There are many reasons why leaders get overwhelmed in their work; bigger teams, more responsibility, more accountability…the sheer volume of things coming at them. A hidden problem, however, is often a subconscious resistance to delegating.
On one level this makes no sense; if someone could get work off their plate, surely they would want to, no? And still, day in and day out we work with people who have stuff on their lists that they clearly should no longer be doing themselves.
One of the approaches we have found helpful to break the pattern is the following, admittedly slightly inelegant, maxim: “Only do what only you can do.”
This is not an admonition to laziness. On the contrary, it is asking you to step up and away from what you are comfortable with, to do what the team and the organisation need you to do.
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Leaders at all levels get promoted for being good at their last job, and the tendency is to want to keep doing that job. You are good at it after all – probably the best there is in your organisation. That is why you got promoted. Often moving into a new role at a new level can feel very uncomfortable, not only is there an emotional pull back to what you know how to do well, but there is often real discomfort with the entirely new skill set required. Still, you must move on. Let the person who got your job make it theirs. Your dipping back down into the detail will only disempower them and keep you over-busy with things that no longer are yours to do.
We suggest using the maxim at the very least as a filter for what you put on your own plate. If something can be done by someone else, give it to them, even if you are convinced they won’t do it as well as you. The truth is that in your new role you have things to do that they simply cannot do. Your people can’t go to your boss or people higher up in the organisation to get air cover for themselves for instance, they need you to do that.
They need you to be holding the vision for the team or the organisation. They are busy working on making it happen, and they need you to be looking up at the horizon, identifying opportunities and risks before they become apparent at the coal face. Someone needs to be standing apart, listening and looking for patterns in what is coming in across the business. Again, this can feel uncomfortable; it doesn’t feel like “work”, at least not like the work you used to do, but it is a key function on a team that, if left unfilled, leads to tremendous inefficiency and strategic error.
What we see is that very often the leader doesn’t get to these more strategic things that only they can do, because they are too stuck in the detail of things that someone else could and should be doing.
Make a list of all the things that your team needs to take care of in order to be a huge success. Have a look at the list with a very critical eye, and identify the things that only you can do on, and for, the team. You may be surprised at how many there are, and you’ll want to take that as your starting point for deciding how many of the things that someone else could you really want to keep doing yourself.
Further reading on leadership: The year of the plane: part 1