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It’s Not Lonely at the Top: It’s a Pressure Cooker

Here are some ways to turn down the heat

My client, Rob, was very pleased with his new position at a large health care organization. It was a “skip” promotion in recognition of his leadership capabilities, his reputation as a nationally recognized expert in his field as well as a number of organizational changes. In his new role, Rob was eager to implement strategies to attract highly skilled professionals and the myriad of talented employees required to keep the organization performing at its best. He looked forward to having more freedom to address challenges of highest importance, including time to reflect on issues that required creative thought and innovative solutions. 

Instead, Bob found himself tethered to a completely full calendar, with back-to-back corporate meetings from early morning until well into the evening. Board members, shareholders, key customers, and community groups also wanted his time and attention. And he was keenly aware of the need to be responsive to employees, company partners, suppliers, and regulators. His strong work ethic as well as his genuine love for the organization’s mission kept him from complaining or saying “no.”

After a few months he was exhausted and reported feeling “mentally off his game.”

This story no doubt sounds familiar to many.  Bob recognized that he needed to regain control of his time and focus his energy but was uncertain how. I started by offering some basic tactical suggestions, urging Bob to: 

  • Take charge of his calendar and block off and treat as sacrosanct “unscheduled time” to reflect and process.
  • Review meeting requests to determine whether his presence was essential; then enlist his administrative assistant to enforce his decisions about attendance.
  • Establish an email sorting system by asking correspondents to label their email “FYI,” “want to discuss,” or “needs your approval” so that he could triage his inbox and allocate time to what was truly important.

These adjustments were helpful, but they solved only part of the problem. More was needed to bring the value he wanted for the organization and himself. Through our discussions, Bob realized that delegating more to his leadership team would not be sufficient. Rather, he would need to transform the way they worked together. We identified as a key problem that Bob’s leadership team over-relied on his role as “expert,” which caused a number of issues. As a result, Bob had become:

  • More insulated from what was going on in the organization than he realized. 
  • Too influential in team discussions. Despite his best efforts (and true desire) to hear from everyone, once he opined, the rest of the team went silent or turned agreeable.
  • Vulnerable to being the recipient of “delegating up,” the dynamic in which the team cedes responsibility by over-reliance on the leader as the source of solutions.

In Bob’s prior role, being the expert was a large part of his success. In his new position he wanted to be a leader who would roll up his sleeves and work with the team, but this prevented the team from making full use of their talents and depleted him. To change this dynamic would take time, but to help Bob step away from the role of “expert,”  I suggested modifying the way he engaged with his team. Bob implemented a number of changes: 

  • Face to face meetings became focused discussions of complex issues such as legitimate differences of opinion or to unearth unanticipated challenges. This valuable time was no longer used, for example, to present reports which could easily and more efficiently be read ahead of time.
  • Team members were asked to provide brief written summaries of information that peers needed to know before team meetings. Bob set the expectation that everyone would come to meetings prepared to respond. 
  • At the beginning of each meeting, Bob expressed his expectations and asked every team member to articulate the outcomes they desired, e.g. a plan for moving forward with expansion into a new market.
  • Bob lead discussions with questions and encouraged the same of others before offering solutions or making decisions.
  • He actively sought the opinions of those who were reticent to contribute.
  • Bob was clear that he expected each team member commit to taking specific action on the issue discussed.
  • Follow-up meetings began with each team member indicating a clear “yes” or “no” as to whether they had kept their commitment.

Four months later, there is no longer the opportunity to “delegate up” or passively wait for Bob to define problems, solutions, and next steps. The team is empowered to take action; their talents are being tapped and developed, and the organization is benefiting from the full resources of the leadership team. Bob is still working hard, but with more focus, energy, and satisfaction with his work. He still needs to be reminded not to immediately step in as the expert, especially during critical times. But he recognizes that he can’t do it all and that everyone is better off when he doesn’t try.

If you are interested in how you might apply these concepts and other psychologically informed principles to improving business outcomes and your quality of life, please contact me at joanne.irving@i2aa.com or (301) 943-3074.

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