Are You a Scalable Leader?
One of my employees recently asked me, “As you continue to move up in the company, how do you stay on top of everything?” As I processed the question I quickly reflected on how much my role has changed over the years. My focus now as a leader is to help others get their job done; not try to get everything done myself as in my early years. I’ve had to make this shift in my career otherwise the business would’ve run right over me. My answer then came almost immediately. I don’t stay on top of everything – but the team I lead does.
As leaders, sometimes we make the mistake of thinking we will always be the resident expert and need to know all that goes on in our organization. I know I have. In reality, this isn’t humanly possible. When we try, we not only disempower those around us, but we also impede our ability to scale ourselves as leaders, ultimately keeping us from moving to the next level.
3 Things that Make Us Un-Scalable:
Insecurity feeds the need to control – control outcomes, control people’s behavior, and control results. We often think controlling situations is “leading”, but we are fooling ourselves when we do so. “Nothing gets done unless it’s run past me first” or “Have them come to me directly from now on” are all dangerous statements that will stunt our growth as a leader and ultimately as a company. People like to be led, not controlled or micro-managed. Leadership, in its purest form, is influencing someone to do something without controlling or imposing your will. It’s like the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink.” This is true – unless you make them thirsty. This is how real influence works.
More than likely we became leaders because we are good at what we do. I’ve never seen a strong leader without quality skills and experience. The problem with this is we sometimes think we are so good, that no one else can do it better. This may be true in some cases, but we need to let others step up and more importantly, we need to get out of the way. If others cannot do what we do, we will always be “doing” instead of “leading”. We need to let go of our ego and empower others to use their skills. If we don’t, we create our own cap on any upward movement.
Over our careers we’ve gained loads of knowledge. Attaining this wealth of information is partly what has gotten us to where we are today and frankly, we’ve worked hard to get here, right? If we’re not careful, we have a tendency to be overly protective of our spot on the ladder – forget about telling someone else how to get here. We make the mistake in saying, “I can’t impart this to them, it could mean I am no longer needed” or “This will take me way too long to teach them, I’ll just do it myself.” If we are stingy with our knowledge we limit our capacity to lead because our knowledge transfer stops and in turn, so does our influence. Our knowledge needs to flow to others like a fresh stream; otherwise, it will turn into a stagnant pond that doesn’t have the ability to expand.
“The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
5 Ways to Scale Yourself as a Leader:
- Surround yourself with people smarter than you. This can initially feel counter intuitive and even threatening. Back to our insecurity, we tend to hire people below our skill level – which I’ve learned is a big mistake. In order for us to move up, it’s essential for the people around us to have the potential to be better than we are. You say, “But what if they replace me?” I say, “PERFECT”. If our people are so good that they can replace us – beautiful. This means our current areas can be tended to nicely and allows us to take on other, higher impact areas within the organization. How will your boss ever consider you for a greater opportunity if they see that only you can cover your current area?
- Listen to these people. Ask a lot of questions. Be curious. Often times these people are closer to the client than you are so give them your full attention when they share their perspectives. When they present ideas, hear them out as opposed to saying things like, “We’ve tried that before, that will never work”. Who knows, maybe it will this time since business is always evolving. Then again, maybe it won’t, but at least you heard them. People don’t necessarily need to get their way all the time, but they do need to feel heard. This doesn’t mean that everything they say is the gospel, but you can always use what they are telling you as one of your key data points.
- Expect them to fail. The difference between expectations and reality always equals the level of disappointment you will feel in any situation. If your people are taking risks and trying new strategies, they will inevitability fail so keep your expectations realistic. If they aren’t failing, they probably aren’t taking enough risks and/or pushing themselves beyond their limits. When this happens, instead of telling them what went wrong, ask them what they learned or, what should we do differently next time? Let them identify what went wrong. If they are good, they will be their own worst critic and be quick to fix the issue on their own so it doesn’t happen again.
- Establish KPI’s and Dashboards. These are our safety nets. As much as we want to empower those around us to make their own decisions and think strategically, the buck still stops with us. Having key performance indicators (KPI’s) and Dashboards in place allow us to be separate from the day-to-day, but still gives us a good pulse on what’s going on in the business. These dashboards should monitor areas that have high impact and give us early indications when things are going in the wrong direction. Also, keep air in your scuba tank. What I mean by this is be prepared to “dive deep” if need be. If KPI’s are going south and/or you are hearing “noise”, move quickly. Go to your people and ask questions to find out what is affecting performance. Keep probing deeper until you identify the root cause of the problem. A problem solved is a problem clearly identified.
- Lean on more than your gut. As you continue to move up in the organization, you will still need to make key decisions even though you are no longer close to the front lines. Instead of reacting purely on your gut, go gather the data. Once you’ve collected all your data points, connect them with your first-hand knowledge of the situation and compare it against the wisdom you’ve gained in your career. Then, listen to your gut. And, for good measure, compare the decision against your core values to ensure there is alignment. Following this process should provide the best course of action when you are far away from the day to day.
As an operations person, I see un-scalable processes and technologies getting replaced all the time as businesses grow. The sad reality is this can also apply to people, including us as leaders. However, if we follow the above guidelines we will ensure our chances of success and continued growth in our careers; thus, making us all scalable as leaders.
Learn More About the Author: Matt Juarez, vice president of operations at NAVIS.