Why you must unlock your team and throw away the key

19 February 2015 -

Unlock yourteam

CMI’s chief executive explores the importance of leadership styles that step back and let people do their jobs

Ann Francke, chief executive, CMI

Much of what matters in leadership styles is hidden from view. That’s why it is so important to acknowledge unwritten truths that need and deserve an airing – such as why you need to manage your energy as well as your time.

At CMI’s annual conference in October 2013, the great leaders present reminded me of another largely unwritten truth – that much of management isn’t management at all. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. Rather than managing people, weaker leaders retreat to a comfort zone of command and control. Motivating people, inspiring them to encourage others and developing their strengths all become casualties of a culture that, too often, has become more about locking people in than setting them free.

But it not always the manager who is to blame for this malaise. For many organisations, command and control is, if not part of their DNA, then part of their culture, a deep-seated foundation that is hard to excavate and wholly evident in leadership style. It takes a brave manager to come into an organization and pull it kicking and screaming in another direction. “Better safe than sorry” is often a more persuasive mantra than the undeniable, mostly unwritten, truth that “the riskiest strategy is changing nothing at all”.

Yet, even in organisations where no such straightjackets are in place, many leaders still see handcuffs as a comfort blanket, making the mistake that it is better to tell their team what to do than create a environment where their talented staff are empowered to tell them. The best managers are facilitators, not autocrats.

Perhaps behind the problem is the fact that senior leaders still feel pressured to “do” far too much. I was struck by Rebecca Burn-Callander’s feature in which she speaks to veteran trainers of chief executives, who spend much of their time reminding leaders that they are paid to think, not to do. The trainers’ lament is that, even now, after decades of advice to the contrary, people on six-figure salaries, with workforces running into the tens of thousands, still waste their time fiddling with tasks that are more efficiently – and far better – executed by someone else. Not only is this micromanagement demoralizing for the staff member whose job it is to do it, the opportunity cost to the company is prohibitive. Time spent on someone else’s single project is time lost to setting the direction of the organisation.

It doesn’t happen everywhere. Thanks to qualification and regulation, some industries have clear boundaries – we have yet to encounter the Crossrail finance manager who spends a few hours a week working in the tunnels – yet many more do not. The chief executive who busies herself with troubleshooting an IT fault or scheduling an office move is the analogue of the mythical railway boss who dabbles in track welding.

Imagine you are a sports manager. When you see your team doing well, tell them, so they are inspired to do it again. Explain what you want them to do and let them do it. And try to avoid the temptation to wander on to the field.

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