A client and I recently talked about what it takes for a strong, go-to, mid-level manager to develop into a successful senior leader. We listed many kinds of characteristics and experiences, including the need to look at the big picture differently, consider external factors you might not have addressed before, and acquire general legal savvy and business acumen.
We also considered some nitty-gritty interpersonal and team development requirements. The strengths that make you terrific at hands-on delivery don’t always serve you perfectly once you’re responsible for juggling multiple teams, issues, and priorities — some of which are always going to be in conflict.
Adjust Your Relationship with Your Team
One of the most crucial shifts has to do with how you detach from your team. The starting point is the classic recommendation about not being friends with your team anymore; it’s imperative not to treat some team members better than others because you have a social relationship or other non-work loyalties to them.
But you also need to change the way you interact with your team, particularly in the approach you take to assigning responsibility for achieving the team’s work. Shifting your stance in these three areas will help your team members become more capable and effective, while you grow into a higher level of leadership.
Stop answering. If there’s a question on the table, and there’s someone else who can answer it —particularly if it’s actually their job to know the answer — stay quiet, except to remark on how, “That is a fabulous question — and a perfect question for so-and-so to answer.” If you’re the one with all the answers, other people will stop bothering to think of them; you’ll limit people’s ability to grow as well as the ability of others to have confidence in them — which will limit your ability to grow, too.
Even if a senior person asks a question and your subordinate doesn’t have an answer when they should, let the subordinate have the uncomfortable experience of being caught unprepared and suffering the consequences. The only time you should answer for someone else is if you are protecting them from a much more senior leader or a bully; in those situations, they shouldn’t have to answer or be expected to know the answer.
Support independent thinking. Tell your people they have what it takes to figure things out, solve the problem, and come up with a plan. Help them learn to be ready so they can get better at taking on new and different challenges. Think about what each person needs, which may include how to manage their own projects or supervise and support their own people more skillfully.
Ask team members directly, consistently, and regularly: “What do you need from me to get the job done — or done more easily?” Expect their responses to include things like requests for additional resources, clarity about project goals and priorities, or a sounding board to evaluate scenarios. And whenever they rise to the occasion, or even when you see them striving to do so, encourage them to continue by praising them and acknowledging their progress.
Leave holes unfilled. Many managers who are expert at getting the work done actually fill in by being the answer, i.e., resolving every problem themselves: writing the crucial email, planning the event, or contacting the difficult customer. Team members often come to rely on their willing manager to provide these “services.” So, instead of being the answer, try helping team members find the answer for themselves. You don’t want them to think, “Oh, this is a problem — I’d better go see what Chuck can do about it.”
Nudge them toward thinking, “Oh, this looks like it could be a problem. Let me think how I can turn it around/handle it/ get started on it.” You can help by setting guardrails: Identify the kinds of problems that they must come consult with you about, versus the ones where they should work out a solution and verify it with you before they take action.
Even if there’s no promotion immediately ahead of you, right now is a good time to start working on these things with your team. Thoughtful delegation and team empowerment are important parts of self-development; focusing on them will help you get some unnecessary things off your plate sooner. As it becomes clear that your team can handle more, you’ll have the bandwidth and confidence to volunteer for additional assignments or pick up any slack you can see occurring in the operation. Sooner or later, your leadership will notice, and you’ll be on your way up.
Onward and Upward,