5 Ways to Close the Line Leader–Staff Leader Gap

Posted 04.12.2010

My post from last week on Why Staff Leaders and Line Leaders Have Disconnects generated a lot of thoughtful and provocative comments from readers both on the Next Level blog and on the Executive Coach column at Government Executive magazine’s web site.

Deliverables In case you missed it, the gist of the original post was that there is often a big disconnect between line and staff leaders because the initiatives that staff leaders drive are often seen as doing little to deliver what is actually required to achieve results. As management guru Dave Ulrich says, deliverables are greater than do-ables. That point certainly seemed to resonate with many of you and your comments offer some great ideas on how to close the line leader – staff leader gap.

In this post, I’m building on some of your ideas and adding some of my own to come up with five ways to close the gap.

  • Learn the business, the people and the plan:  Too often, staff leaders seem to be working in a parallel universe that is independent of real familiarity with the business of the larger organization and the people charged with carrying out the business. Every staff leader should be engaged in an ongoing series of conversations with the line leaders to learn about their priorities, what’s standing in the way and what could be done to remove the barriers.
  • Start with the goal and work backwards:  One of the line leaders I interviewed for the first edition of  The Next Level was Lucien Alziari, the head of HR for Avon. He is a very wise man who offered this advice for line leaders, “The transition that people need to make is to think about the business as a whole and then reverse engineer into what that means for your function to support the business. It isn’t about getting the best functional agenda. It’s about getting the right agenda to support the business as a whole.”
  • Demand rigor around defining and understanding deliverables: Government Executive reader John W. Davis offers this astute perspective, “It is too easy to get wound up in applying resources to ‘do-ables’ without defining the ‘deliverables’. Awards are handed out for the excellent ‘Environmental’ facility or the ‘Safest, place to work while deliveries slip out of our grasp. Until clear Goals and Rewards are established for delivering the goods to the customer, we will continue to spend critical resources on “Do-ables” activities.
  • Respect for the limited resource of time: Reader Jean Ackerman makes a great point about how line leaders and staff leaders can make the most of the most limited resource – time.  Jean writes, “Line managers are optimizers… We just want to use our time and energy in the most effective possible way, not waste it doing a lot of make work, or having to go back and do it over…” (Good) staff managers provide technical expertise in their specialty fields in order to free up line managers’ time and energies to do what they do best.
  • Go for “good enough” solutions: Staff and line leaders can get cross ways with each other when the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. As Government Executive commenter Will notes, “staff level work at its essence is always a compromise between perfect planning, documenting, and analysis which take infinite resources and what is ‘good enough’ for the task at hand.”  If staff leaders keep, the organizational goals and ends in mind, “good enough” solutions will be more apparent.

So those are five ideas for closing the line leader – staff leader gap. Thanks to everyone for their contributions so far. What other gap closing ideas do you want to contribute to the conversation?