Who vs. What: Another Grey Leadership Issue

There are two schools of thought when it comes to hiring and organizational structure.

The relational types subscribe to “first who, then what”

The all business types lean towards “first what, then who”

I don’t agree with either of them.

I believe that one of the most dangerous things we can do as organizational leaders is overly systematize our processes.  It’s reassuring, comforting even, to have a formula for every organizational decision.  But I just don’t think it works.  It’s the easy and safe way out.

Leadership is much more complex.

For example: What if you have an amazing “who” but you have no “what” to place them in?  Meaning, you have a great employee with a great attitude, who understands the organizational culture, embraces your DNA and exemplifies great character – all things that you desire to have in an employee – but you absolutely don’t have a position suited for their gift set.  In a large organization, you may be ok because you have a lot of departments that you can place them in, but if you lead a small organization what do you do, especially when the budget won’t allow you to create a role that caters to this individual’s gifts?

Leaders who subscribe to “first who, then what” are likely to keep the “who” they love and put them in any position to keep them on the team.  In most cases, however that leader eventually gets frustrated with their favorite “who” because “who” is no longer a star performer.  “Who” is working outside of his strengths and doing a terrible job.  Eventually you let the “who” go and no one wins.

Leaders who subscribe to “first what, then who” disconnect themselves emotionally from their “whos” and just focus on the “what”.  They create the “ideal” organizational chart and only look for candidates that meet their specific “what” criteria.  The result is a culture that is cold and sterile with no relational chemistry.

I believe the best leaders do both of these things… and a little more.

First, they evaluate their “whos”.  What are the strengths and weaknesses of their individual team members?  What are their gifts?  Where do they shine?  How are they motivated?  What are their dreams and aspirations?  How well do they support the vision and direction?  Do they reflect the DNA and culture that you desire for your organization?

Second, they determine their “what”.  What does the organization need to continue to grow?  What does the organization structure need to look like to best steward its resources and momentum?  What specific skills are needed for those roles?

Then, the leader starts matching the “whos” with the “whats”.  You might move someone to a totally different role because the process of evaluating “whos” and “whats” separately opened your eyes to a solution you didn’t see when you were focused just on one side of the equation.  You also might discover that some “whats” aren’t as critical as you first thought.  You might be able to give up something so that you don’t lose a good “who”.

The point is that while you need to approach some elements of organizational structure with systematic thinking, your final decisions will come down to more intuitive analysis.  There is a discernment element of navigating this grey leadership issue that you can’t create a system to solve.

Your instincts in leading through the complexity will be what sets you apart as a leader.

How do you recreate, train and develop your team?

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve encountered in managing your organizational chart?

You may also like

No comments

  • Matt October 13, 2011  

    Very sharp thoughts Jen! Rigidity on either side of the equation yields limited results. The answer to most of life’s difficult dilemmas usually land somewhere in the middle. Flexibility is always crucial.

  • Eleanor Pierce October 13, 2011  

    I couldn’t agree more, Jenni! Working with leaders who believe too strongly that they have it all figured out, and therefore who are unwilling to let the situation dictate their response, is always frustrating.

    • Jenni Catron October 14, 2011  

      So true, Eleanor. I think I’ve been guilty of that a time or two.

  • Wayne Hastings October 13, 2011  

    Jenni, great post. You’re exactly right. Who and what are a balancing act and many leaders fail to recognize the importance of that balance. Temperament and strengths are a unique blend that needs to fit the job requirements today as well as tomorrow, especially in fast growing environments or environments that embrace change.

  • Blake Bergstrom October 13, 2011  

    Jenni…that post was brilliant!  I have never thought of that.  GREAT STUFF!! 

  • Aaron Conrad October 13, 2011  

    Excellent post Jenni. This is what makes the staff at Cross Point the talented team that they are. Your vision for the “who” and the “what” is displayed in the chemistry of the team. Great post. Great leadership.  

    • Jenni Catron October 14, 2011  

      Thanks Aaron. We’re blessed with a great team, for sure!

  • @rodneyholt October 13, 2011  

    Great Post! Great Vision!

    • Jenni Catron October 14, 2011  

      Thanks Rodney. Hope you are well!

  • turner_bethany October 13, 2011  

    You laid this out so well. Love it. It is such a great way to think through the problems of whats & whos. 

  • Amanda Sims October 13, 2011  

    What great insight! It DOES have to be both. I also think timing is a factor here. Sometimes you get the who and what right but the timing isn’t right. That can be tricky.

    • Jenni Catron October 14, 2011  

      Yeah, that’s a great point Amanda. The timing component is critical too.

  • Auto Repair Fairfax VA January 25, 2012  

    Admitting weakness and vulnerability portrays you as a human and hence encourages others (who know they have weaknesses too) to be sympathetic and to bond more closely with you. Admitting weakness also displays confidence in yourself and others, trusting that they will not attack you. In this way it can also be a display of power.