While I was on vacation this week I re-read one of my favorite management books: Turn that Ship Around by David Marquet. This is a massively underrated leadership book in my opinion. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend checking it out – I love the audio version.
One of the points he makes strongly in the book is the concept of building a team of leaders vs installing the classic leader-follower model. He calls it “leader:leader” in the book. He expresses concern that many teams are too highly dependent on the unique skills and personalities of one dynamic leader. The impact is that the team will perform well only so long as that specific leader is in place. Once the leader moves on or up, the team stops performing at a high level.
For the managers out there:
Do you ever feel apprehensive about going on vacation and leaving your team to fend for themselves?
Do you find yourself frequently jumping in to save the day on projects that have fallen off track?
Do you have a pile of approvals you need to work through every week?
Do team members line up outside your office door with problems every day?
Do you believe your team could perform well if you weren’t there?
The best leaders build teams for the long term. They architect operating processes and principles that can scale beyond themselves. They distribute power instead of hoarding it. They build teams to run smoothly without them.
Thinking about this issue over the past few days has led me to ask a question of myself. I will pose the same question to you:
Are you TOO important to your team?
I thought back on the best leaders I’ve ever worked with and identified four common behaviors I try to replicate to ensure I’m building a team that can thrive long after I’m gone.Building a team of leaders is ultimately about creating a culture of empowerment. You won’t hear me use the term “empowerment” much because, like David Marquet, I’ve always felt it carries an intrinsic sentiment of control with it. To say that I “empower” my team, implies that I have the power to assign out in the first place. In that sense, the very act of dolling out power as I choose, is disempowering. Putting terminology aside, our goal as managers is to build teams of leaders so they can operate and scale for the long term – whether or not we are present.
When I think back to the best managers I’ve worked with, four common behaviors come to mind. I think they can help you as you try to build leadership at all levels of your team.
One of the most demoralizing things that can happen to a team is to get part way through a project and have the manager step in to save the day when it turns out to be heading off course. This happens all the time. I would argue some managers, whether they realize it or not, actually create this problem themselves. At some level it actually feels good to have to come in and save the day, though I suspect most managers would be reluctant to admit it. Whatever the reason is, when a manager has to consistently step in to fix projects, team morale and performance suffers.
After it happens a few times, teams start getting used to the idea and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. At some point, teams just assume their leader will jump in and correct course, and so they don’t bother getting personally invested in projects anymore. I see this all the time and it’s a killer both to engagement and results. Any sense of personal accountability vanishes.
My recommendation to managers is to resist the urge to jump in and save the day. Give your teams more opportunity to deliver and fail and correct course. It might hurt a couple of times along the way but it’s a great investment in your team’s long term health.
One sign that you haven’t built a team of leaders is when your team constantly comes to you with problems to solve. A sign of a healthy team, is when they come to you with intended courses of action designed to address issues and capitalize on opportunities. If your team members consistently defer their problems to you, it probably means you are hoarding control whether you intended to or not. It may not be easy to admit, but it can feel good when people come to you with their problems to solve. It’s nice to feel needed. But this type of team structure – one where all problems are solved by you – cannot scale.
My recommendation to managers is to resist the temptation to solve every problem presented to you. Challenge your team to bring you intended solutions or options to address an issue rather than just bringing problems to you. You’ll find, in the long term, that this leads to better morale, developing leaders and a more scalable organization.
Some managers are uncomfortable with conflict on their teams. They like things to be harmonious. So they constantly step in to resolve disputes or force compromise. Patrick Lenceoni wrote beautifully about this in The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, so I won’t go into too much detail here on it. The challenge is, if you don’t allow your team to resolve their own conflicts, they start deferring to you more frequently. Before long you’ll find yourself in a situation where your leaders are unable or unwilling to operate without you in place to police every issue. I know I’m headed in the wrong direction in this regard when I feel like my managers come to me with complaints about other teams and managers all the time with the expectation that I will jump in and resolve the issues.
My recommendation to managers is to let healthy conflict happen. Let it go a little longer. Push accountability for resolving issues down to your team. Remind everyone of the higher level team objectives and force them to address their issues with these objectives and the guiding principles in mind. When team members come to you with small grievances about other teams and leaders, push it back on them to resolve unless they’re truly egregious.
There are few things as demoralizing and counter productive than for a team to work for several weeks or months on a project, do a big reveal presentation only to have it get rejected by the manager. This type of process – lots of work followed by a big bang approval – can be deadly to the performance and engagement of a team. A few of these in a row and you’ll suck any modicum of leadership and accountability from your team. For the same reason I coach people to avoid big bang reveals for the good of their own careers, I recommend that managers discourage them as well.
My recommendation to managers is to create a continuous dialogue with your teams around the projects they’re working on. It’s not about micro managing. It’s not about taking control. It’s about getting in there and helping your team be successful. Your job as a manager is to create a situation where your people can win. Maintaining a dialogue around projects – early and often – helps set them up for success and will also help build a track record of wins. Don’t sit back in your office and wait for your team to present you finished products. Get in there with them and help them win.
Our mindset as managers needs to be about building teams that can scale. Building teams for the long term. Deep down inside it might feel somewhat gratifying to feel like your team can’t thrive without you, but that is just ego, and you need to fight against it. Your goal should be to build a team of leaders that can operate in a happy and high performing way whether or not you are present. I hope these tips were helpful to you and I’d love to hear about other behaviors you’ve seen work as well.