Blog

It’s Not Lonely at the Top: It’s Overcrowded

Here are some ways to reclaim the space you need

My client, Bob, was very pleased with his new position at a large health care organization. It was a “skip” promotion in recognition of his leadership capabilities and  his reputation as a nationally recognized expert in his field. Despite the challenges of taking on a new role during the Covid-19 pandemic, he looked forward to having more freedom to address challenges of highest importance. 

Instead, Bob found himself tethered to a completely full calendar, with back-to-back corporate meetings from early morning until well into the evening, all while working remotely. Board members, shareholders, key customers, and community groups all wanted his time and attention – as did his children who were also at home, struggling with on-line school. He was keenly aware of the need to be responsive to his family, employees, and company partners. After a few months he was exhausted, “zoom fatigued” and 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 –  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. Through our discussions, Bob realized that he would need to transform the way his leadership team worked together. We identified as a key problem that the 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 broader organization. 
  • Too influential in team discussions. Despite his best efforts (and true desire) to hear from everyone, after he spoke, the rest of the team 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. I suggested modifying the way he engaged with his team. Bob implemented a number of changes: 

  • Team meetings became focused discussions of complex issues. This valuable time was no longer used, for example, to present reports which could easily and more efficiently be read ahead of time.
  • At the beginning of each meeting, Bob expressed his expectations and asked every team member to articulate the outcomes they desired from the meeting. 
  • Bob led 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 to commit to taking specific action. 

Now, 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 and family life. He recognizes that he can’t do it all and that everyone is better off when he doesn’t try. And importantly, Bob is confident that the efficiencies his team has adopted will benefit the organization as a whole as his team approaches a return to the in-person workplace.

If you are interested in how you might improve business outcomes and your quality of life, contact me at joanne.irving@i2aa.com or (301) 943-3074.

Share this post: