During a recent coaching session, a CEO admitted that when he headed up an Engineering firm he was a great engineer, but as a leader he was a pain in the neck. Too much nit picking and not enough enabling. He just couldn’t resist getting stuck into the work of others and what was intended to be helpful was received as interfering. When he then went onto a role leading an organisation in a totally different field – a field he knew nothing about – he had no choice but to lead. He couldn’t do the work of the people below him, so his role was clearly defined: to put energy in to leading and managing the organisation and its people to achieve better things.
This year has taken the skill of backing off to a whole new level. Without having people under our noses, we couldn’t engage in close contact managing (for that, read meddling in some cases) so we had to learn to trust and enable. Now that we are entering our next phase of working, which for many is shaping up as a mix of office and remote working, it is time to take yourself by the scruff of the neck to avoid unlearning the good habits the pandemic forced us to embrace. Let it go, let it go…
It helps to remember what got you to this point. Did you rise up the ranks due to your technical abilities? You were so good at the work it earned you a promotion. Or perhaps you entered through a different route. You were good at leading teams and managing projects and able to apply those skills in a range of settings. Neither route is better; it just is what it is. You can’t help what you don’t know, and you can’t unlearn what you do know, but you can make the best of either situation and avoid the inevitable management traps.
So, for leaders and managers who are experts in the work of the people in the team:
- You will always have credibility. You’ve been there and done it and you have wisdom to offer, so mentor others to grow and develop in their knowledge and skill.
- You might find delegation and letting go a bit of a challenge. Will they do it as well as you? As it happens, they may do it better, which is great, but even if they don’t, they may just do it differently, or cheaper, or quicker than you and all of those have value.
- Be careful that all roads don’t lead to you. Technical experts often become fixers of others’ problems rather than coaches who help people work it out for themselves. One day you may leave and whilst you want a decent send off, people to be a bit sad etc., you don’t want the place to fall apart. So, encourage people to sort their own problems, with your support.
- Your knowledge is not in question here, so take time to develop your leadership skills. Leadership is a skill to be mastered, like any other and the great thing about it is that you can apply it in a variety of settings.
- Watch out for meddling tendencies dressed up as “being helpful”. If you do it because you are missing something you love (management roles can be very lonely for technical leaders), find something else you love, or be a contributor on another project rather than overpowering others who have a job to do too.
And for leaders who didn’t take the technical route:
- Listen hard and learn fast. You don’t need to be able to do the jobs of everyone in the place, but you do need to have intelligent conversations with them about their work and what you can do to smooth their path to success.
- Consider a stint on whatever happens to be your version of the shop floor, more than one if you can. It’s a first-hand experience you can discuss with people, will give you a better insight than just observing and may well up your credibility with others. At the very least it will give them something to laugh at.
- Attend forums where you can develop a bit more technical knowledge. As well as benefitting you it shows commitment to the team respect for what they do and can help you develop some great networks.
Whichever route has got you to where you are now, make a commitment to using your knowledge and skill to be the kind of leader people want to have around. Meddling is so 2019.