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The 3 real jobs of a VP

So you’re a VP? Heading up a department with multiple teams and managers, interfacing with Directors and the C-Suite?

It may feel like you need to know everything that goes on in your dept, to specify and check work.

When managers become leaders there’s a trap which is easy to fall into – continuing with a manager mindset. It’s a sure-fire way to fail as a leader. Let’s see why.

“when a minister actually starts to run his department things are not going pretty well actually, they are actually going pretty badly.”

I’ve recently been digging into the old BBC TV series Yes, Minister. It’s a surprisingly light and funny watch and, more interestingly, it’s full of thinly-veiled truisms about leadership.

In the episode The Right To Know (S01E6) the first 5 mins contain gold with respect to a leader’s real jobs.

The Minister’s personal secretary is telling the lead civil servant that the Minister has been reviewing processes with staff lower down in the civil service.

Lead Civil Servant

Bernard, this has to be stopped at once… if he talks to the underlings he may learn things that we don’t know – our whole position could be undermined. It is folly to increase your knowledge at the expense of your authority…

Would you say that the minister is starting to run the department?

Minister’s Secretary

Oh yes indeed, actually things are going pretty well, actually.

Lead Civil Servant

No, Bernard, when a minister actually starts to run his department things are not going pretty well actually, they are actually going pretty badly.

Minister’s Secretary

Isn’t it the minister’s job to run the department?

Lead Civil Servant

No, Bernard, it is our job, or to be more precise, it is my job for which I have had 25 years experience and training. 

Minister’s Secretary

What should he do then?

Lead Civil Servant

Bernard, a minister has three functions. First, as an advocate. Making the department’s actions seem plausible to Parliament and Public. He is, in fact, our Public Relations man. Second, he is our man in Westminster, steering our legislation through Parliament. And third, he is our breadwinner. He has to fight in cabinet for the money we need to run our department. But he is NOT here to review departmental procedures with principals and assistant secretaries!

Minister’s Secretary

But what if he’s got the time?

Lead Civil Servant

WHY has he got the time?! He shouldn’t have the time, that’s YOUR fault, Bernard! You’re here to ensure that he hasn’t got the time. Create activity, Bernard. He should be making speeches, provincial visits. We need deputations, junkets abroad… Pull yourself together, Bernard! … make sure he spends more time where he can’t get under our feet and can’t do any damage.”   

Minister’s Secretary

But where?

Lead Civil Servant

Well – the House of Commons, for instance.

Yes, Minister. The Right To Know (S01E6)

Setting aside the Britishisms and the humour, the point stands that Leaders are not most useful when engaged in low-level, hands-on work.

We can translate the 3 jobs of the minister above into the equivalent for business leaders, especially departmental leaders.

The 3 jobs

  1. Be an Advocate – You are their public-relations representative. You are responsible for representing your dept’s work in the best light possible. To find the value and the narratives that support the perception and reputation of your department.
  2. Be a Representative – You are their person in the board room. You are responsible for representing your department at the levels above you. You clearly understand what you need to make your department successful and you consistently drive forward the executive buy in and support from other departments needed to ensure that success.
  3. Be a Breadwinner – You fight to get the money they need to run the department.

Why leaders shouldn’t behave like managers

When leaders act like managers there are a number of problems.

First, they aren’t doing the 3 jobs above. This means the department is weak and will see:

  • An erosion of reputation
  • A reduction in clarity of, and support for, their work
  • A diminishing budget.

Secondly, the actual managers and employees will be constantly disrupted by the leader interfering in the work that they are doing (and which they know more about). This leads to:

  • Bottlenecks where low-level work has to be approved by the leader.
  • Learned helplessness which means that managers and staff are not permitted to simply do their jobs without having it second-guessed by the leader.
  • Low morale caused by all of the factors above.

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