In nature, a young tree cannot grow in the shadow of a mature tree. The young tree needs sunlight to enable photosynthesis, and space to grow its roots underground.
Nature has developed strategies to prevent this scenario, for example by wrapping the tree seed in a tasty fruit, it encourages an animal to eat that fruit and carry the seed far away to a more suitable space.
As leaders, we must do the same for the people in our teams, especially if we want those teams to be autonomous. We must grow new leaders to lead those teams.
As I continue along my career in leadership, it has become clear to me that I must deliberately create gaps for my senior team members to step into, otherwise they will never have the opportunity to grow.
If I do not let them lead, then all decisions will come to me, effectively resulting in reverse delegation, where every minor decision gets delegated to me as the leader, which will make me the bottleneck and prevent scaling.
So how do you create these gaps? Let’s look at some real examples.
I host a lot of meetings and conference calls. One simple technique I like to use is to create a long awkward moment of silence on a call, to encourage others to speak. They will literally fill that gap, more often than not, with their ideas or perspectives.
There is a saying that "Nature abhors a vacuum", and so do people. More often than not, they will be compelled to fill it.
During sales engagements, this can be a very powerful technique. Experienced sales guys listen more than they speak, because they gather intel that way. By creating silence, and allowing the prospect to fill that silence, a sales guy can learn new facts that can help them close a deal, or move onto the next prospect within the target organization.
In contrast, the worse thing a leader can do is monologue during a call or meeting. In such a situation, the leader learns nothing new while the audience grows frustrated. The only time a monologue is permissible is during a briefing or formal presentation, otherwise its best avoided.
If the silence is not being filled, you can press this further by asking leading questions such as "does anyone else have an opinion? (silence…)", or "can I hear from anyone else? (silence…)". Invariably natural leaders within the team will speak up, as the silence can be deafening for some.
Put simply, good leaders breath oxygen into a room, while bad leaders suck it out.
People need room to breath: give them space, then watch them be creative.
While I love processes such as scrum, none are perfect: there are always gaps to be filled, tweaks to be made, lessons to be learned etc. Should you as a leader take responsibility for addressing all of these? I think not, and in fact I often leave them somewhat frayed at the edges to encourage others to take ownership of and fix their own pain points.
If someone fixes a process themselves, they will feel a greater sense of ownership over that process: it becomes their process, rather than something that was forced upon them.
I like to follow the 80:20 rule on leadership input into process definition at the beginning: namely a leader should be involved in defining the first 80% of a process at a maximum, and let the team define the remaining 20% themselves. Over time, that ratio will reduce in your favour, until eventually the leaders within your teams are responsible for 100% of process definition as well as execution.
If you achieve this, your teams will be truly autonomous.
In a recent episode of the "Developing Leadership" podcast, Jason Warner, who is the former CTO of Github, mentioning the following metaphor. I am paraphrasing, but the meaning is the key bit:
Imagine a group of people sitting in a meeting room. There is a ball on the table, and it is rolling towards the edge of the table. One person is happy to let the ball to fall, as they do not know who owns it. A second person grabs the ball, preventing it from falling, and figures out who owns the ball afterwards.
Jason argues that you want people like the second person in your team, who are willing to take ownership of a problem, even though they did not previously own it. I completely agree with this, and I love this metaphor.
By the way, if you enjoy my podcast you should definitely check out the "Developing Leadership" podcast. I will link to that in the notes on my website for this episode.
Since I heard this, I can help but think about who put the metaphorical ball on the table, and why? Did a leader do that to see who their team would react?
There are many real-world examples of balls that get dropped, and in some safe instances, it can be useful for a leader to drop one on purpose and see who within the team catches it. Those that do are good candidates for promotion to leadership roles.
Another example of "letting the ball fall" is to deliberately leave a decision open, and see who steps up to make it. I am not advocating doing this with something critical of course, but instead something internal that is non-critical. As always with these kinds of exercises, you need to do them in a safe "sand-boxed" environment.
As a leader you can even provoke such a decision to be made by the team, using responses such as "what do you guys think we should do?" or "you guys are experts in this area, please recommend the best approach". You want to be delegating these kinds of decisions early and often, to grow leaders in your team that you can delegate more critical decisions to later on.
Often it can be a battle of wills, and they will think that if they leave the decision to you, you will make it eventually. Be patient.
Often you can see someone within your team go down a wrong path, but instead of instructing them, you can choose to let them fail (within reason!) in order to learn the lesson by feeling the burn of a failure rather than receiving a lecture from you.
As a father, I do this all of the time with my kids, and as a leader you can do the same with your team: they will never forget a failure.
The burn of the failure will leave a much more lasting impression, and aid their growth not only as a professional but as a human being. From a parenting perspective, this is often referred to as "risky play": if you protect them too much, then they will never learn how to pick themselves up when they fall.
Once again, this is a "sand-boxed" approach and should not be done with any critical topics, when you really must intervene to prevent an imminent failure.
Lets recap what we have covered today:
I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to covering the next topic in this series with you! In the interim if you want to follow me online, you can find my blog at TechLeader.pro, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.
Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!
 : My original blog post on this topic (2019): https://techleader.pro/a/518-Leaders-should-create-gaps
 : Developing Leadership Episode 9 | Building High-Performance Teams with Sam Lambert from PlanetScale - https://www.developingleadership.co/episode/episode-9-building-high-performance-teams-with-sam-lambert-from-planetscale
File details: 15.8 MB MP3, 11 mins 00 secs duration.
Title music is "Still Cold" by Crystal Shards, licensed via www.epidemicsound.com
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