If there’s one thing that will kill the leadership mojo of a new manager quicker than the blink of an eye, it’s getting bogged down in the day-to-day details, instead of working smarter to engage the team and focus on strategy and execution.
As fresh-faced new leaders, and despite our best intentions to ‘be strategic’, we can find ourselves dwelling in the administrative, reactionary, low-value end of our role where the workload seems overwhelming and endless, and both solutions and support seem difficult to access.
This affects our leadership mojo (or leadership energy) more than we might like to imagine or admit. We feel stressed, overwhelmed and overloaded, which affects our leadership state and makes us appear wobbly as a leader. We transfer this energy of ‘wobbliness’ to our teams, who also start to fret about workload or worse, become disillusioned with our leadership because we’re unable to clear the way for focussed team work. Finally, our bosses also notice that our leadership is not what it should be, as we’re not driving forward on big priorities but are instead ‘stuck in the weeds’ and not making much progress.
Why do new leaders get overwhelmed?
Getting overwhelmed with workload and stuck in the details tends to occur most frequently when we’re promoted from operational roles where we have deep disciplinary expertise and track record of achievement to increasingly senior positions which require brand new skills of leadership and longer term, more strategic approaches.
- In my experience, the most common reason new leaders dive into administrative and operational work is because we’re feeling uncertain (consciously or subconsciously) about this new space of leadership, so we attempt to bolster our confidence with doing more of what we know.
And since we’re so comfortable with the old territory of operational, task-based activities which allow us to feel as though we’re actually ‘achieving’ something – we tend to save the more challenging, impactful, strategic work until we have the ‘headspace’ to tackle it. Can you hear the crickets chirping?
- The next common reason leaders struggle to leave the operational world is that they aren’t prepared for the work of leadership. Afterall, what does ‘being strategic’ in a leadership role actually mean?
As Drotter (2011) timelessly reminds us in ‘The Performance Pipeline’ (a recommended read), when we proceed into more senior leadership roles we can expect to develop a whole new skillset and mindset about the work of leadership. We can expect the following:
– The skills of delivering ‘the work’ of individual contributors are no longer as relevant as learning the skills of leading others;
– Our planning horizon must expand – this means that our outcomes are more challenging, they are more complex, they require more relationships to manage, and they can take longer to achieve;
– We can feel increasingly remote from the people and work being done on the ground, which means that as leaders we need to increase our presence ‘on the shop floor’ to keep it real and stay connected to the team – but without making the mistake of taking on the work ourselves.
While in operational roles good achievement looked like delivering sound day-to-day work, in the world of a leader the work is vastly different and includes diagnosing issues and trends, articulating a vision for the future, engaging the team in developing and executing strategy and plans and building the capability of our people.
- Finally, for those of us with a preference for task-based achievement or detail in our behavioural profile, we can be susceptible to the need to get everything right and finished ourselves – to make sure all the details are covered, all the ducks lined up and the outcomes achieved. Not only can this make it difficult for us to ‘let go’ of the work and train and trust our teams to execute it, perhaps more importantly, we can inadvertently communicate a lack of trust in our people to do their job. This will not only kill your mojo, but theirs as well. Yeah, whoops.
The results of getting stuck in the detail…
The results of a leader stuck in operational and administrative overwhelm are not pretty – not for them, their teams nor their leaders. What we see is:
– For the Leader: Overwhelm, stress and self-imposed pressure to complete the low-level work before moving onto more strategic thinking – but never really getting there. Doh.
– For their People: A perceived lack of trust by the leader to do good work, and the feeling of micromanagement or lack of stretching challenges and career growth opportunities. The sense that my boss won’t allow me to get on with my job. Not cool leadership mojo.
– For the Boss of the Leader: We see a lack of confidence in the person’s leadership capability, and an unwillingness to give extra support to an area that appears to already be struggling to deploy their current resources effectively. The boss may also become frustrated at a lack of vision and plan for the future and doubt that we’ll ever make an impact. Career-limiting, much?
Breaking the cycle and stepping up…
So how do we create the space to work in the strategic, value-adding end of our role, rather than staying down in the weeds and administrative details? For those of us who have lived this already, we know that this headspace does not magically appear. We have to create the space for it.
When I’m coaching leaders, here’s how we tackle this problem:
- We map the role, listing activities the leader engages with across a continuum from administrative to operational to strategic. This makes it plain and clear where the leader is spending most of their time.
- We diagnose the key issues and trends, and respond by creating a vision for the future where we engage the team in the conversation. We don’t dive into the details of fixing problems at this stage. The result is a high level strategy document (plan) which outlines how we’ll go from where we are now to the desired future space.
- We identify the work to be done to execute the plan and allocate responsibility to the team at the right level.
- We task our team, under our guidance, to develop and refine systems and processes, so the work can be executed smoothly and impactfully.
- We develop the capability of our people, allocate responsibilities for projects and activities, timelines, and delegate appropriate aspects of our role to our teams – which creates the headspace for us to play strategically.
This is the breakthrough moment where the leader begins to feel like they’re finally on the ‘front foot’ with forward-moving energy and kicking some goals, perhaps for the first time in their new leadership role.
From here, we concentrate on getting comfortable working in the space of leadership. We begin to understand that the work products of leadership are quite different to the ‘old’ work now appropriately delegated back to the teams. For example, the work products of leadership include strategy conversations and documents, operational plans, standards and structures for the delivery of the work and also the systems, processes and procedures needed to execute. The work of the leader is also about translating values into behaviours, identifying and leveraging the talents of team members and setting and maintaining cultural standards for the way we roll around here.
This is the journey of helping leaders transition from a place of overwhelming workload to developing strategic thinking capacity, enabled by a capable team. If you’re feeling like you’re stuck in the weeds and not having enough time for strategy, now is the time for a conversation.
Let’s connect and get your new leader mojo back on track.