Are you with your team every minute of the workday? Most likely not, and that’s a good thing. Without space and latitude, we can’t effectively decentralize our operations. That decentralization is vital to getting more things done. I argue that if you can’t decentralize, then you have too many people in your organization. Basically it means that multiple people are doing the same job.
The question of how your team acts and operates when you’re not around is one of the ultimate signs of a leader. To put it more simply, you’re not a leader if your team operates differently when you’re not around.
A good number of us can relate to this concept as parents. When we send our kids off to school, or to a friend’s house, or to a sports practice, how do they conduct themselves? Is it the same way as it would be at home when we’re supervising them. Your role as a parent is to develop your child so that they operate in a certain manner when they’ve matured and have left the house. We must operate our teams at the office in the same way. We must develop the individuals on our team so that they can function without us.
We’ve discussed this before, but it’s a bit of a leadership paradox. It’s a leader’s primary responsibility to develop those on their respective team, yet if they can operate autonomously, then why does the company need you around? In my opinion, that thought is totally backwards. It simply means that the company can now use your leadership skills in other areas – bigger and better areas.
Nonetheless, it’s important to check in ourselves as leaders – to be self-critical – and to truly understand how our teams operate without us around. One key related leadership failure is the notion that when a leader isn’t around and someone does something wrong, that it’s that individual’s responsibility and not their supervisor’s. When you’re not around, your responsibility doesn’t diminish. If anything, it’s amplified since you shouldn’t be involved in other things if your team can’t function without your immediate and direct oversight and presence.
The Navy handles this quite well. When a ship is at sea, it’s captain cannot be at the helm 24 hours a day. They need rest, and they must rely on subordinates to steer and navigate the ship. If something happens, let’s say the ship running aground or colliding with another ship while the captain is asleep, does the blame fall to their subordinate? Absolutely not. The captain is responsible for the performance of their subordinates. That includes training and instilling the proper operational guidelines to govern their behavior. If they fail, the captain fails. And that’s exactly what you must crave as a leader. To be responsible for your team and their performance as if it’s your own. If you don’t have that mindset, you can’t lead.
On several occasions in the past, I’ve mentioned that some of the best teams I’ve been on have been fully remote. It’s because of the factors below that we were able to be as effective, if not more effective, as we would have been operating in person.
The first piece of creating a team that operates consistently without your immediate presence is having defined processes in place. Last week on the show we interviewed Andy Stumpf (if you haven’t heard that interview, be sure to check it out). Andy said that during his time in the SEAL teams he planned thousands of missions, but none went according to plan. That begs the question of why we should plan in the first place? Because we need a framework to guide us. But if we’re going to likely deviate from this, how can our teams operate without us there? That’s point number two.
You’ve heard it time and again, but your company and team must operate with a clearly delineated list of values that governs the work you do and the decisions you make. When work goes off the rails and a plan goes out the window, your team must rely on this set of values to guide how they operate and the decisions they make. With this set of values in place, you can fully leverage the creative input necessary to solve these problems in a way that positively impacts your organization and its mission.
With that in place, you must develop a team that you yourself don’t hold to certain standards, but rather a team that holds itself to certain standards. It’s one thing to let down your boss, but letting down your team members is a much greater level of frustration that individuals seek to avoid. Your team members can’t let others slip, and their responsibility must be to each other rather than their superior. You must develop leadership in all of your team members as insurance against things going south when you’re not there. Responsibility to each other is a key to accomplishing this.
For all of this to matter, however, there must be clear indicators of success. How is success measured? Your team members need to be responsible for these indicators, and know how their work directly contributes to this. For the record, saying that it’s their responsibility doesn’t absolve you of yours. Consider the Navy example above. When the captain goes to sleep, the indicator of success can’t simply be “steer the ship.” It must be to safely get the ship to X coordinate at Y time by doing Z. This specificity prohibits team members from going into a holding pattern when you’re not there.
Of course, all of this must be governed by a shared mission. In corporate America, this can be tough. After all, how invested can people become in some propaganda-ish corporate mission. Have you ever listened to a business meeting as an outsider. It’s unlikely that most people believe or even care about what they’re saying. That’s because they’re doing a job rather than operating on a mission. So what’s their mission? You have to instill the idea of personal development in your team, so that they are working toward goals that trigger growth within themselves and lead them to bigger and better things. Sure it may be a bit selfish for them, but you can – and must – create a scenario – where the company winning leads to them winning personally.
If someone on your team isn’t performing when you’re not there, it’s on you as a leader. The old saying that there are no bad teams only bad leaders is 100% true. This does, however, speak to the importance of hiring well. You have to find people that are self-motivated, that want to be the best – not simply those that talk a big game. In interviewing, ask people questions about life outside of the office. Do they push themselves there? If they do that, it’s likely that they’ll push themselves in the office – and that happens whether or not you’re around.
Focus on developing individuals, and great things will happen. I’d love to hear how you’re putting this to work.