Why Staff Leaders and Line Leaders Have Disconnects

Posted 04.07.2010

Disconnect-cans In my work as an executive coach, I regularly work with the executive leaders of “staff” functions such as IT, finance, human resources, legal and the like.  When I interview the colleagues of these clients to learn what others think about what makes them effective and what they could do to be even more effective, I often hear comments about the distinction between staff and line leaders. That distinction is almost always made by the “line” executives. These are the folks responsible for manufacturing, sales and delivery of the product or service to the customer. As most of them would tell you themselves, they’re the people who make the money. 

Here’s the challenge I see for staff leaders. Rightly or wrongly, most line leaders feel like what they do is way more important than what the staff leaders do. As a result, they often don’t have a lot of patience with the different initiatives or requirements promoted by staff leaders. One result is a disconnect between the line and the staff. Lots of time and effort is spent on initiatives that don’t get a lot of traction because the line leaders don’t value them and spend as little time as possible on them. So the result of that for staff leaders is that their roles and internal brand become diminished and they don’t make the contributions they could or should.

One of my mentors, Dave Ulrich, summed up the solution to this dilemma in a simple mathematical statement years ago:

D > d

That means Deliverables are greater than do-ables. That’s an idea that line leaders overlook at their peril. The Deliverables are the big things that have to happen in order to meet the strategic objectives of the organization (e.g. on-time delivery, profitability, new product development, etc.). So, to use an HR example, developing and recruiting the talent to develop new products is a key deliverable. There are lots of things to do (or do-ables) that roll up to delivering top talent to the organization. The disconnect comes when staff leaders don’t position their do-ables in the strategic context of the deliverables. Without linking everything back to the big question, “What are we trying to accomplish and why does it matter?,” all of the initiatives and requirements that staff leaders promote just seem like a long list of “time-sucking things they want me to do now” to most line leaders.

In an upcoming post, I’ll share some of the ways that really effective staff leaders build productive and mutually appreciated relationships with line leaders. In the meantime, what’s your take on the staff leader/line leader disconnect? What are you seeing on that front? What are your theories about root causes? What are your tips for making things better?