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Advice to Executives: Practice Incompetence!

Twice in the same day last week, clients told me that they felt they needed to “get out of the weeds” and “focus on more strategic issues.”

So, what stops them? We have all heard the justifications:
• “I need to make sure that what we deliver is right.”
• “I know this material so much better than my team, it will take much longer for them to do it.”
• “My team is already so overworked, I don’t want to overburden them.”
• “I was given the materials at the last minute, so I only had enough time to make the edits myself.”

Take Dan, for example. He had recently been promoted from a role he had held for several years, with a team of about 30. As a result of his successes, he was promoted to run a team of about 300, responsible for essential aspects of a global sales force. He sought me out because he was overwhelmed, and frustrating his new team members, because he wanted so much detail. Similarly, a general manager of a $300MM business, was considering promoting Erin, the head of logistics, to the head of global operations. However, the promotion kept getting delayed, because Erin was so personally involved in problem-solving that she tended to jump and tended to jump in to solve problems because she was so immersed in the specifics of a situation. The GM was worried Erin would not be able to handle the volume of work in the new role.

For people like Dan and Sandy, their deep subject matter knowledge and technical expertise has made them, and their teams, successful. Both could provide direction and advice for their team members, and were valued by their managers and colleagues as experts. Their depth of knowledge, however, began to get in the way. Sometimes, they become a bottleneck, as they had to approve or review everything. Other times, team members did not give 100%, because they assume that their work will was going to be edited or revised by their boss, regardless of what they did. Moreover, their managers weren’t getting Dan’s or Sandy’s attention at the level needed; neither could see the forest for the trees.

How do you make sure that you have the time to think strategically and contribute at the higher levels you need to support your manager and develop your own career? The question is not whether you are in the weeds or are thinking strategically. The real question is, how do you both make sure the details are right, and see the bigger picture? How do you both ensure the work is right, and help your team members develop capability and autonomy?

The solution is simple: Practice being incompetent. Stop being the most skilled person on the team. Do not be the expert marketer, or the brilliant finance director. Even if you know the right answer, pretend that you do not. Even if you have more information, context or experience than your people, forget that. Once you do, you will have to push your team to get those answers, and they will then have to solve those problems themselves. When a team member gives you a deck that is only 70% of what you need, send it back for a revision. When you get a proposal with holes in it, ask questions that will highlight the gaps, and send it back. Plan your schedule so that you get materials for review with enough time to revise if needed. Hold your people accountable for the work they do, and give them the responsibility and the autonomy to get it right. This will help you grow, and help them grow as well.

So let me ask you: How do you get out of the weeds? What tricks have you learned to help you balance your focus between the operational details and the strategic demands of your job? Please post some ideas as to how you are able to make that shift! How do you do that, and still maintain sufficient understanding to be confident the business is going in the right direction?