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Up and Out, In and Down: Leading at Multiple Levels

Rick’s Experience

One of my clients named Rick was brought into a finance organization that for all intents and purposes was broken. The company had grown rapidly through both acquisition and organic growth, and his predecessor had paid attention primarily to internal workings and processes. As a result, no one in the broader organization was satisfied with the contribution of finance, and the responses to their needs and expectations were fragmented, function-centric and always urgent. Rick had experience in a global organization, and chose to spend the first months of his job literally flying around the globe, personally meeting with regional business unit managers and global teams, understanding their needs and addressing urgent problems while creating a structure, building a strategy and creating a plan. He relied on brute force and lack of sleep to get it all done.

After six months, his manager told him that he had done a phenomenal job of winning back his customers, and had built enormous good will and confidence in his ability to solve the problems that neglect in finance had caused. He and the rest of the executive team couldn’t be more pleased with his achievements, Rick was told. Now, however, his manager wanted Rick to focus some of his energy on his internal team, which the manager had learned was feeling lost at sea and unattended to.

Sphere of Influence

Managers (both new and existing) have the challenge of dividing their focus of attention in two directions.  The first, “Up and Out,” involves attending to the needs of their peers, managers and customers. Emphasis on Up and Out builds a customer-focused approach in which understanding and meeting the expectations of the internal and external customer takes precedence. The second, “In and Down” involves organizing, structuring and building a team that can respond to the needs of the company and customer. In the In and Down world, creating the focus, building the structure, and emphasizing the systems and processes creates the foundation for delivering the results.

Both sides of a manager’s sphere of influence are essential. You can’t meet the customer needs if you don’t know what they are. And you can’t meet the customer needs if you don’t have the support of your team. But the vast majority of managers are drawn toward one side or the other. Like Rick’s situation, some business scenarios require more attention to the external world, and some require more attention to the internal world. At the same time, some managers are more likely to focus on the external issues, while others are more likely to focus on their own team. The most effective manager divides his or her attention and builds both aspects of his or her sphere of influence. There is rarely a time when you divide your focus 50/50. Most of the time, you need to and should pay more attention to one than the other, just as new managers tend to focus their attention on problem areas before success areas.

What should I do?

Identify your biggest challenge. Do you and your team know enough about your customers and stakeholders? How allied or alienated are you with them? If there is damage to repair, you may need to focus a large amount of attention on the external customers or stakeholders. On the other hand, if your relationship and understanding is good, you want to focus more attention on building the structure and strategy of your team.

Take your pulse. Are you focusing all your attention on your team or your organization? If so, make a shift and get out to see customers. Or make time to meet with your peers and internal stakeholders.

Change it up. Make sure that you do not spend your time doing what is safe, familiar, or easy for you.

Get feedback. If in doubt, ask your manager, your peers and your team. If you have done your job, they’ll give you good advice and will help you clarify where you need to focus.