Lead From Behind

By: John Hotson,
Business Transition Alliance Co-Founder

Lead From Behind is an excerpt from the eBook by John Hotson, How to Find Your ExitSeven Strategies That Will Build Value and Improve the Saleability of Your Business.

For a complimentary copy of the book please email jhotson@btehelps.com

When your business was first finding its way it was important that you, as owner, set the direction and led your employees by the clear example that you set. Without a model of how people should act, the business would quite likely have floundered and not achieved the level of success it has.

That Was Then….

Leading by example enabled you to build consistency into your work and develop processes that are replicable, which in turn allowed you to scale the business and improve your profitability. Leading by example also allowed your employees to mirror your work ethic. It set the tone for what was expected from them and ultimately shaped the culture of your company. Setting and maintaining an example was key to creating the brand that is unique to your business.

…..But This is Now

However if you are now transitioning your business and planning to exit, the time has come for you to take a very different approach to leadership. Instead of leading by example you must now learn how to Lead From Behind.

The most effective transitioning owners lead from behind in order to make themselves replaceable. They recognize that a potential buyer will be looking for a strong team to run the business once they are gone.

A Leader is Like a Shepherd

At the heart of the idea of leading from behind is the empowerment of other people to do your bidding.

Nelson Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom) describes it this way:

“A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

Linda Hill, of the Harvard Business School says;

“Leading from behind doesn’t mean abrogating your leadership responsibilities. After all, the shepherd makes sure that the flock stays together. He uses his staff to nudge and prod if the flock strays too far off course or into danger – it’s a matter of harnessing people’s collective genius.”

Collective genius is actually a natural instinct. While flocks of birds and schools of fish may intuitively be much better at collaboration than we humans, if nurtured and guided properly, groups of people can achieve much more than any of us can as individuals.

There’s Value in Innovation

As the owner of the business it is your job to put the framework in place to enable this collaboration to occur, then lead people from behind to make it happen. The value that will come out of encouraging your team to collaborate in moving the company forward will be the innovative thinking that comes out of your people.

”Enabling a spirit of innovation needs to replace the older habit of leading by example.”

The next 30 days:

Think about how leading from behind could build collaboration among your team members, develop a spirit of innovation and move you closer to your exit.
Ask yourself three questions:

  1. Who are the individuals within my organization who can lead the company?
  2. How can I be sure they have the drive to lead?
  3. Am I giving them enough opportunity to demonstrate leadership?

Undertake this simple process to start to build strength in your management team and identify who the next generation leaders will be.

  • Task your management team to identify specific issues that have stalled in the company and set up an innovation meeting to discuss it.
  • Pick two of the ideas that come out of the meeting and assign two teams to pursue them.
  • Regroup two weeks later to discuss how the ideas have evolved. Decide as a group if both ideas need more work or if only one should be developed further and put a plan in place to build out the idea(s).
  • Meet two weeks later to discuss the progress.
  • Discipline yourself to allow the process to take its own course and allow it to wander.
  • Nudge it back on track if it is clearly going nowhere.
  • Review the outcome with the team and apply the learning to the next innovation opportunity.

About John Hotson:

John is a seasoned marketing and communications professional. He has worked as both a business owner and advisor to owners who are committed to improving the value of their business. John is a co-founder of The Business Transition Alliance.


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