In the frontier days of poker, players often used a buckhorn handle to indicate whose turn it was to deal the cards. Passing the buck meant handing that responsibility to someone else. Thanks to President Harry Truman, the phrase "the buck stops here" has come to mean excuse-free responsibility for the matters at hand.
That was me. As the chief marketing officer of a public company, I absolutely felt responsible for every deliverable, from approving press releases to advertising campaigns and marketing events. The list was endless. Each day, a line several people deep queued at my door to review progress on an initiative or get my sign-off on a final campaign. Some may have seen this as creating an unnecessary bottleneck, but I saw myself as protecting the team's stature with the higher-ups.
In time, I learned my leadership style was creating resentment. I was inadvertently sending the signal that I didn't trust anyone else to do things right.
As a business owner, if you have the buck-stops-here mentality, the key is not to go overboard and start believing you're the smartest person in the room. Once you cross that line, you're on a path that can destroy talent and compromise your ability to lead. You're not only taking over day-to-day decision making, but you're probably unnecessarily injecting yourself into many other matters as well.
Here are five effective strategies to stop controlling and start leading your team.
1. Embrace humility.
As painful as it may be to admit, you are not the smartest person in the room. So stop trying to be. Embrace vulnerability and shed your ego.
In 2004, I was leading a division in Chicago that was recovering nicely from the recession, but tensions in the office were palpable. I didn't see it then, but I was a classic micromanager. One day, Paul walked into my office and, with flawless delivery, lowered the boom: "Everyone here hates you, and if something doesn't change, we're all going to quit." He closed the door and we talked for over two hours. I worked to understand the gravity of my behavior, Paul worked to understand all of the pressures I was facing from above. We both cried. Things got incrementally better, but I had to get knocked off my high horse to really listen and then change.
2. Ask for feedback.
Invite a trusted colleague to monitor how you behave and interact with others during meetings. Could a reasonable person conclude you need to be seen as the smartest person in the room? Be willing to take their feedback to heart and commit to change.
3. Declare your intent.
Absent facts, people make stuff up. If your team is not clear on your intentions, they are likely to be suspicious. Invest the time necessary to ensure everyone knows why you're participating at the level you are. When they feel you are providing "air cover" for them, they will better appreciate your role and involvement.
4. Communicate levels of empowerment.
Be clear with your team about when they can proceed without your involvement and when they need to collaborate with you. Explain that you don't want to own every decision long term, but you may need to approve more items than they'd like, if the demands of a particular project warrant it, or until they develop the skills and experience to move forward independently of you.
5. Recruit and train the best.
Hire and develop people who are substantially more talented than you. Recognize that your role is to build their confidence and talent so other leaders in your company take notice. Further, resist the urge to hold your hires hostage in one area--be willing to pollinate their strengths throughout the business. When you can step back and survey the many areas in your business where you've helped place great talent, your mission is accomplished.
Remember, we're smarter as a group than any one individual. And that means nobody is always the smartest person in the room, including you and me.