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Friday Philosophy – Make a Team by Letting Them Burn May 29, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management.
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The title of today’s Friday Philosophy sounds extreme, but it’s true.

Sir John Harvey-JOnes

Sir John Harvey-Jones

Recently, I was watching a TV program about “experts” helping companies turn around. A couple of decades ago the BBC had a program called “The Troubleshooter” where a gentleman called Sir John Harvey-Jones gave companies in trouble advice {the similar idea but without the cheap and tacky elements we have today with making the targets of the program cry and over-emote for good TV}. John just gave solid advice. But one thing that was true in the program back then and is true in the tacky 21st century take on the program is that eventually you have to let the new team make mistakes.

This resonated with me as when I was managing teams it was something I knew I should do – and struggled to allow. A new team and, especially, a new team leader, has to be given space to make mistakes.

I have always found this very hard to watch. When you become a team leader yourself, or a subject matter expert, or the “lead” on anything, you make mistakes. You just do: it’s new to you, you have not done it before and you lack the experience and knowledge to know what works and what does not. If you are lucky you might have a mentor you can talk to or think back on, maybe a team leader you enjoyed working for or an expert you admire. But often it is just you and the new role and a whole green field of requirements into which you can drop your own cow-pats. It is challenging, exciting, frightening, worrying… Looking back, those are the times that have been most demanding in my career and have also been the times I learnt the most.

I would say they were also the best times in my working life (and that would fulfill the usual mythology and story-telling shtick at this point) but that would be a lie. 50% of the time they were, the other 50% of the time I hated it. Am I not supposed to say that? Well, it’s true. Half the time, breaking new ground is not the Star Trek/Friends/Movie-of-the-month feel-good ride to betterment that society sells us it is. Sometimes it is hard work, bruising and sucks. Am I wrong?

So, I know it is not always a nice ride. And, irrespective, I’ve learnt some lessons over the years – and I do not see why people under my tutelage cannot just inherit the lessons I learned painfully without the pain, by me guiding them. I want what is in my head and my experience to be available to you.

What is wrong with that? Well, three things at least.

My way is not your way. I am me, you are you. Ignoring for the minute that I could get things wrong {As if!!! {British ironic humour) }, just because how I handle a situation or my team or a tricky customer interaction works for me, that way may not work for you – as you have a different personality and different strengths. I’m pretty good at dealing with companies that try to rip me off. I face them down and I bloody well let them have it. My wife does not do that, she keeps calm, is passive (in my eyes) and does not point out their stupidity. But she nails them with reasonable logic and calm {but she will go for the throat if reason fails}. We both usually win. She maybe wins more often (please don’t tell her that). We all have to find what works for us as individuals and that varies.

Secondly, though I would like to save you from pain, if you do not make your own decisions and live with them then it was not your work. If you do what I told you to do then it was partly my work. You will know that. What will you do when I am not there? I’m not arguing against seeking advice, that is always (in my book) correct. But if you are in charge of something, you need to BE IN CHARGE so that you learn to know you can (or cannot, let’s be honest) do it. You have to decide if you take any advice, it would be questionable of me dictate you take my advice (though there are times and situations when that would be correct of me). If you succeed because I told you what to do, you have learned a way to handle that situation. If you resolved the problem yourself, you also learned that you can do it. If you mess up, then you learnt a way not to do things and you now have to learn another vital management skill:

To be a good leader you need to accept your mistakes – and sort them out.

That is what I mean about letting the team burn.

The third point, the one I do not like looking at, is that. Well. My way may not be best. Your way might not just be different and better suited to you and your abilities, it might simply be better. If I over-ride a minion when they are not doing it My Way then I am preventing them from learning, I am preventing them from doing it their way, and I am potentially preventing them doing it a better way.

My job as a manager is getting the best out of those I manage. That may include them doing a better job than me. If that is a problem, it is my problem.

This is also true of teaching and mentoring and explaining. If I teach you SQL programming and you become a better SQL programmer than me, I’ll be hurt – How dare you be better than me? I Bloody taught you! I would like to feel that as I get older I can live more comfortably with achieving that aim of someone I teach becoming better than me.

So getting back to the title. If I manage a team leader, I have to let that team leader… lead. I advise, I help, I highlight what I think they missed… And then, if I can over-ride my damned ego, I shut up. I have to risk letting them burn.

If they burn, I try to put out the fire with them.

If they do not burn, they have learnt and will be better.

If they shine, then they have exceeded me and we might be swapping roles one day.

I would like to think that is how I operated at the end of my time managing teams.

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