Get Out Of Way

When was the last time you had a vacation? I’m not talking about just time off; I’m talking about time where you didn’t think about what was going on in your absence from work.  Spending a week with a bunch of CEOs can be refreshing but also challenging. I always learn and hear things that trigger me to think differently about my role and responsibilities.

It’s called “work” for a reason. We all get paid to “do” something. If what we do doesn’t need done, then we really aren’t needed, right? Makes sense then that it could, or maybe should, be difficult for us to step away from our role for any extended period. Other people in our organizations take vacations. “Ah, but we have people who can cover for them while they are gone,” you say. “There isn’t anyone to cover for me.”

I agree there is no one else who can do the work that leaders do. I also understand that some leaders are in small organizations where they may be the only person doing much of the work. Still, a lot of leaders are doing work they shouldn’t be doing and not doing the work they should be. Essentially, we are “in the way” of our teams. So, what should leaders be doing?

During our conversations in Zion, a theme kept cropping up for me. Process. A series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular end. There is always a tension between DOING something that needs to be done (and will need to be done again in the future) and CREATING the process by which other people, or a successor, could do it. Leaders should be creating processes and systems and finding and equipping the right people to do those processes and manage those systems.

I’m an engineer. Engineers tend to push things out to the extremes to see what breaks. Imagine a company with 1,000 team members and tens of thousands of square feet of manufacturing space. Now imagine what it would be like if the CEO had to unlock the doors on Monday morning for the early shift to get in and start the day. Imagine if the CEO was the one who ordered raw materials for the products they make. Imagine if the CEO checked all the invoices for accuracy before they were paid.

Things would grind to a halt. Everyone in the company would be waiting for the CEO before they could do their job. It would be a disaster. Yet, I interact with leaders all the time who are doing just that. They have held onto a critical path function that only they are capable of or allowed to do. These are usually decisions, not physical functions, but they have just as much impact on the ability of the rest of the team to function as holding onto the keys to the doors would.

What keeps us from giving our team the tools, processes, and responsibility to function without our daily input? I’m sure there are many, but I’d like to focus on just a few.

Insecurity. I hope this is not the primary driver for most of us, but I know it plays a role. Somewhere in our minds, we are asking what our value is if our organization can run for days without us. I completely understand this. I spent almost three decades of my career operating this way. It made me feel needed and powerful that everyone had to come to me to get “permission” to continue doing their jobs.

Competency. If I am honest, I don’t always know how to lead well. Often, we find ourselves in leadership roles because we were good at the jobs we now lead. I know in our company, we used to promote the person with the most tenure and the best work record into leadership without really acknowledging that this person may not know anything about leading. We all must learn how to lead.

Trust. Or more specifically, a lack of trust. This one is ironic. If we were to analyze most organizations, we would find that very significant functions involving large amounts of money and having the capacity to shut down the business are often handled without the top leaders even knowing what is going on. Huge facilities are used, cared for, and locked and unlocked. Tons of materials and products are ordered, inventoried, moved, and shipped. Millions in invoices get paid.

A great leader’s goal should be to get out of the way. We should create the processes, find the right people, equip and train them, and then trust them to do great work. At every level in the organization, the goal should be to allow the team to do the work without unnecessary restraint or restriction. While we often think this could lead to disaster, the truth is, if people are given the tools, training, and trust, they will most often produce better results than we ever could.

Taking a vacation is good for you, but it is better for your team. Your team knows you need a break, and they will be more secure knowing you are taking care of yourself. However, it means even more to them that you have invested in them and trust them to manage without you. When you leave them to handle the work and trust them to do it well, it demonstrates that you value them, and it is The Kimray Way.