Many years ago I was working with an executive coach from the Australian Institute of Management. He was coaching me on a key transition in my growth as a manager of other people. He related a story to me about a newly promoted VP he had been working with – let’s call him Larry.
Larry had nearly ten years of escalating success and growth at his consulting firm. His clients loved working with him and managers trusted that he would excel in any engagement, and turn any hairy situation around to the firm’s advantage. In short order, they put in in charge of his team where he worked tirelessly to successfully grow the billing and recurring revenue for his unit. A handful of months later when there was a sudden opening for a VP of the Customer Success division, they looked to their rising star Larry to take the role. They gave him the division in his fifth year with the firm, where he immediately started to fail. Deadlines started to be missed and customers complained. Some talented people left the division citing issues with management. And the company’s leadership brought in an Executive Coach to help Larry get back on track.
The coach initially focused on Larry’s time management skills, after all, Larry was working longer and longer hours to get the division back on track and was still struggling to make the deadline. But they quickly found there wasn’t anything Larry didn’t already know about time management: that wasn’t his problem.
After so many years of stellar growth and success at the company, why was Larry suddenly failing now?
“It feels like I am in the Alicia Paterson show…”
I had my own experience as a new manager many years ago. I had been recently appointed to lead a new team with an exciting new charter and I knew exactly what had to get done. Six months of hard work later and with some wins I was horrified to read what people working in my team said about their experience of me as their manager. One person wrote, “It feels like I am in the Alicia Paterson show”. I was a micro-manager.
I would later learn how to build and lead high-performing teams where people felt agency in their work. It would take me the better part of a decade, however, I’ll share here the key insights and actions you can take away today to manage this transition in your own career.
Manage Inputs, Not Outputs.
Laurence J. Peter’s 1970 book The Peter Principle observes that many organizational hierarchies tend to repeatedly promote people who are successful up to the point where they are no longer able to be successful due to lacking the skills needed for the new role. In Larry’s case, the skills and experience he had that had made him stand out when leading consulting engagements with customers didn’t translate immediately into what he needed to lead the new division. Larry knew what success required – how to craft the message the right way, how to shape the slide deck or update email just right. When the team is under pressure, Larry reverted to what he knew best, carefully checking any work before it went out the door. But in doing so, Larry was showing that he didn’t trust his team and he became a bottleneck that slowed everything down. He was managing the outputs of the team.
As VP of the division, Larry’s role was fundamentally different from what he used to do at the firm. Larry had the same 40 or so hours of work available to him each week, however as VP now, Larry’s time now had to act as a force multiplier that shaped how the rest of the 100 people in the division spent their combined 4000 hours. Obviously, Larry couldn’t check every email, or edit every deck. His old way of working didn’t scale and was causing him to fail.
Like me, Larry had to learn how to move to manage inputs, not outputs. Larry needed to invest time to ensure people have a clear understanding of the goals and needed outcomes for the teams. For example, when a team member was preparing an important deck to communicate an update to senior leadership rather than ask to review the final deck before I sent it out, I worked to make sure the person drafting it had a clear understanding of that the deck was seeking to achieve and what the audience cared most about. Then when the deck was written, it was in the voice of the employee…not mine. But most importantly, the employee felt invested in the deck, after all without my final review there was no safety net – success or failure was on them. They had a greater stake in the work, which translated to greater ownership which translated to greater engagement.
Balancing Risk through Effective Delegation.
This is hard to do, however. I recall clearly a difficult discussion in 2022 with the CTO of a LATAM bank about risk tolerance in the context of creating a culture of innovation 1. His concern was similar to so many executives: we cannot afford to create a culture that is lax with respect to failure. However no one tries something new and is perfect on the first go 2, and people stand to grow their skills faster when invested in the work they are doing and in the risks they are taking. Plus engagement is linked to agency and control. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us 3, Daniel Pink shares that motivation has three parts: Purpose, Autonomy, and Mastery. When you remove people’s sense of agency, you tax their engagement. After all, people will not invest in something they cannot control or influence.
Effective delegation empowers people. They have agency to act and they have a greater stake in the successes or the failures of this industry. This is how to help people grow, and how you balance risk by sharing the risk (and rewards) with those you lead. When you delegate, make sure the success conditions are well understood. Set clear expectations and hold people accountable; this is what they want.
Build Trust. Coach for Success.
In Trillion Dollar Coach 4, the authors share many fond memories and insights into the way that Bill Campbell helped some of the biggest names in tech. Bill was a professional sporting coach who jumped into the tech industry and would go on to directly influence many tech company leaders, from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to the board of Google. Bill’s secret was that he cared and he showed up. He invested the time to build the relationship and get to know the people he worked with. If your only meetings with the people you lead are to talk about the work at hand, then you are missing the opportunity to get to know them on a more personal level and to demonstrate that you care about the whole person and not just what they can do for your company.
I recommend to all people leaders that they carve out a session every month where they just focus on the person: what they have been excited by, where they are feeling challenged, where they want to grow, and what their future aspirations are. Do not talk about the work at hand. If the day-to-day is creeping into these monthly sessions, it is an indication that more time is needed to collaborate on the operational stuff 5. Make a commitment to each other that if schedule disruptions cause you to have to miss your monthly session, the person with the conflict is responsible for ensuring another time that month is secured to replace it.
I cannot stress how much of an enabler this monthly session is for building a high-performing team 6. In just a handful of sessions, you’ll build a level of trust that allows you to be more efficient, more blunt in your communications with each other. It is particularly important for hybrid teams where many people are remote. Doing this one activity will greatly increase the engagement, collaboration, and camaraderie in your team.
Finally, this monthly motion will allow you to spend time with your reports coaching them on core skills required to help them successfully deliver their delegated work.
- A deeper dive into the Culture of Innovation in the modern enterprise will have to wait for another article, but I also recall fondly the hug he gave me at the end of the day with genuine gratitude for the many insights gained that day.
- North Korean leaders notwithstanding.
- Thanks to Bella for recommending this book. I still fondly recall meeting for the first time in Vegas and the exciting discussion about psychology at work during our buffet dinner!
- Yeah, I know there are a lot of books referenced in this article. I often tell my coachees that I read all of these books so they don’t have to.
- I recommend a 30-minute weekly call for discussion on the day-to-day, though this might adjust up or down based on workload or tenure in the role.
- It’s so important, I’m going to dedicate an entire article to the practice and why it is so effective.
- The photo I’ve used for this blog reminds me of a Spike Milligan poem that still delights me:
"The young boy stood looking up the road to the future. In the distance both sides appeared to converge together. "That is due to perspective,when you reach there the road is as wide as it is here", said an old wise man. The young boy set off on the road, but, as he went on, both sides of the road converged until he could go no further. He returned to ask the old man what to do, but the old man was dead."Spike Milligan