How Leaders Of Midsize Companies Can Drive Their Mission By Delegating
Written by Robert Sher, on March 15, 2022
Many midsized company CEOs we’ve worked with wonder what their job will be once they’ve built a strong management team. After what is usually years of running operations and responding to the day’s urgencies, they worry that “reading the newspaper” could be their daily highlight. Still, others find they are isolated from the front lines of the business where the mission—the business’s purpose for existing—is most tangible.
The current crisis in Ukraine brings a perfect example of leadership. I’m not talking about Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, whose leadership and courage have indeed been inspiring. I’m pointing to Executive Director Anthony Borden, who leads an organization with 201 employees in 9 offices. He founded the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in 1992, and its mission is to give voice to people at the frontlines of conflict and transition to help them drive change.
Borden, the chief executive of this midsized non-profit, entered Ukraine in the days before the war started to report on the situation personally. That was when the U.S. was advising all its citizens to exit the country and issued it’s Level 4 Do Not Travel advisory. Read on about why this chief executive walked away from his desk during an incredibly busy period and into harm’s way to do the work that hundreds on his staff do every day.
Chief executives of small firms must do much of the execution of the work. But as those firms grow into midsized, they must build a strong management team that runs the day-to-day organization. One leader making too many of the decisions creates a bottleneck and usually slows growth. Managing an organization also distracts that leader from an increasingly important role: leadership. Leadership is needed as the headcount grows, demonstrating why the organization’s mission is important, empowering and encouraging all the organization’s employees, and building passion for the work.
The need for leadership doesn’t make itself heard in an e-mail. It often isn’t urgent and rarely puts itself on your to-do list. But for midsized organizations, when the CEO taps into their role as a leader, they can unleash tremendous passion throughout the team.
Leaders must think carefully about how they embrace their organization’s mission. Employees and customers can easily perceive the CEO as entitled, living a life of luxury, and being detached. Most of the CEOs I know and coach care deeply about their team and mission. They bear significant pressure and responsibility with seriousness and grace. But most people don’t know any CEOs at all. They have no window into a CEO’s mind.
Borden explains the genesis of his passion for his cause. “My mother was a journalist, so I was raised with writing and reporting as high values. I worked as a reporter and editor in New York City before relocating to London. We [IWPR] were created in the first Gulf War over Kuwait as a volunteer action. As that project wound down, I picked it up and established IWPR. I felt there were alternative concepts of journalism that could contribute to better societies, and we needed an institutional base to drive that vision. It has been a major challenge to evolve into a chief executive over the years. But I remain in the end a journalist.”
The best leaders aren’t mercenaries, running an organization solely for profit. They believe in what their company does. I ran an art publishing business for many years, providing images that delivered comfort and beauty to hundreds of thousands. Perhaps not as noble as IWPR’s mission, but important and meaningful to many. Whether you supply rebar to make buildings and bridges safe, or a wonderful whisky enjoyed by many, or legal services to help clients in court, every business has a mission. The best leaders are seen as the embodiment of that mission, and they inspire employees and customer alike.
Borden says, “This is an epochal conflict, shaking the foundations of the world we know. Our fundamental values of freedom and democracy are on the line. As a journalist, the opportunity of witness is unmissable. It is also a ‘white hot’ opportunity to try to break molds, work differently, kick our entire operation (including myself) into a higher gear, and see how we respond. If not now, when?”
This is an epochal conflict, shaking the foundations of the world we know. Our fundamental values of freedom and democracy are on the line. As a journalist, the opportunity of witness is unmissable.
Freeing yourself from the management of a midsized organization is a prerequisite for re-deploying yourself as a missionary. As a small business, scaling the organization and managing activities is a challenge that most CEOs must tackle personally. Yet as the business grows through midsized, it can usually afford to hire strong managers who increasingly run the day-to-day organization. But management is not leadership. Management is nonetheless essential. A powerful leader delegates management of the organization in order to live in the future, in the mission, seeing around the bend to pull the organization forward.
Borden says, “Given our existing programmatic commitments, I could not have gone to the war zone in Ukraine if we were not in a reasonably good position, financially and structurally. A great deal of effort over the past several years has built a senior team, led by a superb COO, so that I can exempt myself from most day-to-day management. I consider this a gift to me and to our cause.”
Yet the benefits of leaving the executive boardroom to do “real work” in the field are immense. The warehouse team at my art publishing business absolutely loved that, in a pinch, I’d come down and load the trucks with them. I’d get sweaty and dirty, and they’d work twice as hard at my side. I didn’t have to do it often, but it showed, in a language they related to, that I was serious about serving our customers. Frankly, it wasn’t the best use of my time, but the motivational impact of doing it now and then was incredible. The truth is, I liked it. I liked helping my team.
Borden reported a similar affinity for the core work of his organization and his people. “We have four staff in Ukraine, and I felt it impossible not to be with them. Given the incredibly high stakes, I also wanted to make sure that IWPR does everything we possibly can to challenge Putin’s propaganda, and this could only happen if I was there. We work with a wide network of local media and civic groups – some of whom played key roles in the Maidan Revolution which overthrew Putin’s puppet. I know from my Sarajevo days that connections made at such times are very powerful. Support for IWPR’s team at a time when they were on the brink of war was essential.”
Another important element is how you communicate. Less is more. Simple, honest, unpolished communications are far more authentic. Polished public relations efforts or slick, high production value presentations will hurt more than they help. See for yourself how Borden communicates simply but incredibly powerfully by following him on Twitter @tonyborden. IWPR’s website also pushes out content thoughtfully.
Borden’s team is acutely aware of his efforts and are responding accordingly. “The teams have supported me unbelievably and worked around the clock to get reports out, make connections, assist with both logistics and contacts, and produce editorial. I hope these efforts make all staff inspired to feel the vital importance of our work. ‘What do you think, there’s a war on?’ Well, there is, and everyone is responding incredibly,” says Borden.
Few CEOs will need to put themselves at personal risk to show powerful leadership. Those who set up the processes and teams that allow a management team to run the business will find themselves with a wonderful opportunity to lead. Take that opportunity, find a way to connect with the mission of your organization and communicate it well.