I was exposed to a concept some years ago from Marshall Goldsmith that I thought might be worth sharing. It seems to come up often in organizations, and it helps to think through this lesson. The lesson — leaders need to stop adding value!
Now, Goldsmith doesn’t mean leaders should mail it in, or disconnect themselves from the work. He also doesn’t mean that leaders should transfer their responsibilities to others. What Goldsmith is referring to the way many leaders behave when working with their teams. This is fundamentally rooted in understanding the role of leaders. The leaders job is rarely to solve problems, or get into the details with their teams and make decisions. This is especially true in high tech organizations where leaders are probably the very last person qualified to be “in all the details”. For most organizations, the role of a leader is to teach, develop, grow, protect, and support others.
Imagine you are a leader in a 1 on 1 conversation talking with a direct report — maybe a team lead. The team lead begins describing a really exciting idea that might help one of their delivery teams improve. They describe salient details and answer a few questions proactively to try and ensure you, their manager, know they’ve thought it through. In the process, they admit there are a few things they haven’t thought about, but realize they need to.
The idea strikes you as a good one, probably interesting and maybe even obvious. You realize the idea could actually help, but question a few elements of it. Not strongly, but you have a feeling that there might be a better approach, and you just want to help them out.
As their leader, how do you feel, and subsequently respond, in this situation?
Do you wonder how to help? Or maybe you are simply excited about the idea, and you want be part of it? Do you feel bad (or guilty) that you didn’t think of it? Do you get scared about the idea backfiring or failing and “landing” on you as their leader?
Most often, Goldsmith argues, we as leaders will decide we need to “Add Value”. We do this in many ways, but basically it amounts to listening to an idea, and then “adjusting it” to make the idea even better! We hear the approach and instantly think of ways to improve it. Some times we suggest a small change. Sometimes we take over completely.
So what happens when we display this “Value Adding” behavior?
This leadership dysfunction immediately robs our people of their interest, engagement, and ownership of their work! No longer is this their idea. It’s now your idea.
So the math kind of looks like this:
- You make a suggestion that helps ADD VALUE, and their idea gets better by 5-10%.
- In turn, their interest and ownership of said idea DROPS by 70-80%.
What just happened!?
Well, you have now co-opted their idea and made it yours, they feel discouraged, and this “good idea” now has little hope of ever getting implemented. How could it? You likely don’t have time to own it. Furthermore, you really aren’t that interested in the first place!
Furthermore, you have now stolen their ability to practice implementing their ideas while you coach, encourage, and protect. You can no longer use the Socratic method and thoughtfully ask reasonable, open ended questions. They will no longer struggle and work hard to connect loose ends, and make connections where they didn’t exist before, and fill important gaps. That is where growth actually happens! …not in your 1 on 1’s.
In short, you can no longer lead. Your job is to develop your people, and help them grow, and this one simple adjustment to your approach will make an enormous difference to your effectiveness.