There have been several situations with clients recently that have made me pause and reflect on what it means to be a director. Whilst everyone who reaches this level can become a high performing driver of business growth and change, many people struggle to transition into the new way of thinking and doing.

The first time I had Director in my title was when I became the Director of Audit and Risk Management at a $1bn US private equity telecoms start-up. It wasn’t a director in the legal sense, but I was in charge of setting up and directing an organisation within the company, so I’ll take it. As a novice operating at this level, I got tangled up in details because I struggled to let go of day-to-day stuff.

I cut my directorial teeth when I became the Director of Financial Operations at Orange, a role where I was forced to step back by the sheer magnitude and complexity of what I was directing. 

For me, there are three key distinctions between the title Director and Manager.

Directors are responsible for: 

  • Setting the direction and strategy for the activities they direct (instead of taking advice from others).
  • Considering the impact of events and actions on the whole company, not just the part they control.
  • Identifying and driving changes to improve the performance and efficiency of the activities under their control (upsetting the status quo, as opposed to maintaining it).

The Directors I work with can be owners, legal directors, or directors in title. The amount of time they get to be Directors varies. Small businesses tend to keep a tight rein on people costs and, as a result, most Directors also spend a proportion of their time doing the hamster wheel stuff of day-to-day business. 

Being on the hamster wheel is not doing the job of ‘Director’.

In fact, it is the primary goal of anyone in a director role to ensure that they organise themselves and their teams in ways that give them as much time to be doing what Directors are supposed to do.

If they don’t take ownership of this transition, they risk becoming trapped on the hamster wheel forever and failing to live up to and delivering the value they have to offer from being a director. 

Becoming a director, first and foremost, requires that you change how you show up and think in your role. And the willingness to change is the difference between those that make the transition and those that don’t. 

As I look back across my corporate career and my experiences as a Coach, I’ve found there are seven attitude shifts involved. 

1: Hold reality and intention together.

It is an uncomfortable paradox of leading that we must maintain a commitment to desired future outcome whilst also dealing with whatever the reality of the company’s current position is. We must balance positivity with pragmatism so that no matter how significant the current challenges are, we can inspire ourselves and others with the future vision. 

The directors’ role is to create and hold in place the tension between current and future states that drive motivation and change. 

2: Trend, not transaction.

Directors are not unduly concerned with individual transactions but with the overall picture. Transactions provide useful anecdotes and examples, but they can affect our perspective (either with excessive doom and gloom or optimism) of the entire situation.

Directors focus on ratios (how important or prominent is this opportunity or challenge), variances (how are we doing against how we think we should be doing), and trends (is the situation getting better or worse).

3: Think ‘whole company impact’.

Directors who think only in terms of impacts on their team or function often damage the overall reputation and company results. I’m still surprised by how quickly the tendency towards functional silos begins in the smallest of companies. 

Directors consult widely and build purposeful relationships with their fellow Directors. They recognise and learn to be OK with the idea that other forces or priorities may sometimes necessitate that they ‘take one for the team’.

4: The job isn’t to ‘do’. The job is to get things done.

When confronted with an opportunity or a challenge, it is natural to want to ‘be the hero’. We roll our sleeves up and get stuck in. This is rarely the optimum solution (there are usually people closer to the detail better positioned to take action). It means that others don’t get the chance to step up and learn how to deal with different situations. This keeps Directors stuck on the Hamster wheel. Directors think ‘who’ before ‘how’ and ‘what’.

5: Find your trust/control level.

Relying on others to do things that we are responsible for can be a source of anxiety to new Directors (and quite a few old hands too). We need to find the right balance of trust and control and use mechanisms to monitor progress and outcomes that give us the required level of confidence without constantly looking over the shoulders of others. 

Directors monitor and check in regularly and recognise the need for mistakes to be made as part of the learning process (after all, we learn through mistakes). 

6: Value your time.

Directors do not have statues of them erected to recognise the numbers of orders they processed or for the problems they solved. They are remembered for the changes they drove and the difference in the company’s reputation and results. 

Time spent brainstorming, planning, thinking about and discussing ideas is the most valuable contribution we will make as Directors. But it may feel uncomfortable and unnatural. Being ‘busy’ may well be how we have defined our contribution to the company up until now. 

As directors, our focus should be on delegating and removing the ‘urgent’ Hamster wheel activity to spend as much time doing the essential things that add real value to the company. These are the things we get the title, remuneration and medals for. 

7: Impatience is a virtue.

Directors develop an intolerance for all forms of delay, avoidance, and procrastination both in themselves and others. 

Having committed to and begun moving in a direction, it is inevitable that unforeseen obstacles will emerge. My experience is that only about 20-25% of obstacles require an actionable response (a time, money, or resource action). The bulk of obstacles result from mindset and are solved through a blend of conversation and action. 

Directors do not stand and stare at obstacles. They act, without delay, to move over, under, around or straight through them.

Now the good news is that there is nothing in this list that you or any member of your team is incapable of doing.

This challenge is about the willingness and ability to raise your game and show up in this way.

More importantly, no one has to wait until they have the title to begin the change.

Creating this shift is at the heart of my work with people on my Leveraged Leadership and Commercial Breakthrough programs. It doesn’t take years of coaching, hours of reading and complex ideas to create better results and a more enjoyable experience of running a company.

It takes just two things.

A willingness to look in the mirror, at yourself and your company, and see the untapped potential that exists.

And a choice to engage in the conversations that position you to access the experience of Leadership and the results that you want.