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Are You A First Responder Or A Leader?

Learn how leaders can foster greater trust among their employees by focusing more on promoting their autonomy than on putting out fires.

The following is a guest piece by Elliot Begoun.

Mark looked up from his computer and took a deep breath. The frenetic pace of the day had given way to the serene quiet of an empty building. He both treasured this time and found himself tortured by it. The stillness and the lack of interruption, allowed him to finally focus without the chaos of the day constantly ripping him away from his work.

But, this time came with a big sacrifice. Sitting in his office at 7:30 pm meant that he had once again failed to make it to his daughter’s soccer practice, and was sure to miss dinner with the family. He shook his head as if to drive the thought away and returned to the spreadsheet that was demanding his attention.

The next morning Mark had his weekly breakfast meeting with his friend and long-time mentor Sam, who greeted him by saying, “You look like crap! When was the last time you got a good night’s sleep?”

Mark smiled and said, “I think it was that vacation we took 4 months ago.” Sadly, Mark was not kidding.

He went on to tell Sam about yesterday’s craziness. It started by having to run down to the production floor because there was a problem with the filler, and before he could even make it back to his office the QA manager had flagged him down. When he finally did get there, he explained that he was bombarded by emails and phone calls, all of which were in search of some solution or another. Sam just sat and listened intently.

When Mark finally wrapped up his recantation, Sam said, “It sounds to me like you are more of a first responder than you are a leader.”

A puzzled look washed over Mark’s face, so Sam continued. “You are running from fire to fire like you are the only one with a hose. You need to stop.”

Sam shared that early in his leadership career, he found himself doing the same, riding to everyone’s rescue. He was good at it, and it made him feel he was adding value.

Then one day he was called to the CEO’s office. With a stern look, the CEO said to Sam, “I am paying you to be a leader, not a doer.” Sam said, “He may not have been known for his soft skills, but he delivered the wake-up call I needed. From that day forward, I stopped sliding down the pole to answer every alarm that was sounded.”

Mark thought about what Sam was saying. He found himself wanting to defend his actions, but he knew Sam was right. He told Sam that he understood, but he wasn’t sure he could trust his team to find good solutions without his intervention.

Sam gave him a knowing look and said, “I get it, but the funny thing about trust is that it’s not earned, it’s given. You have to trust your people believing that it will be reciprocated.”

It sounded weird to Mark yet oddly, it made sense. How could his team demonstrate that they deserved his trust if he never afforded them the opportunity to do so? Sam mentioned a book that he had recently read by Daniel Pink called “Drive”. The book talks about autonomy being one of the primary sources of motivation.

Sam explained that by constantly coming to the aid of his team, Mark was actually working against that sense of autonomy and was, therefore, inhibiting their motivation. Mark looked at Sam, “Alright”, he relented, “I get it, but this is going to be a hard habit to break.” Sam said, “You’re right, but I am going to help.”

Sam spent the next few minutes laying out an action plan for Mark. The first thing he asked Mark to do was to set up a Google Sheet with three columns.

In the first, he was to log every time he caught himself acting as a “first responder”. In the second column, Sam asked him to briefly describe the issue or challenge, and in the third column, he was to identify what would have been the worst possible outcome, had Mark not intervened. Sam would review the sheet each week and they would discuss it during their breakfast meetings.

Sam also suggested that Mark meet with his direct reports, and as sort of a mea culpa, share with them his intent to be less of a first responder and focus more on leading the organization forward.

He suggested that Mark explain to them that he had trust in their ability to find the best solutions to any challenges and obstacles that might stand in their way. He further recommended that Mark encourage them to have a similar conversation with their own teams. Sam explained that in his experience, the solutions to most challenges are found closest to their source.

Finally, Sam shared a strategy with Mark that had served him well. “I have ideas, plans that I want to put into action. Things that I know will move the business forward in a meaningful way. So, I make appointments with myself to work on them.

I go into my calendar, block out time and specifically label the appointment as whatever it is I am going to be working on. I treat it with the same level of importance that I place on any other meeting. I don’t take calls, or check email. It is just time for deep work. Try it, I think it would really be great for you.”

Over the next few months, Sam could see an appreciable change in Mark. He looked more rested, talked less about work at breakfast and more about his family. When the two of them did talk about work, it was about strategy and big picture items, not the small details or issues of the past day or week.

About six months after that fateful breakfast meeting with Sam, Mark found himself sitting on a camp chair on a warm summer night at his daughter’s soccer practice. As she ran to the back of the line after taking her shot on goal, she gave him a little wave.

Just then, his attention was pulled away by the sound of a siren in the distance. As a wry smile spread across his face, he thought about how happy he was that his days as a first responder were over.

Elliot Begoun is the Principal of The Intertwine Group. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief and Linked2Leadership. He helps clients build lasting relationships with their customers, develop leaders who make others feel heard, cared for, valued and respected, and most importantly grow. To learn more about Elliot’s work, visit his website: www.theintertwinegroup.com.

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