As a coach there is a theme that comes up again and again when people get promoted.
As people become leaders they suddenly find themselves having to let go of actually doing things.
We get where we are by doing, by ticking things off to-do lists, by completing tasks, eating the elephant. Throughout our careers we are rewarded for these behaviours, we are expected to get things done, stay late to finish, work at the weekend until the report or the presentation or the spreadsheet is complete.
It becomes part of who we are, in fact, it’s been who we are all our lives; from School to University to Career, we get given work, we complete it, we do what it takes to get the work done; it defines us.
And then one day, it’s all gone.
Suddenly, one day, we are given a team of people to lead, and we are told that we no longer do, we lead; we have people to do things and it is our job to enable them to do their best work.
We are rarely given any training, and certainly little support, we are just expected to make the transition. Somehow the fact that we are being asked to totally change what it means to “work” and to be “productive” is completely overlooked, and we are simply expected to get on with it.
The problem is that we are still in doing mode, we still think we’re coming in to the office to tick tasks off lists, so that’s what we do, we start to do or entire team’s work, we do, we don’t lead.
We can get away with this when we have a small team, but eventually, it becomes completely unsustainable. Not only is there just too much to do (one leader can’t do the work of a whole team), but we find that the more we do for our teams, the less capable they are, the less they can take on, the more they rely on us to solve all of their problems for them.
Small Team to Big Team
I was always pretty good at letting go fo the doing, or, so I thought.
I’d moved into leadership in 2016 and I had led a small team of between six and seven people for three years when I moved into leading a major project.
My smaller team would tell you that I was pretty hands-off, letting them get in with their jobs, not micromanaging, letting them do as much of the doing as possible while I led.
However, once I moved on to leading a project team of 40+ people, the change was profound.
I found myself wandering the building in the first few weeks, my to-do list completely blank, I would move from meeting to meeting, making sure that everyone was OK (they were), that they understood what it was they needed to do (they did), and if they needed me to unblock anything for them (they didn’t).
I came to the startling realisation that I didn’t do anything, any more.
Instead, my job was to keep everyone moving in the same direction at the same speed. My job was to make sure everyone on the team knew their job, and that there was nothing standing in the way of them doing it.
What I did had nothing at all to do with doing any more, and nor should it.
After all, I wasn’t an expert in any of the things that these people did, I was a Functional Consultant, I wasn’t a Change Expert, or a Training Co-Ordinator. I wasn’t a Project Manager, Product Expert, Process Owner or a Scrum Master. I was the Lead.
I was the expert in enabling others to do whatever it is that they needed to do, I was there as the expert in aligning priorities, clearing obstacles, managing leadership, and driving decisions.
But it wasn’t an easy transition, I had to let go of a bunch of ideas about how I should manage my day, and about the very nature of what I did, and replace it with something else.
How Can You Make the Jump?
So, how do you get OK with not doing?
- Acknowledge where you add value — Leadership isn’t doing, leadership is leading; and as a leader, that, by definition, is where you add the most value.
Your role is to ensure that people understand the people in your team understand the outputs that they are on the hook to achieve, and that they can see a clear path to achieving them (this might not be the way you would do it, that doesn’t matter). You are also there to make sure the people on your team have the resources they need to deliver, and that they aren’t being blocked in achieving those outputs.
That’s you, that’s where you add value.
- Recognise that there is no way you can do it all — Even if you wanted to, even if it was your job to, there is no way that you could.
The idea that I could take on and deliver the work of a 40-person team is, obviously, pure fantasy. The idea that I could take on and deliver the work of a six-person team is fantasy. To try would be a hide to nowhere, I would fail (obviously), the team would fail, and the project would fail.
You have no choice but to let it go.
- Admit that you’re not the expert — Even if you were in a position to take on this work, even if you somehow had the capacity to deliver the work of three of even four people, you’re probably still not the right person to do it. There’s a reason you have a team, they’re the experts, you’re not.
The team are closer to the front than you are, they have better knowledge of both the challenges that they are facing and how to navigate around them, you are now there to listen to what they have to say and help them surmount those challenges.
But to achieve that, you must let go of your ego, and you must listen to them as the experts, and you must practice The Joy of I Don’t Know.
A Well-Oiled Machine
There is joy and accomplishment in running a team that don’t really need to be led in the normal day-to-day. It is said that the true goal of a leader should be to make themselves redundant, and when you see your team just getting stuff done around you without the need for direction or input it is truly amazing.
Of course, doing nothing doesn’t mean that you actually get to do nothing, once you’ve let go of the doing and handed it over to your team, you can get on with looking up and out, instead of down and in.
You can start to see what’s next on the horizon, what sort of projects are happening that are going to have an impact on your team, you can start to figure out how and when to feed those projects in to the team and what priority they are going to take.
Imagine being able to go on holiday knowing, with complete confidence, that your team have got this, and that when you got back there would be nothing that needed your attention because the team are capable of handling everything that comes their way?
That’s what it looks like when you’ve stepped away from doing, and moved over to leading; the team can get everything done without you there because they don’t need you to do anything.
The catch, though? You’d better be there when they need you.
When something needs to be unblocked, when they need that guidance or direction, when you need to add value as a leader, you need to be there.
That’s the trade off.
Meanwhile, get busy doing nothing.