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Breaking the Dunbar Barrier - Leading 100+ People for the First Time

Posted on January 23, 2016 at 3:35 PM


Congratulations on the big promotion to your first C-level job. You know you have a lot to learn about things like politics and public-relations at this level, but at least you are confident in your leadership skills. The whole reason you got the promotion was the success you've had leading teams of progressively larger sizes. Your new team is now a couple hundred people rather than the few dozen you've led before … how different can it be?

 

The Dunbar Barrier

In the 1990s, a British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar asserted that human brains can comfortably maintain only about 150 stable relationships. Some organizations have famously used that "Dunbar number" as a cap to limit team sizes. But your organization has not, so now you have to break through the "Dunbar Barrier."

 

Leading Strangers for the First Time

Unlike the sonic boom jets make at Mach 1, the Dunbar Barrier announces itself in a much quieter form: a hallway "hello" from a stranger who calls you by name. The second you realize that stranger must be a member of your team, you know you have stepped into new territory. For the first time, you realize you won't be able to have meaningful individual connections with everyone in your organization. You have relied on these personal connections to provide your leadership to every corner of your extended teams in the past. How are you going to reach every person in your much larger organization now?

 

5 Keys to Scale Your Leadership

The key is to focus on delivering the leadership that everyone in an organization needs to get from the senior-most executive. Here are the 5 key leadership services that senior-most executives must deliver to every corner of their organization.

 

1. Champion the Values - If an organization has a good values statement, it can be a great foundation for the senior most executive to leverage since everyone should be familiar with it. It is only useful though if everyone follows it. Everybody looks to see if the seniormost-executive doesn't just "talk the talk" about the values but also "walks the walk." The senior-most executive needs to be the champion continually reinforcing the values to everyone. She needs to demonstrate how they shape her own actions and celebrate others who live up to the values (and coach those who don't).

 

2. Provide Focus - The senior-most executive has to use their unique vantage point at the top of the organization to keep everyone focused on the strategic imperatives of the organization. Sometimes that means being the head cheerleader for the overall strategic imperatives and making sure everyone understands them and how their work fits. Sometimes that means being "Dr. No" and making trade-off decisions or stopping work that is a distraction. Everyone in the organization needs to see that the top leader has a direction and is keeping the steering wheel pointed toward it.

 

3. Demand Quality - The senior-most executive is accountable for the quality of all the output of their organization. From goods and services produced, to decisions made, the top executive puts their personal stamp of approval on everything that comes out of their team. They need to be strict in demanding quality everywhere, every time. If someone hasn't prepared for a meeting, they should cut the meeting short and have them reschedule for when they are ready. If they witness a subpar final product, they should toss it and make it be redone. The top executive needs to realize their inactions speak as loud as their actions when it comes to maintaining quality standards. If they accept subpar quality, they are tacitly telling everyone it is OK to settle for OK.

 

4. Hold People Accountable - The top executive needs to ensure that everyone in their organization is held to clear, measurable goals that are tied to the overall strategy and objectives. They need to identify the key results from each part of their organization and define ways to measure those results consistently. They need to require their teams to report on their performance against those goals and measures, and not just on what they want to report. Clear goals and metrics help ensure performance assessments are objective. Objective assessments help ensure the top performance is rewarded and poor performance is addressed. A strong and fair accountability culture is the key to a high-performing culture, and it starts at the top.

 

5. Be Accessible - Since there is not enough time in the day for top-executives to connect individually with everyone in their organization, they have to find ways to convey their leadership in channels packaged for mass consumption. Those channels can range from "all-hands" meetings to mass-emails, from scheduled team check-ins to impromptu drop ins, from having an "open door" policy to having an open air office without doors. Top executives need to build multiple channels that enable them to connect with every single person in their organization.

 

Leading a team of 150+ people for the first time can be a big challenge. By focusing on getting these handful of things right, you will make that transition as painless as possible for you… and your new team.


Categories: People Leadership, Organizational Design