A recent Harvard Business Review article by Giulia Neri titled “The Leadership Odyssey” dives into the challenge of leaders rising through the ranks. To summarize: while moving up, leaders often find a more hands-on, directive leadership style is most effective. However, that gets challenged when finally reaching the C-suite, where they realize that they need to switch their leadership style focus to empowerment, collaboration and soft skills to be successful.

While the article is a great read, and mirrors some of the advice in our recent blog post about Managing Transitions, we were focused on the notion of leaving behind a directive approach and letting go of control – and how time constraints can be a major factor to success or failure. It led us to ask two key questions:

  1. How can leaders recognize the need to let go of control before they reach the C-suite?
  2. What should leaders be implementing (and practicing) to ease control?

To us, it is completely natural that leaders understand conceptually that as they progress up the management ladder, their success is more tied to the success of their team’s efforts instead of their own individual contributions. Yet, letting go of what has made you successful as an individual contributor (such as your intellect, ability to make quick decisions, understand how to read markets and customer needs, etc.) isn’t easy. So leaders fall into a trap of wanting their team members to implement things “their way” and then are disappointed when those same team members don’t meet expectations.

“No leader who has built a career on making expert contributions and exercising hands-on control can be expected to make the leap overnight to a people-centric style.”

Giulia Neri

Harvard Business Review

So how do you begin to shift your leadership style and skillset as your career progresses?

Our advice is as a leader, the responsibility rests on your shoulders to let go of control over time. Think of it as easing on the accelerator instead of putting on the brakes. Your team members have to pick up the acceleration on your behalf, though, and it requires you to help them perform using their own smarts and intuition, guided by your clear expectations and input, plus, recognition that you can’t shortcut your responsibilities just because time is constrained.

Here are four ways you can test yourself to see if you fall victim to “Control Traps” or “Time Constraint Traps” or align with the focus of smart leaders.

#1: Giving Initial Direction

Where Smart Leaders Focus: Take the time to explain the need and desired outcomes clearly to the team. Your vision for the initiative should be clear, but not the specific steps on how the team has to complete it. In addition, you need to set the tone and level of urgency for the initiative. This will help reduce fear and confusion at the starting gate.

Control Trap = Focus on giving your team “directions” instead of “direction.”
If your team members are just running around responding to your specific demands, they won’t have the opportunity to learn and grow as leaders.

Time Constraint Trap = Giving no direction or little, vague direction.
The result is team members won’t understand your desired outcome, and it’s more likely that you’ll be disappointed in their efforts.

#2: Priority Recognition

Where Smart Leaders Focus: Realizing that with each new project or challenge for the team, there is a need for everyone to understand how this specific effort fits with other team and individual priorities. You need to recognize this up front and proactively work with the team so they can allocate their time effectively. This definitely will take some time and effort for you as a leader, but it will guarantee the team is better aligned for accomplishing results.

Control Trap = Announcing that this initiative is the #1 priority, and that it needs to be implemented “yesterday.”
This is not acceptable as a stand-alone direction. This only ramps up anxiety and can defocus the team from producing on other expected priorities. If this is truly the #1 priority, then you need to address the other top priorities and discuss how the team as a whole can shift those to a lower priority mode until this issue is resolved.

Time Constraint Trap = Not giving background details on the rationale for a new project or priority.
This can lead team members to come to their own (often incorrect) conclusions about why this fire drill has landed. Not taking the time to understand how team members will deprioritize other work will cause disjointed efforts on existing projects and inferior results in all areas.

#3: Team Member Update

Where Smart Leaders Focus: Your role as an on-going guider – but not micromanager – is critical. This means asking for informal updates over time – before a final, more formal update to close out a portion of the project. Your focus should be on knowing key milestones for the project, where those stand, and what successes and challenges are surfacing along the way, so you can advise on any changes in project direction as appropriate.

Control Trap = Micromanaging progress and every step of the project.
Asking for a detailed checklist of all action items, status of those actions and participating in on-going meetings on detailed action items for the project is the ultimate control trap. It is fine to be in the loop and have access to high-level milestones, but once you are involved in all of the daily/weekly details, you are far more likely to fall back into giving “directions” not “direction.”

Time Constraint Trap = Too hands-off in monitoring project progress.
We see this trap all of the time. A leader gives overall direction and then asks for a formal presentation in 30 or 60 days, with no check-in time in the interim. Those formal presentations end up being “fear factories” for team members involved, and “disappointment factories” for leaders. Save the team anxiety and rework time by adhering to informal check-ins and milestone tracking.

#4: Project Feedback

Where Smart Leaders Focus: When wrapping up a project, it is important to make sure the team understands how they performed as a group, where there were successes, and where there are options to improve in the future. As a leader, it is your role to make sure you provide thoughtful guiding feedback that helps the team members have a sense of closure for the project, and a sense of learning for handling future projects more effectively. Lastly, give the team a chance to come up with some ideas on how future projects can be better.

Control Trap = Feedback is too granular.
If your feedback is focused on “in the weeds” details only of what went wrong, then that’s all the team members will remember. Giving specific examples is fine, but team members won’t focus on big picture improvement opportunities (like better reporting or communication) if your feedback is so granular.

Time Constraint Trap = Little or no feedback given.
The worst possible outcome is little or no feedback at the end of a project. We’ve seen too many wrap-ups end up with a rushed sentiment of “good job team” or “that could have been better” which doesn’t allow any room for improvement.

While these four tips won’t be enough to completely revolutionize your soft skills in the short term, we hope they will get you thinking about ways to let go of control as you move forward.

For a more customized approach to adapting your leadership style as you move up the career ladder, reach out to us today.

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