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How I Learned To Step Back And Give My Team Real Power

Companies where leaders don’t empower their teams are like merry-go-rounds: plenty of movement, but stuck in place.

How I Learned To Step Back And Give My Team Real Power
[Photo: Flickr user ToNG!?]

One of my biggest failures as a leader came just as I thought I was excelling. I judged my worth based on how many decisions I was involved in, how many meetings I sat in on, and how people checked with me first for approval. On these metrics, I was thriving.

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In reality, though, I was failing myself and my team. I was a bottleneck to things getting done. My employees weren’t empowered, my self-importance stood in the way of growth for the company, and I was exhausted from working 75-hour weeks.

By placing myself in the center of everything, my leadership was like the middle pole of a merry-go-round. There was plenty of action and excitement revolving around me–and the illusion of movement–but we were firmly planted in one spot the whole time, going around in circles. Here’s how I learned to stop the ride and start moving forward.

Power To The People

In the Andon system of manufacturing, every single employee at a factory–not just management–has the ability to stop an assembly line immediately if he spots a problem. Not only does that build rapport among workers, it can also vastly improve production quality, because agency is distributed rather than concentrated.

That approach has applications well outside the manufacturing sector. More-empowered employees are creative, solution-orientated, motivated, and confident. And the advantages of those traits far outweigh their risks. Some leaders worry about losing control or ceding authority, but the true measure of a leader isn’t what she does but what her leadership makes possible. How many decisions you make or how involved you are in specific actions are vanity metrics. They matter very little compared with the results your team achieves.

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How do you empower your employees? Practice the art of servant leadership, encourage open communication, and be generous with it yourself–interact with your team meaningfully and often. Give praise and constructive feedback, and learn to delegate.

Delegation Is The Better Part Of Valor

Joel Gascoigne, the CEO of Buffer, has said that his job is to constantly fire himself from his many different roles as he hires or develops someone more talented than he is at a given task.

While I used to hold on to as many duties as possible, I now proactively look for places to hand them off and empower others to receive them. Every leader should ask himself two questions:

  1. Can someone else already do this job better than me?
  2. If not, can I help a colleague become better at this than I am?

Far from shirking responsibility, it’s about creating advantages by letting everyone on your team develop a specialty. In order to do that, leaders have to provide support, training, and encouragement for teammates to step up. As a leader, you need both humility–to let others’ expertise surpass your own–and confidence that they’ll rise to the challenge. Leadership, then, is less about seeing how many decisions you can make, and more about being an outstanding coach.

The Vacation Test

The “bus test” is a popular thought experiment for assessing an organization’s overall health: If the leader were hit by a bus today, could it keep running tomorrow?

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I prefer the slightly less morbid “vacation test”: If you as a leader were to leave for a two-week vacation and not check your email even once, would your company have the team, processes, and values in place to move forward without you weighing in, rather than just staying in place and out of harm’s way until you get back?

Here’s a checklist for passing the vacation test:

  • You’ve set clear values for making decisions, and your team has the shared vision, ability, and expertise to act based on them.
  • You have created a team where initiative is valued and failure isn’t feared.
  • You’ve established clear roles and responsibilities that maximize each team member’s expertise.
  • You’ve clearly outlined the company’s goals and prioritized the “essential few” projects over the ”trivial many.”

Now, two years and a world away from my days on the leadership merry-go-round, I’m inspired, energized, and motivated daily. That’s because I’ve surrounded myself with a talented and empowered team. And most importantly, I’ve learned to get out of the way.

Alex Budak speaks and writes on social impact and leadership, and previously cofounded StartSomeGood.com. A Silicon Valley native, he currently leads Reach for Change’s social entrepreneurship incubator in Stockholm, Sweden.

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