The reluctant leader: Overcome your inner control freak

The reluctant leader: Overcome your inner control freak

As a leader, one of the early blocks I tripped on was delegation or, in other words, not being a control freak. You would think that delegating is a dream come true for a busy director that has ambitious targets to hit. But it was painful.

Here are three thoughts that made me stumble:

1. Nobody will do this task as well or as fast as I do it.

2. I love this task! I don’t want to let it go.

3. If I give away this task I will lose visibility.

In hindsight, it’s easy to debunk these misguided beliefs. Let’s give it a go:

It may be true that nobody can do a certain task as well or as fast as you can. After all, you’ve probably been doing it for quite a while. The fact you’ve been promoted also speaks to how good you are at what you do. But think about this:

  • You weren’t born an expert. You can train another person, just as you were trained. Developing others is a key part of your role.
  • Different doesn’t mean worse. The new taskmaster will bring fresh energy and perspective and may even take the results up a notch.
  • You will free up time for other goals that you couldn’t get to before.

You may run into a real challenge if your employee can’t master the task. In that case, either you reinforce the training until he gets it, or you assign it to somebody else who is a better fit. As for the employee who couldn’t perform, if he’s a valuable team member, find something else where he can shine.

As a leader, you often need to leave behind tasks you enjoyed as an individual contributor. But once you make peace with the loss, you’ll find yourself involved in work that is deeply satisfying.

Here are some truths I learned along the way:

  • If it’s busy work, you shouldn’t be doing it. Especially not at your salary range.
  • The most important part of your job is to THINK. Spend time analyzing the big picture, so you can guide the strategy for the team. Don’t rush from one task to the next with no “down time” to plan long term.
  • Focus your energy into finding innovative ways for the company to succeed. You add more value designing the tasks than performing them.

When I first started at BabyCenter, I didn’t have an in-house editorial team. I hired freelancers to create content for BabyCenter en Español. The first few years I wore a lot of hats. These included managing the content creation, overseeing community forums, launching PR campaigns, working on research projects, presenting to clients, and coordinating with the Sales team.

As the website and my responsibilities grew, so did my team. I started to shed tasks, and re-dedicated my efforts to overall strategy, managing people, and launching new products. It wasn’t always easy to leave behind certain jobs that had given me opportunities for strong interaction with other teams and great visibility in the company and beyond. I still did it because, as mentioned above, it offered my team opportunities to learn and develop. This is always important, but even more so in the case of a relatively small company with few opportunities for vertical growth.

Shedding tasks also allowed me to focus on new projects, which fed my hunger for learning. Therefore it also helped with my personal and professional development.

As for the fear to lose visibility, it really stems from insecurity.

Believe me: if your team is firing on all cylinders, the higher-ups will know your guidance is behind their excellent performance, even if you’re not the one presenting at the all-hands meeting. Teams that are managed by an incompetent leader don’t exceed results on a consistent basis.

The resistance to delegate is anchored in fear. Fear to think big, fear to let go of what you know, fear that you won’t get the recognition you deserve once you drop off tasks you had excelled at.

Leave fear behind.

As you offer your team the tools and opportunities to excel, and yourself the time to be thoughtful and strategic, you’ll find that you all glide a little higher.

As one of my wise mentors, Daphne Metland, told me once:

“You should only be doing the stuff that only YOU can do.”

And she was right.

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