It can be tempting to keep doing the things that we know we do well, even if it means neglecting the responsibilities we know we should be tending to instead. There’s comfort in playing to our strengths and, let’s be honest, it’s fun to be good at something. When we practice our skills in woodworking, knitting or the local pickleball league, we gain relaxation, satisfaction and fulfillment. We enjoy ourselves, level up and feel rewarded. But when it comes to work, this tendency gets trickier.
Rarely does an executive-level job need us to keep doing the specific technical thing—the accounting, sales management, finance, lawyering or whatever else—that we did with excellence for most of our careers. What the business needs from us instead is to shift our focus to the inspiration and persuasion parts of leadership, despite any discomfort we may harbor in that realm.
Executive leaders can be deeply resistant to taking their hands off the operational wheel. I see it regularly in my executive coaching practice with C-level leaders. Out of a desire to bring our best, we immerse ourselves in the day-to-day, tackling challenges, sounding off on routine matters and dispensing wisdom. We go particularly deep in areas in which we believe we’re the resident expert. What we fail to realize is that when we do all of that, in effect, we are telling others what to do. We shrink our teams’ accountability for results. We create the conditions in which our business fails to get the most out of its human capital.
Stepping Into Your Executive Role
When I worked in the C-suite, I couldn’t resist dispensing wisdom in the one area that happened to be my legacy career domain. I could see that I annoyed my direct report who led that area, yet I thought I was doing my job. When I finally shut up and got out of their way, they did things more strategically, creatively and effectively than I could have imagined.
“Well, being an expert is the very definition of my role,” you might respond. “Of course, my business needs me to use what I know!”
Yes, but not in the way that you think. In their book, What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You, John Hillen and Mark Nevins argue that when C-suite leaders stick with what they know technically, their focus is inevitably trained on “problems of complexity,” the tactical, operational and organizational challenges of the business. They stay in the thick of things, calling the shots. This almost inevitably means they’re doing other peoples’ jobs while doing too little of that which only they, as executives, can do (i.e., make sense of the future, iron out alignment wrinkles and cultivate other leaders).
Meanwhile, wiser, more skillful executive leaders, despite whatever level of technical competency they possess, focus their energy on “problems of sophistication,” those challenges that exist in the interpersonal and political realms. Companies that achieve and sustain competitive advantage are led by executives who place most of their focus here. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader. A great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”
Breaking the Cycle
Ask your direct reports if you provide them with the type of executive leadership that they need. It could be that you’re showing up for them exactly as they want, clearing brush when they ask but otherwise giving them space. Good for you! Or you might learn that you’re smothering them, particularly in the areas you specialized in. Be humble. Ask your team how you can provide strategic guidance and direction while keeping agency and decision rights firmly in their court. And then hold yourself accountable for what they ask you to do.
Ask yourself: Are you more hands-on in functional areas that you have experience in? Are you more socially at ease with coworkers who share your career background? Do you have the nagging sense that your teams wait for you to tell them what to do rather than assert themselves or take positive initiative? All are clues that you’ve inadvertently trained your team that your expertise matters more than their contributions. You can say all the right things about valuing your team’s perspective, but the reality is they have figured out that their opinions rarely shape your decisions.
So, step back. Let go of the idea that what is needed from you is more of your domain expertise. Your more lasting impact will come from convincingly, even passionately, unlocking what is possible within others. In practice, that means less telling your fellow leaders what you would do in their shoes. Instead, ask them what they would do on consequential matters, be genuinely interested in what they come up with and let them run with their own solutions without shaping them into your own. Try it for a month. You might be surprised at what you learn.