The qualities of an indispensable leader
What is the secret sauce that makes some leaders stand out from the rest? These are the leaders who rise through the ranks, great at managing their teams while also keeping the company’s vision in mind, the type of people identified for advancement into senior leadership.
According to Janet Altman, Marketing Principal at Kaufman Rossin and indispensable leader herself, the number one factor she looks for in promising leaders is their ability to handle a strategic scope.
“The most important thing for me, when I think of my go-to people, is the ability to look at the big picture,” Altman says. “And not be overwhelmed or intimidated by the steps that it will take to get to that goal.”
More than skill or expertise, Altman looks for people who can turn a wide view into a narrow set of concrete deliverables. When considering how to address the widespread protests and social justice issues of Summer 2020 within her organization, Altman reached out to such a trusted leader.
“[This community leader] was my go-to person on this issue, not because it’s an issue she works on, but because I know she’s the sort of person who would look at the whole picture, understand what we needed, and give us something that was manageable.”
These are some other qualities Altman has identified in the indispensable leaders she has encountered throughout her career.
Strategic thinking over task execution.
“When I think of people who are the most strategic, and when I try to be strategic, I always try to begin with the end in mind,” Altman says of her perspective on strategic thinking. “It’s really important to think, ‘Okay, where are we trying to go? What are we trying to do?’”
In contrast with a more task-focused mindset, Altman’s go-to leaders are instead excellent at identifying which tasks are worthy of precious time and effort. They are masters of prioritization on a larger scale, beyond the to-do list.
“If you say we’re going to do everything that’s on this list, because someone said we should do everything that’s on this list, you’re not the kind of person I would think of as indispensable,” Altman explains. “That’s not the kind of person I would go to with a big strategic question. The go-to people are the people who think, ‘Is this the right thing to do right now? And what should we be doing instead? Or, what should we not be doing?’”
Makes things better, but not necessarily easier.
We like people who make things easier for us. Or at least, we like people who aren’t in the habit of delivering bad news. But if you want an indispensable leader working for you or with you, you’ve got to get over the discomfort, according to Altman.
“I reached out to the person who would help us do better, not to the person who would make it easy,” Altman says, referring again to the colleague who helped her with the social justice programming in 2020. “When I see that we need something really important like that and go looking for it, that’s the kind of person I want. That’s the indispensable person I’m going to go to. She’s the only person that I would have called for this.”
Provides context for the long-term.
If you want to make a leadership connection that stands the test of time, allow your direct reports to see the long-range with you. Give them context for their roles not just today, tomorrow, and next week, but next year, and the year after that.
“Janice was somebody who I think of often, and actually recently reconnected with as someone that I really admired, because when I walked in, she gave me a really big picture of what the business was,” Altman recalls of an influential former boss she now considers a friend. “She explained the market to me. She explained the product to me. She told me what we were doing and why. We were blazing a trail with an innovative product that was going to change education. And so, I should know about that in my first week, and I should know where we were going and what we were going to do.”
Shares some skin in the game.
The best leaders build up those around them. Their success is measured not just by the work they accomplish, but also by their ability to support others. That is a lesson Altman has taken into her own leadership roles.
“When we were looking at our tasks at the beginning of the week, the person who had the most tasks was always the same person,” Altman says of a recent leadership opportunity she experienced. “But she didn’t have the space to use the strategic part of her brain, which is really important, as well. So, I spent some time talking with her. It was a mutual responsibility, not just for me to stop and listen, but for her to think about how we were going to solve it together.”
Acknowledging that shared responsibility to the work and the working relationship will go a long way for any leader trying to guide, coach, or develop their team. Altman sees her yoga practice as an apt metaphor.
“We’re in it together. As your yoga teacher I might say ‘If you moved your knee a little bit to the right, doesn’t that feel better? Because I’m here to help you feel better. That’s my purpose at this moment. We’re in it together.’ And I might say with a team member, ‘Well, if you asked me that question this way, I might’ve heard it better.’ If we step back and take a breath together, and think strategically about where we’re going with this project, we will get there more efficiently, more effectively and it will be more fun.”
Janet Altman is a Marketing Principal at Kaufman Rossin, one of the Top 100 CPA and advisory firms in the U.S.