People often undermine their own leadership development by looking to established leaders for help solving problems that they can solve on their own. It’s a part of human nature, and a personal-risk mitigation play. “If I ask the boss for the solution, I won’t be responsible for any failure.” Put another way, “I won’t get it wrong.”
Usually, that’s an unconscious process. Consciously, it’s much more like, “I’m not sure how to solve this. I bet Boss does.”
The way we respond as leaders will determine the future of our team’s performance.
Here’s a tool that will help insure that your people will grow, improve, learn, and lead in their own right. It’ll free you up and leverage your experience so you’re enabling greatness at all levels of your organization.
It’s leadership development gold.
Change happens. Surprises arrive. Problems arise. As leaders, our own response to the fear of uncertainty is often to step in. Take it on. Offer our opinion. Tell folks what to do. Control the situation.
Sometimes this deep executive involvement leads to a better resolution of the problem — not always. Almost always, it leads to an undesirable outcome. Instead of breeding confidence, capability, and independence, this style of leadership leads to dependence and self-doubt, and inhibits learning in our direct reports. It retards the leadership development of our team distracts us from the higher-level work we could be doing.
Here’s a valuable alternative.
The SMART Model
SMART is — I admit — a cheesy acronym — The cheese helps you remember, because if you don’t remember, you won’t do it.
So… The SMART Model.
S – Slow down. Giving them the answer may be quicker in the short run, and it will insure that you’d approve of the solution. It’ll also insure that they remain dependent on you for all their problem solving needs. This step is critical because by slowing down, you create the possibility of solving YOUR problem. The problem that people are coming to you. Giving them the answer is the easy thing. It’s addressing the symptom rather than the root cause.
M – Make it theirs. Try something like, “You’ve got a problem? Thank you for identifying that problem before it got out of hand. Keep me posted on your progress.” This communicates not only that you view the problem as theirs, but also that your expectation is that they’ll solve it on their own. You even seem to think they must only be informing you, because of course they’re not expecting you to bale them out.
A – Ask. Before they go, ask if they’ve considered this variable or that factor. Ask what resources they intend to employ. Ask to be kept in the loop. That way, you insure they’re thinking about the things you want them to be thinking about.
R – Reflect. Reflect some of what your experience has taught you. “Look out for this. Be sure to get input from here. When we did X once before, Y happened.” By reflecting your experience, you give them the benefit of your expertise in a way that supports their autonomy instead of usurping it. And they learn to think of you as a resource for learning rather than solutions.
T – Trust their judgment. At first, their solutions may not be as good as yours. Trust them to be good enough. You didn’t hire no fools. If their initial solutions are 75-80% as good as yours, you’re still ahead because your time is better leveraged doing the things only you can do. And as they learn and gain confidence by acting with autonomy, they’ll become more and more valuable to the team as their skills grow. And soon, their solutions will be better than yours. That’s the inevitable outcome of sound leadership development.
Each leader faces their own challenge with one or more of these steps.
Some (like me) get impatient out of the gate. We don’t want to slow down. Giving the answer is so quick. Today. Tomorrow, when someone comes back again for our solution to a problem they can solve, it’ll be quicker again to give them the answer. And those times add up.
Giving over the problem to someone else is hard for some of us. Relinquishing that control opens up a world of uncertainty. Finding the questions to ask that help lead our people to their own best thinking is an advanced skill. Reflecting our experience without handing them the answer is also a fine distinction. And it gives others some of the power we’ve fought hard over a career to build up.
And Trust… Trust is a doozy for a lot of folks. “Prove yourself, and I’ll trust you,” we say. Problem is, no one can prove themselves if we don’t invest our trust in them in the first place. Trust is a verb. Extend it. Feel it later, when your people reward your trusting them by delivering results.
The Leadership Development ROI
Expect big things. Demand greatness. Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown — world renowned leadership development experts — call leaders who are willing to build the capacity of those around them “multipliers.” In their HBR article, “Managing Yourself: Bringing Out the Best in Your People,” They observed, “Under the leadership of these “multipliers,” employees don’t just feel smarter, they become smarter.”
The people on your team are smart. And you’re smart too. With a SMART leadership response to people who come ask you to solve problems for them, everyone’s smarts will soon be working full strength to help advance your company.