Wilfred J. “Will” Lucas is President of the W. Lucas Group, Inc., a leadership development and executive coaching firm based in the Chicago area. Previously, he spent nearly 25 years working in various corporate executive positions, including leadership positions as divisional general manager of Allegiance Healthcare, a unit of Cardinal Health, and also corporate staff leadership roles at Baxter Healthcare. As a business coach, Lucas works with high potential middle managers and senior leaders in a cross section of industries. He has engaged with numerous clients — at companies from BMO Harris Bank to Blue Cross Blue Shield — to help them leverage their individual gifts to achieve personal and company goals. The strategic “chalk talks” Lucas will present here are designed to help readers develop the leadership skills which can propel them to the next level.
By Will Lucas
What happens when you have just been promoted from individual contributor to your first job as a manager? Suddenly, you are not just responsible for your own contributions to the organization, but you are responsible for the contributions of others too.
So, now what? Typically, no one offers inside information on how to work with and manage others. In fact, much of what leaders learn is learned on the job. People are not born with every skill needed to lead others. It is a learned process, a journey.
As new managers embark on their leadership journey there are a few important lessons to take into account. Consider the example of a very successful individual contributor at a financial institution, who was promoted to her first supervisor role during a time of crisis. She found herself bringing along her typical intensity. She started to tackle problem after problem, working nights and weekends. Despite the hard work, she still continued to stay in a reactive mode without getting her arms around all of the problems. Even though she was not married and had more flexibility than others, she still found herself on a path to burnout.
She needed a different approach that involved a better use of her direct reports. As we worked together, we found that the business problems she faced were associated with a flawed workflow of information that contained numerous bottlenecks. Customers relied on information in a timely manner from her team, but deadlines were not being met. She discovered one of the first lessons of being in charge: As a leader you must define and communicate your context or current state of affairs – the goals, the issues and how the results will be measured, along with how others need to contribute. Ultimately, she not only got others involved to solve the bottleneck problems, she also found more time for herself.
The Lesson: Whether you are a new manager at the director or VP level, the most important thing to remember is that you cannot do everything. You must let some things go. To successfully let go, you have to stop doing three things and start or continue doing three things.
Stop relying on only yourself for results. Stop telling others how to do the job. And, stop taking responsibility for a narrow scope of a few results. Now, here’s what you need to start doing:
Start mastering context. This means understanding your environment, the business and/or department goals, the company strategy and issues, and what is expected of your team. It’s the performance of the team that matters now. The individuals within the team are likely to possess their own style and manner of working. They’ll perform better if they feel empowered to accomplish their piece of the work their way. So, it’s the manager’s job to discern the difference between telling others what to do vs. how to do it.
Letting go of telling others how to do things requires that you separate the goals of your department and team from the specific tasks of getting things done. Managers are more effective if they have the ability to communicate their department’s goals, measures of success and the level of effort expected from team members. The ideal is to allow individual members of the team the room to determine how to meet the goals.
Start leveraging others. When you become a manager, the days of self-reliance are over. It’s now time to begin communicating the context of business activities and objectives, and then delegate. According to social psychologists, we crave the core principles of self-determination – autonomy, competence and relatedness. So we naturally want to be independent and self-reliant. We bury our heads and focus on the task at hand. We do what it takes to get the job done.
Successful firms translate strategy to a broad range of people who do the work. If you aspire to move up in the organization, you must become one of those people who helps make the translation to implementation. In that role, you become successful by leveraging others to drive profitable returns for the corporation.
Start being accountable for many results. As a manager you no longer have responsibility for a few results, you have to be accountable for the results of many. In most well-run organizations resources are scarce. There is a premium placed on the ability to get things done with less. The wider a manager’s scope of responsibility, the less the organization is required to pay to drive productivity. So, if you have the ability to coordinate and drive a wide range of activities, you will have success in your organization. When you are mired in the details of getting things done, the scope of what you can accomplish will be limited.
Furthermore, a failure to let go and adjust accordingly will create costs to you, those around you, and the company. Consider these repercussions:
Personal cost: You begin to feel that there is never enough time to think, to rest and create balance in your life. The work is constant and seems never-ending. You are on a path to physical and mental burnout.
A cost to direct reports: By doing the work yourself, you rob others of growth and the opportunity for development. You are doing them no favors by withholding work, or not giving them tough feedback when they are given challenging assignments and the chance to learn from their mistakes.
Family costs: Especially for managers with spouses and children, a 7-day work schedule robs the family of your time. Missing birthdays, wedding anniversaries and school activities deprive the family and you of quality experiences.
Business Costs: Experts at the American Institute of Stress have found that each year in the United States, $300 billion ($7,500 per employee) is spent on stress-related compensation claims, reduced productivity, absenteeism, health insurance costs, direct medical expenses and employee turnover.
Despite the multiple costs associated with not leveraging others as a manager, changing to new ways of working with others is not always easy. Two things get in the way. First, many assume that no one can possibly do the job as well as they can. Much of an individual’s confidence, success and praise may have been built on getting the job done. Not only are they good at making it happen, they love doing it and pride themselves on the quality of the end result. They are emotionally tied to the work. So it is not easy to see someone else do the job without the same level of commitment and passion that you have.
Secondly, some are timid about giving feedback and holding others accountable for a high standard of excellence. I have had clients who did not expect the best of their people. They found it difficult to demand performance and let their people off the hook. These managers spent extra hours and weekends doing the work. Then these same managers were frustrated about the lack of time they could spend with family, and the lack of growth and capability exhibited among their direct reports.
By letting go and leveraging others, you begin to contribute to the organization in a different way. This allows time to mentor and develop others. Most importantly, it adds another building block of competence for movement to the next level.