Do you feel like you’re stuck in the weeds? It’s become a cultural badge to let people know how busy we are, because everyone else is, too. How might others react if, when asked how you are doing, you said, “I’m doing great! I am delegating, focusing strategically, leveraging my team, working as my best self – how about you?” They wouldn’t want to hang out with you!
When leaders are in the weeds, they report spending the majority of their time extinguishing fires, responding to others’ needs (which they do almost every time they or their assistant accept a meeting request without clear context or agenda), solving problems or reacting to crises. These are all tasks that are ‘Urgent and Important’, where most people prioritize their time. BOLD survey data from a group of women leaders and their managers recently reported they feel:
- 62% “not leading at my full potential”
- 60% “overbooked, with little space to think or catch up”
- 51% “overwhelmed at work and home/distracted and unfocused”
- Anecdotally, almost all leaders are reporting they are working at all hours, skipping lunch and not operating as their best selves.
It is a vicious cycle: leaders have high commitment to contribute, a compelling need to elevate their leadership and a strong desire to lead at their full potential and yet, they feel trapped in the weeds. Let’s look at some of these traps.
The most common themes (i.e., excuses) leaders mention for why they don’t delegate are below. Embedded in all of these are an action and a mindset or “story” leaders have that traps them into thinking they are right and can’t change.
Check off all that apply to you, and add any others that resonate for you:
❐ I don’t have the right / enough people to delegate to
❐ I don’t have the time to ramp people up
❐ It’s easier / quicker to do myself
❐ It has to be done right (so therefore, I need to do this myself)
❐ It’s small, only takes me 5 minutes
❐ I don’t want to overload my team, they’re already overloaded
❐ If I delegate, what does that mean I’ll be doing?
❐ I won’t be a team player if I hand things over to others
❐ I’ve always worked this way
❐ I love my team and want to protect/help/support them
There are three main traps that ensnare leaders into the vicious cycle. Again, check off the ones that ring true with you:
1. LOW TRUST in TEAM PLAYERS: When you’re in the details, it is often because of a lack of trust in team members. The lack of trust is either deserved, and you don’t have people who can ‘catch the ball’, so you don’t toss it. You know this is happening if you question their competence or reliability, or if their passion / confidence is higher in themselves than your trust is in them. Here is a simple tool to diagnose trust in your team members.
Or, your lack of trust is unfounded, and you have competent people on the brink of (or in the depths of) low engagement because they are capable and not being optimally or strategically utilized. In large sessions between senior teams and their leaders below them, a common theme that surfaces is leaders wanting “empowerment.” This is an indicator that senior leaders are spending too much time in the weeds and not leveraging their talent.
2. STAYING in the COMFORT ZONE: Leaders are most comfortable doing things they have always done. It feels good to solve problems and be the one everyone comes to for help. Be honest with yourself: what benefit(s) do you get by staying in the details? There are many: you know what you are doing, you are in the know, you feel like you are doing something valuable, the work is often tangible versus the amorphous relationship and influence-based, strategic leadership work (so you get the ‘dopamine drip’ of accomplishment), your skills stay relevant (especially applicable in science or technical functions) and heck, it’s job security (if you’re not using high performance leadership as the measure). The problem is, this is doing, not leading, and it is ultimately unsustainable for the business, and for you, personally.
3. BEING a good TEAM PLAYER: Most senior leaders want to support their people, and many interpret this to mean they are “in the trenches” with them. On the flip side, direct reports often say yes and don’t push back on their leader, which exacerbates the reactive, “doing” mode versus focusing on the “leading, strategic” mode.
The Cost on Your Directs
Being in the weeds sabotages your team’s trust in you. Here are some common ways team members describe their leaders who don’t delegate enough:
- Slows things down
- Unreliable / unresponsive
- Creates rework
- Doesn’t get the best solutions / results from the team / me
- Has to be the center of everything so nothing can get done without them
- Doesn’t trust me
- Not committed to my success / development
- Makes me feel disenfranchised / disempowered / disrespected / disengaged
3 Ways to Elevate Your Leadership
Determining how or where to begin can feel uncertain, confusing or unclear. It can be difficult to make changes when things are both important and urgent. True, there may be things you need to continue to do because they are mission critical today. And, the quicker you extricate yourself from doing the same things you’ve always done, the more capable you will be to elevate your leadership to get out of the weeds and lead at your fullest potential.
1. Determine what you can delegate: While it may be true that you are the most capable, being the only one who is the focal point is a short-term game. True leadership and extraordinary results emerge when every team member is leveraged to their fullest potential. Matching team members’ skill sets with your needs is a critical exercise to consistently practice.
2. Clarify what you can’t delegate, and why: Get honest with yourself (you might need some coaching to realistically clarify) where you can and cannot delegate and more importantly, where you need to be spending your time. Strategic and proactive leadership focuses on what is important and not urgent, which is a provocative idea for some. This is where individual and team development, strategic focus and communication, and innovation and creativity lie, to name a few. The more time you spend here, the higher performing you will be.
3. Prioritize developing others: Most one-on-one meetings with direct reports focus on the ‘What’ – the deliverables, projects, problems to solve. This is akin to ‘catching a fish’ for them. Balancing the ‘What’ with the ‘How’ is remembering to ‘Teach them how to fish.’ This requires you to prioritize their deliverables AND their development. Setting clear expectations, providing input, and highlighting and helping them close gaps with coaching and mentoring will ultimately benefit them – and you.
- What are the biggest traps (i.e., “stories” and behaviors) that keep me in the weeds? (Hint – Focus on my level of trust in team members, my comfort zone and my desire to be a team player.)
- What are the costs to me of staying in the weeds? (Hint – Get real with the personal costs. Get curious about the impact on my team members.)
- If my trust is high, what can I immediately do to delegate and empower? If my trust is low, what steps do I need to take to increase trust? (Hint – it starts with clear expectations and feedback at least, and continuous coaching and mentoring where relevant.)
Please feel free to reach out to me and my team if you’d like to connect about how to apply these ideas, to help members on your team navigate these conversations, or to discuss the biggest current challenges you are facing today.
Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health.
Remember to find resources to inspire you here.
Yours in practice,