Fill the Vacuum

I supported Stefan and his team for well over a year, as part of a larger organization. He was in his early 40s, spoke great English, had a clever sense of humor, managed a team with roughly one hundred people in Germany and the U.S. each. His staff of seven managed well the two hundred. Stefan travelled to the U.S. three to four times per quarter.

During dinner after a two-day workshop Stefan turned to me and said: „John, I get the feeling whenever I come to the U.S. that my people here don‘t even know who I am.“ He had a funny kind of smile on his face, perplexed.

I sensed what was going on. „Well, Stefan, when you come over who do you typically meet with?“ He went through the list: his direct reports, senior-level management in other departments, a handful of selected subject-area experts in testing, manufacturing, supply chain, and two or three German delegates to the U.S.

„Am I leaving a vacuum?”

My response: „Remember what we‘ve discussed over the last few months about American leadership logic. If you‘re not present in the eyes and minds of your team here, they will automatically orient themselves towards the strongest of your American direct reports. They won‘t have any other alternative.“

„Am I leaving a vacuum which is being filled?“, Stefan asked. I nodded. Both of us had gotten through our burgers, were eating our fries and drinking our juices. The background music was loud, but we could discuss further, nonetheless. We were in a college town, it was the middle of the Fall semester. Thursday evening. The place was full with students, faculty and university administration types.

„Americans like to know who their team lead is, and the strategic direction“, I said. Visiting as often as Stefan did was good. „But, you have to take the time to visit the troops, as we Americans say.“

“Your organization and people.”

„Town Hall meetings and such?“ I responded with a yes. „And have open office hours at set times and make sure folks know ahead of your visit. If you can fit it into your schedule, got out for lunch and dinner with members of your organization. Give them a chance to interact with you in an informal setting. They‘ll bring up what‘s on their mind if they feel comfortable with you.“

Stefan paused, ate a few more fries, took a sip of his juice and responded: „Yeah, but I don‘t want to get too involved. That could bother my direct reports. I mean, it‘s their organization, their people. I don‘t want to interfere in their work.“

That was pure form German leadership logic. You see it in the German military, where an officer from one level has to formally ask an officer at the next lower level for permission to visit that officer‘s troops. An American manager reserves the right to reach out to anyone in their organization, at anytime, and almost anywhere, with just about any question.

„You determine to what degree you get involved.”

My advice to Stefan was that he would in no way be perceived by his American reports as getting too involved in their work. On the contrary, they would be very happy to have a boss who is involved, who takes the time to become familiar with their teams, their work, the details.

„You determine to what degree you get involved, Stefan. At a minimum be present, ask questions, listen carefully, respond to their questions, observe. Most importantly, take what we are discussing now to your American direct reports and decide together the appropriate level of interaction you should have when you‘re in the U.S.“

I then added: „And while your at it, keep your eyes open for American colleagues in senior-level management who might be applying their leadership logic to their German teams, and possibly causing some irritation by perhaps being too present when they are in Germany.“

Stefan smiled in a mischievous way. „What?“, I asked. „I can think of at least three Americans, all first-rate team leads, who do just that.“ We laughed.

Fill the Vacuum