I’m constantly pushing leadership teams to get out of the weeds and to add value at an appropriate level. (See my previous post for how to tell if you’re in the weeds.) They are continually pushing back with a collection of excuses for why it’s not possible. Paramount among these reasons is that the layer below (the people who report to them) is not capable and can’t be trusted to deliver.

Leaders talk about the lack of capability in the layer below as if:

  • It’s a temporary issue that will somehow, magically, be rectified at some point in the not-too-distant future
  • It’s someone’s else fault; and that somebody will clearly take responsibility and fix it at some point
  • It’s going to get better even though the layer below is never allowed to actually drop the ball and therefore never experiences an aversive consequence for their lack of capability
  • It’s going to change even though the shoddy work is ripped from the hands of the incompetent direct report and completed instead by the exasperated manager

Well, good luck with that!

The sure-fire way to prolong the capability gap below you is to keep doing their jobs for them. If, at some point, you tire of having to do your job and theirs, here are the steps to slowly extricate yourself from the weeds.

  1. Reiterate what you expect from your direct reports. Define what “good” looks like and what you’ll be watching for to know that the work has been done well. “I’m expecting your recommendations to include perspectives from marketing and supply chain, in addition to our product development perspectives.” Don’t presume that the person knows what an “A” looks like.
  2. Set frequent milestones to evaluate progress and provide course corrections. “You’ve had a couple of days to noodle on this, tell me about your approach.” Don’t let things get so far off course that you have to take the reins. Keep your feedback high frequency and low impact.
  3. Coach with questions instead of giving direction. Rather than teaching the person what to think, you’re trying to train him how to think. If an important idea is missing, orient the person to it by asking a question. “I see you’re planning to use the same deck to talk with marketing as you’re using for supply chain. How might the two groups differ in what they’ll want to see?”
  4. Let the person feel a little heat. There’s nothing like an uncomfortable situation to promote learning. If you can find a safe spot to let your direct report feel some pressure, capitalize on it. Only do this if you can manage the situation so it’s not terrifying. For example, if you invite the person to present her work to your peers, set them up in advance. “Francine is presenting next. I know there are a few gaps from the supply chain side, Beth, would you ask her two or three tough questions but be careful not to scare her off? I’m trying to raise her game.”
  5. Give straight feedback. Be specific, concrete, and non-judgmental when you share what was good and what was lacking in the person’s work. “In your presentation this morning, you covered the marketing side well by using their data and speaking in their language. On the supply chain side, your presentation didn’t include any timelines. Beth gets nervous when she doesn’t see timelines and now her back is up. How might you make sure you’re meeting everyone’s needs in the future?”
  6. Collect common themes and provide training where appropriate. If everyone is struggling with stakeholder management, it’s time to invest in a course of influence strategies. If you can afford it, hire a professional. If not, pull together your own workshop to share what you’ve learned.

I witnessed a conversation around an executive team table that went like this.

Person A: “We need someone to represent us at the event in Philadelphia. The press are going to be there, so it has to be someone good.”

Person B: “It’s not important enough for one of us to be there, but frankly, I don’t know who in the next layer I would trust with this.”

Person C: “I think the best we have is Emir.”

Person A: “Yikes, Emir, really? That’s a little scary.”

Person B: “Ok, we’ll let’s hope it goes well.”

You can bet I was all over that! Poor Emir, his leaders have high expectations of him, which no one has shared. He’s representing the company in a moderately-risky situation. The best he’s going to get in support is eight sets of crossed fingers.

It’s time to start being deliberate about how you position people to succeed. It’s the only way to raise the capability in the layer below you. And that’s the only way to get out of the weeds.

Further Reading

Build a high performance team

How to decrease accountability

How to increase accountability

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