Leading with Impact: Backing Away from the Day-to-Day

Talent Survey graphic

Look at the chart on the left.  It is based in a survey I ran on our website asking one simple question.   Do the numbers surprise you?   70% of people responded that they are called on to use “less than half” of what they are capable of, or say that their boss doesn’t “know how to use me”.

This seems like bad news.   Although the GOOD news is that there is a tremendous amount of untapped potential in many of our organizations that exists right under our very noses.

So why aren’t we tapping into it?

In one leadership workshop I facilitate, I often get to work with highly motivated, “high potential” middle managers.   A purpose of the program is to get them to consider their leadership style in the context of what helps produce the best output from their team members.

My observation is that often times high potential managers who are career driven, can act in ways that are self-limiting without realizing it.  They sort of fall into a trap that catches most of us (certainly it caught me during the earlier phase of my career.)

Here is the trap.

High potential middle managers are generally pretty talented.  They got where they are today because of that fact.   They are good problem solvers, comfortable with making decisions and generally possess strong technical skills related to the team, department or division they are charged with running.

They are good.  In fact, they are better than most who surround them.   They not only know it, but TAKE A GREAT DEAL OF PERSONAL PRIDE in it.  These are people who believe they add value to the business by being such effective problem solvers and decision makers.

Now take people like this, and put them in an environment where they are responsible for the performance of a unit.  People are watching the department’s output, and it is clear that the accountability for success ultimately rests on the shoulders of the department head.   This is a formula that promotes micro-managing (even when you don’t see yourself that way.)   People like this often feel that they can solve the problems better and faster than their subordinates, and it is easier and more expedient for them to do so.   In addition, they often talk during this workshop about the fact they can’t see taking the risk to delegate and empower more because failure can have career limiting consequences.

For me, one of the most difficult things to do was to let my subordinates try something their way when I was convinced my idea would likely produce a better outcome.   I always rationalized this by telling myself that the mission was paramount.

This attitude is based on a fallacy.

I have had some program participants tell me that they solve problems every day and often avoid some crisis because of their intervention in the work going on in their departments.   Well that is probably true.   So the fallacy is that if you had not solved that particular problem then a crisis would have certainly occurred.   This is not always true.  Would the problem have remained unsolved, or would someone else have “stepped up” when it was essential, dealing with the situation in a reasonable manner?

I had the pleasure to spend some time learning Marine Corps leadership at Officer Candidate School at Quantico.   One of the Marine officers put it to me this way.  “In battle, any officer may fall at a crucial moment.  I have never seen a case where, when this happened, that someone, some lower ranking Marine, did not step up and lead.  In fact, sometimes it is the person you would not have expected.”

Often I will ask the program participants at this point, what would happen in your company if we were all on a cruise right now and out of cell phone range?  Would they send home all the employees and stop taking orders because you weren’t there to tell people what to do?  No, of course not.   They would make the best decision they could under the circumstances, and either it would have worked or not.   If it worked, then it is worthy of acknowledgement.  If it didn’t, you may have some damage control to do when the boat returns to port, but even in that case, this represents a LEARNING opportunity for your team, and a COACHING opportunity for you.  If you hired good people, they will learn from the experience and be stronger for it.    Helping coach your team to learn from past experiences – isn’t that more what your MAIN job should be?

Three elements of your role.

When your team is small (say 3-5 people) everyone, including you, needs to be involved in the transactions that are the responsibility of your team.    You are more a working supervisor than a manager.   But as the organization grows in size and complexity, your role also needs to grow.   The trouble is – it seems hard to make this transition when you began as a working supervisor.   How do you let go?  When is the time right?  How do you become a manager?  Most of us accomplish this by putting in extra hours.    We have to attend meetings, file reports, do performance appraisals and develop budgets and other managerial stuff.  So, we work 42 hours, then 45, then 50 until we finally reach the point where we can’t stretch ourselves any further.  At that point, we need a new bag of tricks.  (It is a common complaint among the middle managers I encounter, that they are overworked and not managing their own work-life balance very well.)

Your job must become less about solving your people’s problems for them, and more about helping define the new problems that you want them to solve (hopefully aligned with company strategy and to the important objectives you have).    Your role must evolve to where these three things represent the principal part of your “day job”.   These are:

  • Set the Agenda – defining a purpose and direction for your team – call it mission and strategy if you wish but you need to assure everyone understands what you are trying to accomplish so that they can see how their role fits into it
  • Build the Team – hiring better, developing, training, coaching, and (the hardest part) dealing with the people who shouldn’t be there
  • Define and Create the Culture – Everyone acknowledges that we are all influenced by the culture within our organization, and it is a more powerful force than most rules, policies, or formal procedures.  So why leave culture to chance?  Be deliberate to create the environment that biases your people in a direction consistent with what you are trying to accomplish.

Think about it.  Wouldn’t everything in your world get better if you did those three things just a little better?    So, help make sure your people understand what you want to accomplish (ideally considering their ideas and input).   Get rid of the 10% of your workforce that should not have been hired in the first place, and help the others learn and grow.   Create an environment that makes it easier to do the “right” things.

Everything will get better.

So why wait?

When I present this model in class, most middle managers will say it seems logical.   However most can’t see themselves moving towards it today because the performance pressure is too intense. They feel if they back away from the daily challenges to work on the other things, then performance will suffer and then who knows what evil will ensue?

This, of course, is a delusion.  The longer you wait to start making the transition, the more you are retarding the ability of your team to learn and grow.   You also will be missing out on the opportunity to really get the best out of your people.



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2 responses to “Leading with Impact: Backing Away from the Day-to-Day

  1. Pingback: Leading vs. Managing: Not Absolutes, but a Continuum | lenbrzozowski

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