Ideas for Leaders #060

Bricklayer to Architect: How Managers Become Leaders

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Key Concept

Many executives making the shift from leading a function to leading an enterprise can stumble as they take the step up. It’s tough to do. We are asking someone to shift from left-brain, analytical thinking to right-brain conceptual mind-sets. It’s a big change. Michael D. Watkins highlights seven Seismic Shifts here that allow the emerging leader to do that over time: to draw focus from a wider lens, and make the transition successfully.

Idea Summary

This is the critical turning point in a manager’s career; the time when they move from leading a function to leading an enterprise for the first time.

Conducting an extensive series of interviews with more than 40 executives, Watkins found that they must navigate a tricky set of changes in their leadership focus and skills, which he calls the seven Seismic Shifts. Managers must learn to move through each of these shifts, which involve learning new skills and cultivating new mind-sets.

The move to enterprise leadership more than often requires executives who have been specialists to quickly turn into generalists that know enough about all the functions to run their businesses.

The seven Seismic Shifts are as follows:

  • Specialist to Generalist: understand the mental models, tools, and terms used in key business functions and develop templates for evaluating the leaders of those functions.
  • Analyst to Integrator: integrate the collective knowledge of cross-functional teams and make appropriate trade-offs to solve complex organizational problems.
  • Tactician to Strategist: shift fluidly between the details and the larger picture, perceive important patterns in complex environments, and anticipate and influence the reactions of key external players.
  • Bricklayer to Architect: understand how to analyze and design organizational systems so that strategy, structure, operating models, and skill bases fit together effectively and efficiently, and harness this understanding to make needed organizational changes.
  • Problem Solver to Agenda Setter: define the problems the organization should focus on, and spot issues that don’t fall neatly into any one function but are still important.
  • Warrior to Diplomat: proactively shape the environment in which the business operates by influencing key external constituencies, including the government, NGOs, the media, and investors.
  • Supporting Cast Member to Lead Role: exhibit the right behaviours as a role model for the organization and learn to communicate with and inspire large groups of people both directly and, increasingly, indirectly.

Business Application

Companies can ensure that new enterprise leaders get to grips with their new roles faster by investing directly in creating standardized evaluation schemes for each function.

For the most part, the seven shifts involve switching from left-brain, analytical thinking to right-brain conceptual mind-sets. But that doesn’t mean enterprise leaders never spend time on tactics or on functional concerns; they may instead spend far less time on those responsibilities than they used to in their previous roles.

It may also be helpful for enterprise leaders to engage someone else to focus on execution, as a way to free up time for their new role, such as a chief of staff, a chief operating officer, or a project manager.

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Idea conceived

  • 2012

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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