The Crucial Difference Between Leading Big and Leading Small

Dave is a smart guy– when it comes to most things.

A Managing Director at a professional services firm, Dave knows his clients, industry, and the business inside and out.  He’s also passionate about wanting to grow the consulting skills of the Junior members of the firm.

However, when it comes to leading a group of people, Dave can’t tell the difference between big and small.

At a recent firm conference, Dave was leading a session on new firm technology for fifty Managing Directors and Senior Managers.

He started the session off like this:Well, since we’ve all come in from around the world to this conference, I think it’d be a good idea for us to get to know each other better. Let’s go around the room.  Please share your name, your service line, what office you’re based out of, and your favorite thing about working for the firm.

If you look solely at the content of what Dave’s direction, it all sounds pretty good.

However, if you consider the context, the problem is a lot clearer.Dave didn’t quite understand what he had just done.In fact, after all of the introductions, Dave said, Well that took a little longer than I expected.  We’ll have to cut back on some of what I was going to talk to you about.

Longer than expected?  The introductions took forty-five minutes.Time wasn’t the only thing Dave lost.

He also lost everyone’s attention, engagement, and enthusiasm.

Dave’s idea to “go around the room” would have been just fine with eight people.   Dave is comfortable “leading small”.  With a small group, you can get away being a sloppy leader.   You can be conversational and probably get away with it.But when you “lead big” (like fifty people), you have a whole new dynamic to have to manage: the group’s energy.Here are three things to consider when you’re leading big:

1. People need to be actively involved.  Part of why Dave’s introduction process crashed and burned was because when you’re passively listening, your attention circuits turn off.  Adults don’t want to be lectured to; they want to be involved.

2. People crave variety.Even if you have the world’s best attention span, when forty-nine other people all drum to the same rhythm (name, service line, location…) a trance affect is produced.  Leaders need to break up things to keep people anticipating what comes next.

3. Use the power of the small group dynamic.Dave missed out on an essential way to involve everyone without boring them to death. He failed to use the small group.  He could have easily asked the same questions, and asked the five people around each table to introduce themselves to each other. This would have taken three minutes.

Then, he could have asked for just a few volunteers to share to the big group, and closed with something like “So over the course of the next two days, take time to network and meet people you don’t already know.”

There’s nothing natural about “leading big”.  However, doing so involves a set of skills that can all be learned.

What other techniques do you use to “lead big”?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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