11 Oct Is being the smartest person in the room getting in the way of your growth as a leader?
I can remember back to the first business I ran: I was new to a leadership role and everyday I realized how much more I didn’t know about people and how to lead. One of my key learnings was a few techniques that actually helped give me the freedom and flexibility to focus on my strengths.
It started one day when I realized that almost every customer service decision in the business had to flow through me in some way. Now of course, this helped me keep a pulse on everything that was happening with our customers but it was a trap that I slide right into. Everyone just assumed the easiest thing to do was “just check with Mike.”
Here’s what I learned: when every decision had to flow through me, no one learned and my day was filled with solving problems with no time left to focus on the areas where I created the most leverage (foreshadowing: keep reading to see what getting my leverage back led to).
Here’s what I did to get out of the trap:
- I stopped talking first in meetings and let the discussion unfold between my direct reports and got curious and asked a lot of questions (and not leading questions – that’s just annoying and everyone sees through it). If I thought they were on the right track instead of adding my two cents to the discussion or saying, “that’s what I was thinking we should do,” I said, “that’s a great idea,” or “that’s better than what I was thinking.”
- Instead of saying to customers, “I’ll have to check with Mike” I asked everyone to say to, “let me think about it and get back to you,” [then they came and asked me what to do before replying the customer with “their idea”].
- Once they were comfortable and had enough experience they asked themselves, “how would Mike solve this?” and did that without checking with me.
- Finally, they made the decision themselves because, “it was the right thing to do.” Back then I didn’t know about the empowerment framework or I would have put that into place as well.
And here’s how I helped the process along: whenever anyone came to me with a decision that could be made by consulting someone else in the business, whether it be a customer or one of my team, I’d reply with, “let me check with [name of person who is responsible for that area of the business or closest to the problem/solution] and see what they think and get back to you ASAP.” The response I got most of the time was, “oh, that’s okay, I’ll call them directly.”
In fairly short order people where collaborating on decisions internally and customers where calling “the people with the answers,” instead of me. That allowed me to focus on the areas where I created the most leverage for the business, which incidentally at the time, was taking us from a national brand in Canada to doing business in 26 US states. Our first customer in California placed an initial order (the first shipment of product to stock their shelves) that instantly made them our largest customer. Now that, is leverage.
The concept I’ve spoken about here is described with far more eloquence in Liz Wizeman’s book, Multiplers: How the best leaders make everyone smart.