Winning Moves: Success
at Every Stage of the Game

An Interview with Dr. Mike Armour

(Part 3 of 3)

Part 1   Part 2


Since being trusted is so important for professional success, could you say something more about that subject?


I think of trust — especially trust shown toward us as leaders or professionals — as resting on a three-legged stool. The three legs are character, competence, and concrete results. To word it more fully, people trust us professionally or in leadership capacities only to the degree that they see us demonstrate character, act with competence, and achieve concrete results. All three are essential. If any of the three legs is weak, the stool will wobble.

In Leadership and the Power of Trust, I define trust as "complete confidence that a person or an organization will consistently do what is right in every situation." The phrase "do what is right" is purposefully ambiguous. It can mean doing the right thing ethically and morally (a measure of character). Or it can mean making the decisions and taking the actions that lead to proper outcomes (a measure of competence and concrete results).

Trust-building in business, professional, and leadership circles is different from trust-building in daily relationships. In purely interpersonal relationships, people are likely to trust us almost exclusively on the basis of our demonstrated character. But once we move into business or professional arenas, character must be supplemented by competence and concrete results. As professionals and business leaders, therefore, we must build all three legs of the stool with care and intentionality. Otherwise, success will be limited by inadequate depth of trust.

It’s also important to note that trust, contrary to our common expression, is not something that we earn. Trust is something that others bestow on us. Trust, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. In the final analysis, I can’t make anyone trust me. What I can do, however, is to exhibit such character and effectiveness that I make it easy for others to invest their trust in me.

Nor is trust fully transferable from one context to another. Whenever we make career transitions, the process of trust-building begins afresh. However competent and effective we might have been in prior roles, we must now demonstrate character and effectiveness in the new role. In effect, we have to rebuild the stool. Otherwise, the trust which we have long enjoyed easily evaporates.

As professional and executive careers move upward, from one role to next, we cross certain transition points that put character and effectiveness (not to mention trust) under severe strains. These demanding transitions stretch us so much that they magnify opportunities for performance to fail. And with that threat, they put character to the test.

I see this challenge daily as I coach men and women at these very transition points in their careers. They know that failure in these pivotal moments of transition can completely derail their advancement. In careers, as in sports, the game is often won in transition.


So, we are back to the metaphor of a game again. Can you elaborate on what it means to "win in transition"?


Gladly. But first let me say that the game is not won ONLY in transition. The game must be played effectively elsewhere, too. Still, experience as a leadership coach convinces me that success is most likely to flounder at vital moments of career transition. This is where the comparison to sports becomes relevant.

In athletic competition, the outcome of the game turns frequently on how well players manage certain transitions. In football it’s the play of special teams or the responsiveness with which players react to an intercepted pass. In basketball and hockey, it’s the transition from offense to defense. In tennis it’s "going to the net" to limit the opponent’s options.

Careers come to equivalent moments of transition when they cross certain thresholds of responsibility that call for expanded skills and capabilities, broader networks, or new work habits. Just as athletic teams are particularly vulnerable in moments of transitions, careers rise or fall based on effectiveness in transition.


What are some critical transitions in terms of leadership or professional success?


To choose an obvious example, one of the first critical transitions is the move from being a contributor to being a manager. A bit later there is a related, but greater transition from being a manager to being a manager of managers.

Staggering failure rates occur at both of these points. That’s why smart companies never skimp on quality training, coaching, and developmental energy for promising employees who are navigating these two transitions. You don’t want to lose solid players because they failed in the transition game.

The most critical moments of transition typically result from demands that accompany higher and higher levels of responsibility. As your scope of responsibility expands, four pivotal changes occur, each of them brimming with potential to make or break a career.

  • First, as you move up the ladder of responsibility, the time-horizon for planning moves from short-term to long-term. Early in your career you contribute primarily by making decisions which impact the next 30 days or the next three months or perhaps the next year. But eventually your greatest contribution will be in terms of decisions that look out three, four, five years, or even a decade. Learning to think multi-year rather than multi-month is thus a critical transition.
  • Second, because the time-horizon for planning becomes longer, there is a parallel increase in the ambiguity of the data on which you must base decisions. In detail-oriented professions, (such as accounting and engineering) or detail-focused roles (such as operations management), the early stages of a career center on decisions for which abundant data is readily available. In this setting, decisions are easily defended by appealing to the data. As the ambiguity in the critical data increases, the challenge for the aspiring leader is two-fold. First, you must learn how to make timely decisions in spite of the ambiguity. And second, you must learn to feel comfortable both with the decision itself and with defending it when the underlying data is somewhat imprecise.
  • Third, related to these first two changes is the transition from being a tactical thought leader to being a strategic thought leader. I define strategic decisions as those that create sustainable strength, success, and survivability for the long run. At lower levels of management long-term strength and survivability are rarely a primary preoccupation. Thinking is more tactical than strategic. Contrast this to higher levels of leadership, where long-term survivability is always a key issue.
  • Fourth, as you ascend the corporate ladder, the collateral impact of your decisions affects increasingly remote parts of the organization. During career stops on lower rungs of the ladder, your decisions rarely affect people outside of your immediate purview. By the time you become a manager of managers, however, you must learn to think through the implications of your decisions for elements of the enterprise well beyond your oversight. This reality puts a premium on developing the political savvy and political skills to bring widely divergent groups together in support of your proposals and initiatives.


As you have addressed these challenges, you have spoken of leadership and management somewhat interchangeably. Do you see them as basically one and the same?


No, not at all. Indeed, one of the most challenging transitions is from being a manager — perhaps an extraordinary manager — to being a good leader.

Unfortunately, corporate culture is prone to use the word "leader" rather loosely today. Too many companies have chosen to "rechristen" many of their management positions and call people in these roles "leaders." Carefully analyzed, however, the role calls for management acumen more than leadership. We see this when we look at the metrics used to measure effectiveness in the role. We see it again when attempts at true leadership in the role are stifled by corporate hierarchy.

Increasingly, therefore, many good managers have been conditioned to think of themselves as leaders (because they have worn the title for years), even though they may not have truly functioned as leaders. When the time comes to make the transition to genuine leadership, some handle the transition with relative ease. But for others, once wired to be good managers, the transition to leadership a bit daunting.


How do you distinguish between "leadership" and "management"?


That’s a good question, and one that deserves an entire book. Since we don’t have that kind of space here, let me say that most people recognize the difference between management and leadership instinctually. I often deliver keynote speeches on qualities that distinguish leaders from managers. I typically ask my audience if they can sense the difference between working for someone who is a true leader as opposed to someone who is a good manager, even a superb manager.

Inevitably, most heads in the room immediately nod. Then I ask the group to compile a list of the qualities that distinguish a leader from a manager. Their lists are always insightful and often extensive. People know the difference.

In my judgment the most fundamental distinction between leadership and management is reflected in how we use the verbs "to lead" and "to manage." We speak of leading people and we speak of managing people. We also speak of managing budgets or inventories. But we would never speak of "leading" a budget or "leading" an inventory. That’s because leadership is uniquely a people-centered function. Management may or may not be.


What, then, are the implications of this distinction between "leadership" and "management" when it comes to effective career transitions?


Well, one implication is readily apparent. Individuals who are not "people people" find the transition to leadership particularly difficult. Is it impossible for them? No, not at all. But they must climb a steeper grade than those who are people-oriented by nature.

Second, the transition to leadership requires a move from being merely reactive (which often serves you well in management roles) to being proactive, which is the province of true leadership. Leadership always revolves around three questions:

  • Who are my people?
  • Where am I taking them?
  • How am I equipping them for the journey?

Notice that all three questions are centered on people, not projects or programs. The question, "Who are my people" calls for much more than merely recognizing faces or knowing people by name. It involves knowing your people so well that you understand what makes them tick, both individually and collectively. "Where am I taking them?" requires vision and the ability to keep your people focused on it. "How am I equipping them for the journey?" centers on the responsibility of leadership to develop bench strength and maximize the contribution of every player.

Answering these three questions also demands a proactive mind-set. People who succeed in management primarily as problem-solvers often become conditioned in the process to be reactive in their focus. Turning loose of their reactive mode and moving to a proactive stance is thus a demanding transition.


Since you have coached so many people through effective transitions, what do you see as keys to winning the game in transition?


At the risk of repeating myself, I believe that humility is one of the keys. When you can freely admit that you have a lot to learn and have the humility to ask others for advice and help, you optimize your opportunities to learn — and learn quickly — in your new role.

You also want to create as many feedback loops as possible and you want to create them as quickly as possible. If you are being misunderstood or have headed down the wrong path, you want to know about it sooner rather than later. You are not going to get candid feedback, however, unless people have a high degree of trust in you. So again, at the risk of repetition, trust-building is essential from the first moments of transition.

And it goes without saying that you will traverse the rough spots in transition more easily when you find real joy in the game. When someone says, "I can’t believe they pay me to do this job," you know that they have tapped deeply into joy, the joy of the game. When you can say the same thing yourself, you are indeed blessed.

Above all else, maintain your self-confidence. When transitions involve marked expansions of responsibility, it’s only natural to have occasional moments of self-doubt. But don’t dwell on the doubt. Assume that the people who selected you knew what they were doing in choosing you. They believe that you have what it takes to play the game superbly. Now go show the world that they were right.

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