role is a totally different job are devastating for the individual leader, as well as costly and inefficient for the organisation they work in.” 

A leader of leaders who recognises that their role is a totally different job to what they have done previously will thrive. While the team leader remains involved in the details, for example a developing a presentation, the leader of leaders must design the systems that their people work in and scan internally and externally for opportunities. The challenge arises when a leader of leaders remains attached to the detail and feels they need to be across all aspects of their team’s work.

Whilst there is recognition that leadership transitions can be difficult for the individual to navigate, there is a gap in understanding about this impact on an organisation. The reference to leadership transitions in this paper looks at the significance of the leader-of-leaders roles. The transition is applicable to the individual, as in they are the ones transitioning to a new role. Other papers discuss the significance of a leadership transition from the perspective of an organisation’s succession planning, whereas this paper covers the impact of the individual leadership transition on the broader organisation. 

The organisational impact of the leader-of-leaders role

So, what is the impact on an organisation when a leader of leaders thrives or falters in their role? The leader-of-leaders role impacts in two stages: people and culture outcomes and organisational results. To capture the issue and the impact the below value chain articulates how the effectiveness of a leader of leaders first impacts the individuals within an organisation, before having a long term influence on the organisation’s bottom line through inefficiencies, but it is the steps before this that can be just as significant.

The epicentre of an organisation is with the relationship between the leader of leaders and their direct reports (who will, in turn, have functional teams underneath them). This crucial connection is built on clarity and communication – when it is lacking there is huge detriment to the individuals and the organisation. The common outcomes of ineffective leadership impacts the leader themselves and also their broader teams in the following ways:

  • Role overload: The risk that arises with an ineffective leader is that their people end up with role overload, they take on too much work
  • Poor morale: Role overload then evolves into poor morale amongst not only the direct team but the broader organisation
  • Burnout: Burnout is the obvious impact at an individual level, where a person has not been effective in a leader-of-leaders role. They end up working unnecessary and additional hours as they cannot remove themselves from the detail of the day-to-day work of their people. The burnout stretches beyond the individual level and also applies to the people within the team, who lack clarity and vision from the leader of leaders
  • Staff attrition: Stemming from burnout is the attrition of staff – an increase in turnover as people no longer want to commit to the work. This also then impacts on the attractiveness of the organisation as a prospective employer

Conversely, there is infinite opportunity when a leader of leaders is thriving in their role. An impactful leader of leaders will actively shape the system their people work in, they will effectively delegate to their teams and they will influence across the organisation by integrating the work of their teams with other functions. Given their influence within their teams and cross functionally, it is fair to say that the leader of leaders can define an organisation:

  • Role clarity and security: at the core of a leader-of-leaders role is the design of effective systems and with this comes role clarity for their people
  • Enhanced discretionary effort: when people are truly empowered they are willing to commit the required extra effort to create a point of difference in the market
  • Culture of innovation: in an environment that provides clarity, it breeds confidence, whereby people are willing to challenge the status quo and look for opportunities to add value to the organisation
  • Improved staff morale: a high functioning organisation is reflective of staff morale. When people are committed to the organisation and its mission they thrive in their role
  • Improved staff retention: when effort and innovation is recognised and celebrated, people are driven to continually grow and expand their role

And for the business, what results can be expected with an effective leader of leaders in place? 

Determining a return-on-investment with regards to the leader-of-leaders role is not clear, nor is it gospel. It is the people and culture experiences that carry the weight, however, it is clear that the leader-of-leaders role has significant influence on the overall business performance. Consider staff turnover as a result of micromanagement, or the inefficiencies that arise when a leader-of-leaders stays stuck in the detail of their team’s work, therefore doubling up on the work, using the organisation’s precious resources of time and money to do work that others are more than capable of doing. 

Beyond these internal impacts, it is apparent that the leader-of-leaders role can influence the relationship with key stakeholders, in areas such as:

  • Increased client satisfaction: the focus on innovation and discretionary effort resonates with existing and prospective clients
  • Enhanced market reputation: as an organisation attracts the best talent, they become recognised as industry leaders
  • Growth in customer base: the growth in reputation leads to increased business

The leader-of-leaders role is the most crucial component of an organisation. It boils down to clarity of people’s role. When a leader is effective in their role, they provide clarity on roles, responsibilities and expectations. This clarity arises from open communication and clear delegation. With clarity comes confidence – people grow through the experiences.

What does this mean for your organisation?

The impact of an effective leader-of-leaders cannot be underestimated. The leader-of-leaders role anchors an organisation and provides the impetus for growth and effectiveness. Taking the time to reflect and assess your organisation’s current position is the first step in planning for future growth.

For organisations that have effective leader-of-leaders across various functions, there is a need to continually support this leadership approach. For an organisation that is experiencing the burnout, turnover and inefficiencies there is the need to review personnel and structural components, but also to invest in supporting your people in leader-of-leaders roles. 

The transition into a leader-of-leaders role is one of the most important, and potentially most difficult, shifts in a person’s career. There is a need and a duty to help guide people through this time. 

The provision of capability development can be significant for the individual in the leader-of-leaders role, but it can also be revolutionary for your organisation.

Being Leaders delivers a leadership development program, working with people who are navigating their leader-of-leaders role. Based on the concepts in the Amazon best-seller, Becoming a Leader of Leaders, the program provides practical tools and resources to help people transform from overworked to incredibly impactful.

Transform your people from overworked to incredibly impactful.

Contact Being Leaders to find out more.

References

1 M.C. Moulson, C.A. Nelson, Neurological Development, Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development, 2008

2 Ty Wiggins, An investigation of factors that promote and inhibit performance during leadership transitions, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Sydney Business School, University of Wollongong, 2019. https://ro.uow.edu.au/theses1/541
3 Ian Lees, Becoming a Leader of Leaders: How to succeed in bigger jobs and still have a life, Grammar Factory, 2021.

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The leader-of-leaders role is the most significant position in any organisation. With design and decision rights and the ability to influence broadly across an organisation, and even beyond to external stakeholders, the leader-of-leaders role is at the epicentre of staff morale, discretionary effort and staff retention – it can make or break an organisation.

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