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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Balcony & Dancefloor

Last week I wrote about my trip to New York and playing chess in Union Square Park, discussing the concept of balcony and dancefloor with Alfred, and for the first time since I started writing this blog, people reached out and showed an interest in that as a topic for a blog! I was getting asked about it at American Football Training and had people adding their requests in the comments and sliding into my DMs, so today by popular* demand, is that very blog!

*not that popular

The concept comes from the work of Adaptive Leadership by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky and I came across it some years back and have referenced it countless times since. It's a beautiful and simple yet powerful analogy for leadership and being 'over the work' vs being 'in the work' and it's something that has helped me in my coaching and consulting with hundreds of leaders, to give them perspective, think about how they spend their time and understand the importance of intentionality in leadership. What follows is not necessarily a purist approach to the work of Heifetz and Linsky but my interpretation of this, through the lens of many scenarios I've seen play out in the workplace.

Picture a dance floor with a balcony overlooking it. This could be indoors (as it is in the image), although in my head it's outdoors because that suits some of the metaphors I attach to it. The dancefloor itself, represents the space you occupy when you're IN the work. So if you're in a technology team, that might be the programming, in retail that might be the people on the floor selling, in recruitment, it might be those actually on the phones and emails, recruiting. Those people on the dance floor have no leadership responsibilities, they're the people actually doing the work.

The balcony represents leadership. When you're on the balcony, you're OVER the work. Not bogged down in the day to day, caught up in the weeds, you're in an elevated position from which you can see the work taking place. For many, this is when you've gone from one of the roles on the dance floor, into your first management or leadership position, which can often be a hybrid dance floor/balcony role, which presents challenges we will discuss later!

From the balcony, you have a different, and broader perspective. You can see how the dance looks overall. Who isn't dancing? Who is dancing in the wrong way? Who is dancing in the right way but facing the wrong direction? What might be coming over the horizon that could affect the dance in the future? What might we need to do about that? these questions are MUCH harder to answer from the dance floor where your view and perspective can be limited and your time and attention can be taken up by dancing.

Very often, leaders - particularly those whose career paths have been a relatively straight vertical climb from doer, to doer/leader to leader, now find themselves on a balcony overlooking a dancefloor where they made their name and built their reputation. It was their prowess as a dancer which unlocked the door to the balcony; but often they're more comfortable down there on the floor. As a result, despite perhaps knowing that their current role is more strategic and they need to be up on the balcony overseeing the dance and then intervening to help the dancers be more effective and more coordinated, they are instinctively drawn back down onto the dancefloor to be in their place of comfort.

I've seen this a lot, particularly in conversations over the last month or so working with recruitment teams in the UK, Europe and the US. In that industry there is a billing role (recruiting and with a target to hit) and when the biller hits certain targets (number of deals, value of deals, etc) they move up the ladder. It's a much more structured and prescriptive promotional path than I've been used to in the careers I've worked most closely with. On the positive side, it gives very clear expectations and outcomes that need to be achieved for someone to be promoted. On the downside, it can often create situations where excellent recruiters are put in roles that do not play to their strengths, purely because it's part of the expected promotional path.

The latter of these points is a broader organisational challenge which exists in many industries and firms where promotional paths are set out that require people to go from being individual contributors or subject matter experts, to leaders, in order to grow, climb and earn greater rewards. There are many companies where a passion to do a job really, really well, combined with no desire to manage others, puts a ceiling on your promotional potential. This is EXTREMELY common, in recruitment, software engineering, sales environments and many others. And of course, the skills that made you a great dancer, are very often a world away from the skills that will be required to be great on the balcony.

I've seen cases where, for example a great programmer who is head and shoulders above her peers, reaches a point where she's being paid at the very top of the salary banding for her role. The organisation cannot pay her any more for the role she's doing, despite her clear capability and productivity advantage over her peers. So one of the only options that they have, to keep her progressing and lessen the risk of losing her to a competitor, is to promote her to a leadership role, heading up the team of programmers she was a part of. That might seem like a good move on the face of it and sometimes it works out really well, but the skills that made her great on the dance floor are very different to those required on the balcony. Some people have, or can develop, both. But many others are world class on the dance floor, often because they LOVE to dance, but have neither the natural skills nor the passion to be effective on the balcony. And when that happens, you've made your programming team worse TWICE in one move; firstly by removing the best team member and secondly by putting in place a team leader who is neither a skilled leader nor wants to be in a leadership role.

When this happens, and perhaps targets are slipping or productivity is low, the leader can often find themselves coming down off the balcony and onto the dance floor, back into the dance. 'We need to get this code across the line, so I'll write it myself'. 'We need to hit this monthly recruitment target, so I'll get on the phones and hit it myself'. This can be good for their credibility within the team and often can help morale, but it comes at a cost. They've lost their view of the bigger picture and they've limited the time they have to spend developing the other dancers, at the expense of dancing themself.

This is where being intentional comes in. If you are in a dance floor role, that's where you'll spend your time, but are there opportunities to sneak up onto the balcony for a peek - to help the team out and also to get a feel for whether a role on the balcony might suit you in the future? Maybe, maybe not - but if you do that, make sure you do it INTENTIONALLY. Don't get sucked up onto the balcony against your will - choose when you're there and have a good reason for it.

The same works in reverse. If your role is a balcony role and you find yourself down on the dance floor, that can be ok - but you have to be there for a good reason. Don't just go down there because it's safe, fun or easy. And don't make excuses for yourself. Your time is limited and you need to be intentional with it.

And for those in hybrid roles, with an element of dancing and an element of balcony work? These are some of the toughest of all, and that's why intentionality and self reflection are so crucial. How much time are you spending on the dance floor vs the balcony and is it reflective of your aspirations? Where are you most effective and able to influence the changes you're looking at? From where can you most effectively drive behaviour change from your people? What are the expectations of your boss and your organisation? If you're solving a problem from the dance floor, how could you solve it from the balcony and vice versa?

Test and challenge yourself. Look at the places you're spending your time. If you're a leader of dancers, think carefully about who has the capabilities to be effective on the balcony and how you can help uncover and nurture those. And if you're a leader of someone who has a hybrid role, help hold the mirror up to them so that they can reflect and grow into the leader that they want to be!

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