I was at Logan Airport the other day buying lunch before my flight. In a rare occurrence, I used cash. The guy behind the counter - who was new and unfamiliar with how to operate his cash register - became flustered when trying to give me change and asked his manager for help. She came over and (clearly irritated) asked him to step aside so she could just do it herself. My inner leadership obsessive sounded a massive alarm - it was all I could do not to say something to her. How is he going to learn if you just take over?

Thankfully, I checked myself. But this experience reminded me of something I see a lot of really smart, well-intentioned people struggle with: developing a high-functioning team. There are two, polar-opposite problems:  

1. You think no one can do things as effectively or as quickly as you.

Lots of managers get to where they are because they're good at doing things. But being a manager means you need to help others become good at things. You spend less of your time executing and more of your time teaching and supporting. Some very smart people who've been top performers struggle to make this transition because it's just easier to do things themselves.

That focus on executing means the manager can't extract themselves from the process when they hire someone else, which creates a bottleneck to productivity and a system that doesn't scale. Not being able to delegate creates a huge mess long-term.

2. You're so good at developing your team that you put yourself out of a job.

I'm always pleased when my directs reach this point. It means they've truly done what leaders are supposed to do. But that creates a bit of a career crisis. They wonder what's next and whether they've actually made themselves obsolete by hiring so well. They feel like their team doesn't need them anymore. But they do.

Though the team might not need the leader in the same way they did while ramping up, they still need the leader to figure out what's next. They need the leader to help clear their roadblocks, and to help motivate the entire team. When you get to a point where people development does not take up all your time, it's your job to shape the next innovation that will require new capabilities and growth.

Here's what you can do.

If you're a manager, you may identify with one of these; I have with both at different points in my career as I learned to become a better manager. If you want to do something about it, here's what I learned:

If you fall into the first category, realize that you have to drop the ego if you want to grow and develop a high-functioning team. People can do things differently than you, and often they can be great - made even better with your guidance. Here are some things to try:

  • Opt for comments over redlines. The specifics of how you give feedback matter. Train yourself to articulate broad feedback and the why behind it, rather than just changing the content to be exactly what you would do. It's even better if you can do this in person.
  • Schedule teaching time. Invest in hands-on guidance with new team members, even if the person you hired has a totally different skillset. Sharing your knowledge of the business, the history of particular initiatives or nuances of working with certain groups will help them be more successful.
  • Empower, but don't abandon. Employees with autonomy but no direction can lose their way, thus further reinforcing that something would have been easier just to do yourself. Encourage questions. Give permission for people to not know what they don't know, and help them fill the gaps.

If you're a number two, congratulations. And relax. You really haven't worked yourself out of a job--you just need to figure out the next evolution. My advice:

  • Embrace the "80/120" flux.: When you've scaled your team, you might find yourself working at 80 percent capacity rather than your typical 120 percent. Use this temporary slowdown to learn about other parts of the business or schedule those coffee catch-ups you keep canceling. If you're that good at growing something, you'll be busy again in no time.
  • Go get inspired. Take a break - your team will be fine without you--and go find the idea that will get you revved back up to 120. Whether it's midday exercise or a full-on vacation, recharge yourself so you can bring something new back to your team.
  • Evaluate your career trajectory. Figure out if you're doing what you want to be doing--in the function, the business unit, even the company in some cases. Are you still excited and motivated by it? If not, have the conversations you need to find a new challenge. We spend so much of our lives working; it's important that we're energized by what we do.

The most fulfilling part about my job is helping my team succeed, and I've learned over time the personal hurdles you have to overcome to make that happen. Management isn't easy, but it is worth it.

Published on: Mar 15, 2018