It’s common for startup leaders to feel that they have to do it all. That they have to be involved in every project, have all the answers and keep a hundred other balls up in the air. But that type of micromanagement can be destructive for any organization over time, say Barry Kaplan and Jeff Manchaster.
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These two should know, as partners in the executive coaching firm Shift180 and co-authors of The Power of Vulnerability. Kaplan, who's based in Ridgewood, NJ., and Manchaster, who's in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tell how they once worked with the CEO of a medical equipment distribution company. The CEO was a self-admitted micromanager, the consultants say. Checking in with his team, they found its members all very frustrated and unable to do their jobs.
When, on top of the company's leadership problem, a key customer threatened to leave, Kaplan said, he and Manchaster sprang into action. “We coached the CEO to meet with his team, state the facts about the customer and then just ask one question of the team: ‘What do you guys think we need to do to make sure our customer is happy?’” Kaplan recounted via email.
“Jaws dropped around the table.”
No one on the team had expected the CEO to take a step back and actually let them work. But, when he did, the employees rose to the occasion, developing a solution that impressed the customer.
The message here? Sometimes a company functions better without its leader. And for leaders who consider themselves the center of everything, this can be a hard pill to swallow. But letting a company go leaderless -- under certain circumstances -- lets employees spread their wings, and frees leaders to focus on more important things.
Here are three scenarios where it works for a leader to step back.
Scenario 1: When leaders aren’t the experts
No one is an expert at everything. Even the most talented leaders have gaps in their skill set. But a great leader needs to acknowledge when he or she is not the best person to tackle a challenge. That's when employees should be allowed to lead, in an area where they excel.
“I have stepped back from areas that are not in my core competency,” Houston-based Wesley Middleton, the author of Violent Leadership, told me. “I make sure that everyone on the team is a leader and not just a functional player. As I develop the people around me to lead, it frees me to perpetuate the vision and purpose of the organization, exponentially.”
If you're the CEO, make sure you're not always down in the trenches -- that, instead, you sometimes back up and watch. Pay attention to which employees step up and the skills they use to develop a solution. Then, sit down with those individuals and ask how they felt leading. If the experience excited them, create a plan for them to take on more responsibilities.
Scenario 2: When work/life balance is in jeopardy
Leaders are human. They need to find a balance between their work and home lives. But they often feel guilty taking time off for personal reasons. And this sets a bad work/life balance example for employees. It also leaves the leaders themselves feeling burned out or unhappy that they've missed major moments in their children's lives.
David Hammer, for example, is the founder and CEO of the New York-based sales intelligence network Emissary. His company was in the middle of a pivot when his first child was born, he said. Despite his worries about that situation, he knew he needed to take paternity leave.
“As a leader, you’re sometimes propping up the company,” he said in an email. “Alternatively, sometimes the company could handle [things] just fine on its own, if only you weren’t in the way. Either way, you don’t really know the strength of the organization until you’ve seen what happens when the leader disappears for a while.”
In this context, leaders can’t operate at full strength unless they take time for themselves. Even if mistakes occur while they’re away, those mistakes provide leaders with a chance to make positive changes. Their absence exposes problems that otherwise never would have come to light.
Scenario 3: When employees need to develop
In a sense, leaders are safety nets for employees. They help them overcome mistakes and right the course of the organization when things get side-tracked. But taking over the ship in every instance can create a sterile environment where employees can’t learn.
“It is important that we give individuals the tools to succeed,” Rob Reif, president of the Stamford, Conn-based media planning and buying company, MNI Targeted Media, said via email. “But, it is equally as important that we give them the space to use those tools to become the experts and to make their own mistakes.”
So, let go of your employees’ hands. Trust that they’ve received enough training to work on their own. They might even be able to develop a new way of doing things that you might not have envisioned. As Reif told me, when employees are able to test out their skills, they form a deeper connection with the work. They feel a sense of pride in what they’ve accomplished, because it was "all them."