Leadership, It’s not about titles

Does the term “Leadership” apply only to those in management positions? No. It doesn’t. Not all leaders within organizations are in management positions.

Let me tell the story of Brian, a former co-worker of mine. Brian was happily working in customer service helping the customers of the organization. He had zero desire to be in management. Brian was a former personal shopper at a higher-end department store and would assist men in buying stylish coordinated professional clothes. He was great with customers of the organization we worked for, especially with those who were very upset. I learned a lot about how to dress for the part and how to handle difficult customers. I learned more from Brian than in any customer service or communications training class.

Why wasn’t Brian’s knowledge and experience tapped for others? Because he was not in management and had no desire to be. So, he obviously was not a leader. He had influence over me though, and many others could have learned many skills from him as well.

The problem is that leadership is usually defined as those in management roles. But what is a leader? We can look to the dictionary, and we will see terms like “a person who has commanding authority” (Merriam-Webster: Leader definition & meaning). A leader is more than just someone who has commanding authority. I like to call these employees “Staff Leaders”.

What are staff leaders? Staff leaders have influence over others, not through power or rank, not through coercion or threats of discipline, but through their actions that influence their colleagues. In many organizations, there are leaders that not in management roles, and may not want to be in those roles. Maybe the job of management is not the right fit for that person. Perhaps they just don’t want to be in a management role. But they do have influence over the organization. Many organizations miss the mark on developing and utilizing these people because they do not fit the stereotypical role of the leader. They aren’t management.

Think about Brian again. How did he have influence over me? Because we worked together, he coached me for hours on coordinating colors for maximum impact. The concept of dressing for the job you want not the job you have. He also coached me on de-escalation techniques when customers would call who were very upset. If he listened to a call for me, he would provide feedback on ways I could have responded better to the call.

The culture in most organizations dictates that we must identify these staff leaders and develop them for advancement into management positions. I propose we identify these staff leaders and develop them for the careers they want. Engage these staff leaders to identify their needs, their goals, and their willingness to go above their normal duties. Brian is a prime example of a staff leader, an employee who was very happy in his current role and did not want to move up the organizational ladder into a management position.

How do we identify leaders who are not managers? Try a Google search for “identifying non-management leaders”, and you will get 885 billion results. The problem with these results, they focus on the same thought process, leaders should either be in management or needs to be promoted to management. Think outside the box here. Do you have an employee who coaches others, this is common in training departments where the trainers’ coach managers? Do you have an employee who has taken on a role on a committee that they lead? It can be as simple as someone who runs the office party committee. These employees are influencing others without any thought to it being part of their job duties.

What are the traits that make a good staff leader? Depends on the culture and needs of your organization. There is no one-size-fits-all to leadership. Yes, average soft skills such as communication are necessary. Staff leaders also have a unique mindset and a commitment to the organization and its people without the need for power over those people.

These unknown, forgotten, and untapped resources are an asset. Of course, if you are going to tap these resources, there is going to need to be a way to reward them. Again, engage the staff leader to find out how they would like to be rewarded. There are those who could use more money. Some want a better work-life balance. The key is learning the needs of the staff leader. Think outside the box on the different ways to reward staff leaders.

There are many models out there in the world for developing interventions for performance. These models have one thing in common, the need to assess, utilize, evaluate, and repeat. There may be additional steps in a model. Take the ADDIE model for training; assess the need, design and develop the training, implement the training, and evaluate the outcomes. More steps, same concept. Identify the staff leaders, assess their needs, plan how to utilize them, implement the plan, evaluate the effectiveness, reward them, and repeat to make sure you are keeping the staff leader engaged.

The key concept to remember here is that not all leaders need to be managers. We need to take the time to identify these staff leaders, develop and utilize them, and make sure we don’t forget to reward them as much as we can, so we don’t lose them.

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