A Visionary Leader or a Program Manager? – A Mentoring Story

Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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A Lesson Learned

I don’t believe that someone who has not had a series of superlative mentors can be a mentor. You have to be on the receiving end of mentoring before you can start giving back. That is why, after I came to learn this very important lesson, I spent a lot of time with each potential mentor asking about the mentors in their life. That time and effort always paid off.

There are five very good reasons why I believe that to be the case. The first is that good mentors are always grateful for what they have received from their own guides. I have not found that gratitude in people posing as mentors who have not had good mentoring. Second, good mentors are engaged in passing on knowledge and understanding. They see themselves as conduits rather than prophets. Third, good mentors are compassionate rather then ideologically dogmatic – they are not selling a method or approach but engaging on a human-to-human basis to help another fellow traveler. Fourth, good mentors are fearless when it comes to interpersonal interaction – what I call adult conversations – and have a low tolerance to wasting their time and effort. Finally, good mentors are not selling solutions or quick fixes. Each engagement is unique and tailored to the person being mentored.

Here is an example of that I mean from my own experience with one of my most important mentors and the impact it had on others.

Many years ago, while I was working on Wall Street, I had the great good fortune of having a mentor who took the time to explain the world as he understood it. At the time, I was focused on evaluating companies and management teams as candidates for inward investment and/or potential acquisition by clients of the firm I was working for.

One of my tasks was to meet with and evaluate senior management teams. My mentor would often sit in on the interviews and then ask me about what I had observed and what conclusions I had come to. After one such interview, I was very impressed by the people I met and offered a fairly glowing assessment of their capabilities. He smiled, shook his head and said,

“Leaders have a vision, managers have to-do lists. You just spent an hour with a manager.”

Now, before you start objecting and pointing out that leaders also have to-do lists or go on about how managers need teams, I suggest you try to understand what he was really getting it. His point was that visionary leaders begin by thinking strategically and build towards the tactical while managers tend to think tactically and seldom move very far towards the strategic. Leaders assume the burden of generating a vision while managers tend to outsource that burden to others.

As the years have passed, the gift I received so many years ago has served as the foundation of a deeper understanding of how management teams work and how to evaluate them. The patterns are very clear if you know how to look for them. If you miss them, the experience can be very expensive.

Telling the Difference

Recently I was asked to assess a number of management teams for a venture capital firm. My task was to determine which of them presented the best opportunity for further investment. I’ll heavily sanitize my descriptions of two of the companies but hope that they will help you understand a bit of what I’m getting at.

The first company was based upon a disruptive technology. The technology wasn’t purely cutting-edge but it was pretty close. The management team was led by technologists who had participated in the development of a product.

When we sat down, I ask her what she was working on and what major challenges she faced. Her response took me back to Manhattan and my mentor. Her life was busy with details and she had a very extensive to-do list. She was covering everything from banking relationships to corporate filings. When I asked her about her vision for the company, all I heard was a rote repetition of the summary description of her company; a description which I strongly suspected someone else had written.

I then turned to the question of her leadership approach. To describe hers as laissez-faire would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that she had no leadership philosophy at all. She simply hadn’t thought about it. The same was true of her approach to evaluating the performance of her team members. She assumed that they were all doing their best and that was all she could expect.

Company number two was a spinoff of a larger corporation. The investment was made at the time of the spinoff. Where I had expected to find a visionary leader in company number one, I expected to find program managers in this company. But, as another mentor was fond of observing, “Assumption is the mother of all misunderstanding.”

When I asked the senior team member about his day, I received a very different answer. “I spend most of my time worrying that we don’t have the right value proposition, the right team, the right tasking, the right performance metrics and the right vision for our company”. When I pressed him on what he meant, it was clear that he was thinking strategically rather than tactically about the company.

To be sure, part of his day was taken up with the mundane but he tended to see that activity as necessary but not as important as his role as a visionary and a leader. He knew that the burden of communicating a vision and holding his people accountable rested on his shoulders and should not be avoided. His management style was to set the vision, tone and pace by his own actions, teach his people how to implement his vision and monitor progress towards realizing his vision of the company.

I had long ago learned that entrepreneurs who merely have visions are as dangerous and expensive as those who don’t. In this case, I had found one who had a vision and was aggressively implementing it.

Acting on the Difference

In my report to the venture capitalist, I recommended that company number two was a good candidate for additional investment while company number one needed an overhaul of the management team. To be clear, I suggested changes in both teams. With company two, I suggested that the CEO receive additional support. We needed to take the day-to-day issues off his desk in order to free him up to spend more time in his role as a visionary leader. With company number one, I suggested that a new CEO was required and that the present senior team member assume the role of COO.

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