If you lead people, this scenario is probably familiar: you head into work with a to-do list firmly in hand. But people come to you with problems, and you take over, reasoning that you can do it in a fraction of the time it would take them. You’re good at solving problems, after all. You spend all day putting out these fires, and you’ve hardly started on your own list by 5, when your employees are heading home.
You’ve got a case of “superhero syndrome,” trying to excel at all things and please all people. The problem is that unless you really are endowed with superpowers, you can’t possibly succeed. You’ll wind up like the manager in the classic 1974 Harvard Business Review article “Who’s Got the Monkey,” burdened by everyone else’s tasks – the proverbial “monkeys” that climb onto his back whenever a subordinate asks for help.
You can cure superhero syndrome – and get the monkeys off your back while getting the job done. It takes a shift in leadership strategy. As an executive coach, I have seen leaders use these techniques to great effect.
Carla, a client of mine, was proud of her “open-door” policy (the names in this piece have been changed to protect confidentiality). She encouraged her colleagues to come into her office any time. When she was promoted to vice president, her staff grew from 20 to 200, and the flow of people dropping by quickly became unmanageable. They expected to be able to interrupt her at any moment, and they did. She let this continue, afraid to buck the conventional wisdom that leaders should be accessible.
With some convincing, she agreed to set a new expectation: anyone who wanted to see her should schedule a meeting. As she feared, this made some people unhappy at first. But within a month, she was amazed at how much more she got done. So did her employees, who learned to be more concise and prepared, and ultimately got more out of their time with her.
Bill, another recent coaching client, had a senior employee called Mitch whose performance was consistently sub-par. Part of Mitch’s job was to research and prepare high-level presentations, which were routinely riddled with errors. When Bill complained, Mitch accused him of micro-managing.
Frustrated, Bill eventually took on the job of correcting the presentations himself – a solution that he believed was faster and created less friction. After some coaching, though, Bill realized that he’d never pointed out to Mitch exactly how many mistakes he was making or how to improve. Without detailed feedback, Mitch couldn’t possibly get better.
Like many “superhero” executives, Bill was trapped in a cycle of dependency with Mitch. He eventually realized that doing Mitch’s work for him wasn’t saving much time in the long run, and it was glossing over a real problem. Coaching your employees to work independently is a worthwhile investment. As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat forever.”
If, like Bill, you have to give negative feedback, try giving the employee a chance to come up with a solution first before offering your suggestions. Once you’ve decided on a plan together, summarize the action steps and follow up regularly. Make sure he or she knows that your goal is to help them succeed.
This may seem like a lot of hand holding, but it gives employees a clear imperative to get the work done. Your oversight will decrease as they get the hang of it (or, if they don’t, you’ll know that it’s time to find someone else). Ultimately, they’ll be responsible for the care and feeding of the proverbial monkey – and you will be able to focus on your own work.
It’s particularly hard for entrepreneurs and founders to drop the superhero mantle.
Consider the case of my client, Omar, who started a successful business that grew fast, from one to 250 employees within five years. Yet he struggled in his role as CEO, feeling disconnected with the people working for him. After participating in 360-degree feedback, he got their uncensored read on his performance: his strengths were sales, networking and risk taking. Team building and management, not so much.
Omar decided to focus on what he did well. He promoted some one internally to become president and CEO for daily operations, and he became chairman so he could focus on growth. It took a while to establish trust between Omar and the new CEO, but the business benefited in the long term. And Omar was free to do what he did best.