Leaders, Let Go So You Can Actually Lead

Listen to our podcast episode about this topic here:

Picture This…

A CEO and an Executive Assistant walk into an office…
The Executive Assistant says: “What can I take off your plate today? I’ve reviewed your emails and see eight that I can address for you.”
The CEO says: “No, no. I’ll get to those. I need to give them specific info and they like to hear from me.”
The Executive Assistant says: “Alright, I can draft something for your review and you can approve before they are sent.”
The CEO says: “No, no. I’ve got it.”
The Executive Assistant says: “While you’re answering those emails, I’ll start prepping the slide deck for your keynote next month. What is the main point you want to convey? I’ll draft the rest.”
The CEO says: “I know what I want it to look like and how I want it to flow. I’ll draft it this weekend.”
The Executive Assistant returns to their desk. The CEO goes into their office. Three days pass. The emails are still sitting there. There is no pitch deck drafted. The CEO feels flustered and behind. The Executive Assistant feels helpless and exasperated. This cycle continues for 10 more weeks. The highly qualified EA leaves. The CEO contacts HR to start the hiring process – again.

Nope, it’s no joke.

As an employee, it’s not fun to be underutilized and undervalued. It can lead to resentment, boredom, feeling unfulfilled, and possibly leaving for a more challenging and engaging opportunity. As a leader, it can be equally frustrating when you feel compelled to micromanage or you don’t trust your team. That can also lead to resentment, withholding information, having unrealistic (or unclear) expectations for team members, and may possibly end in you firing an employee for “underperformance.”

If you’re in a leadership position, then chances are you want (or are being called upon) to lead. When you micromanage, withhold information, and generally control everything – whether intentional or not – you are limiting your ability to actually do your job as a leader. If you are in the weeds, paying attention to minutiae, and working on projects and tasks that your employee was hired to do, and can actually do better than you, then you are not holding up your end of the bargain of your leadership position.

Leaders, you have to let go in order to actually lead!

This is particularly true when we think about the strategic business partnership between an Executive and their Force Multiplier (i.e. Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff). The reason you’ve hired and partnered with a Force Multiplier is to be able to leverage pieces of your job so that you can focus on your top priorities (casting the vision, providing clarity, focus, and direction, and making quality decisions). Aside from that, your job is to succeed through your team, coach them, hold them accountable, and keep growing together. When you dive back into your calendar and your emails, or when you insist on reviewing every social media post, or you won’t delegate reporting, presentation prep, event planning, or content creation, well… you’re not just doing someone else’s job, not your own. Believe me, someone else can do it better than you.

What are the signs of micromanagement?

Micromanagement looks a little bit different for each leader, but here are some signs that you are a micromanager or that you are working with one.

  • Asking to be CC’d on every email
  • Constantly asking for updates
  • Needing to approve every task or decision
  • Wanting to know what each team member is working on at all times
  • Delegating not only what needs to be done, but how it should be done
  • Not delegating often or at all
  • Getting lost in the details and forgetting about the big picture
  • Over-complicating instructions and assignments – which leads to team member confusion or the leader just taking back the project because “no one understands how to do it.”
  • Never being satisfied with the deliverables
  • Getting excessively involved with the work assigned to others, which means they are often overloaded by taking on too much (and too much of other people’s work)
  • Withholding information or not providing enough information or context to allow other people to participate in a project or decision

Why do leaders micromanage?

Micromanagement happens when a leader feels the need to personally control and monitor everything in a team, situation, or place – to an extreme degree, or what may be considered excessive for a healthy working relationship. So, why do leaders micromanage in the first place?

There are several reasons that leaders micromanage:

  1. If a leader was recently promoted, they may feel more comfortable doing their old job, rather than overseeing employees who now do that job.
  2. It may be their first time working with an EA or Chief of Staff and they don’t know how to effectively partner with that team member.
  3. They are afraid the work won’t get done the way they want or won’t be up to their standards and expectations.
  4. They fear losing significance. After all, if a Chief of Staff or EA is assisting them with half of their job, what do they do now?
  5. They are afraid their team members will make a mistake and it will adversely affect their hard-earned reputation or adversely affect the team or company in some way.
  6. They are distracting themselves – whether from a hard conversation or a more challenging project. So, they procrastinate by getting stuck in the minutiae and being extra controlling other people’s work.
  7. They believe they are the only ones who can handle certain stakeholders, decisions, or project deliverables.
  8. They don’t trust their team.
  9. They don’t think they have the right Force Multiplier working with them and are hesitant to hand off certain projects.
  10. They want to prove their value to themselves and others and controlling everything makes them feel valuable.

Is there ever a time where micromanaging makes sense?

Leadership is not black and white. There are many nuances and exceptions to almost every rule. Contrary to popular belief, there are times when micromanaging makes sense. Not all micromanagement has to do with the underperformance or lack of competence by an employee. Nor does all micromanagement have to do with a leader’s “diminisher” leadership style. Businesses are constantly changing and evolving and different times (or initiatives) call for more “micromanagement” than others. In these cases, it is not about who is right or wrong, it’s about what is best for the business. The key to making it all work is communication. If you know you’re about to go into a period of micromanagement with your Chief of Staff or leadership team, then let them know it’s coming and why.

Here are a few examples when micromanaging makes sense:

  1. During the first 90 days of employment
    You don’t know what your new team member is capable of yet. You are still feeling each other out, learning each other’s communication and work styles, and learning to trust that when they say they are going to do things, they are actually going to get them done. They are still learning the role, how you expect things to get done and the type of communication that works for you. Trust is earned. And, as a leader, you have to extend some benefit of the doubt too. It’s a two way street. Regardless, by the end of the 90 days you want to be comfortable with, and confident, that they will deliver. And your new employee, should be chomping at the bit to take on more and more. But, as I mentioned above, this process should be communicated. And your new EA or Chief of Staff should know that it’s a 90 day period of training, learning, letting go, and yes, some micromanagement.

  2. During uncertain times or when big changes are needed
    The recent global pandemic is a perfect example of when leaders were likely micromanaging their teams. They had to. This was an unprecedented event and leaders needed to step in and inspect everything that was getting done. What expenses needed to be cut? What policies needed to be created? What divisions or products would be discontinued and which ones would ramp up?

    So, too, if a company’s revenue numbers are declining, their market position is dropping significantly, or there is a major reputational hurdle to overcome – a leader may need to micromanage things for a while. When big changes are needed, a leader will likely go small and focus on the details. That’s when a wartime leader is required and micromanaging, temporarily, becomes necessary.

  3. When a new company or division is created
    As a founder, I’m always going to be a bit more involved in the first 12 months or so of a new company. Yes, I may have hired other leaders to run the day to day, but I need to ensure that my vision is clear and that they are executing on particular deliverables. Not to mention, they are likely new to the company, so the first 90 day rule applies there as well. It is temporary. And it should be communicated clearly up front. As the company gets off the ground and the new leadership team earns my trust and shows me the results, I let go, and then let go some more.

  4. When specific high-impact projects require the leaders constant attention or feedback
    There are also times in the life cycle of a business when a leader just needs to be involved almost constantly. If a new product is about to be launched or if the legal team is in the middle of a M&A negotiation, then a leader may require hourly updates. Micromanaging? Sure, you can call it that. But it’s also what the business needs at that moment in order to make real-time decisions.

How can leaders learn to let go?

Now, the big question is, how do leaders actually let go so that they can do what they were hired to do – lead? This is particularly applicable to a leader’s Force Multiplier. A Force Multiplier is specifically hired to be a business partner to their Executive. If a leader won’t give up some control, then their Force Multiplier is not able to do their job to the best of their ability. Furthermore, the entire organization may be held back, because the leader is not spending time on their most important activities, deciding instead to get involved in other people’s work.

Here are five ways leaders can start letting go, so that they can actually lead.

  1. Work on their own personal and professional growth
    In short, Executives need to become better leaders in order to really be able to let go. What does that mean, you ask? Well, it means letting go of the ego that tells them they can do it better, that they are right, and that they need to be involved in order to prove their worth. It means, continuing to grow and take on larger projects, new business development, or simply taking time to think, plan, reflect, and learn, in order to stay ten steps of their team and of the competition. And finally, it means becoming comfortable with letting go of the outcome. If you are building a company of any size, you need people (specifically an EA or Chief of Staff). They are going to make mistakes. So will you. You will all learn and grow from them. Knowing that you (the real you) is still going to be okay regardless of the outcome is the ultimate letting go – the ultimate surrender. Keep working on peeling back the layers and your micromanaging tendencies will disappear.

  2. Delegate decision making
    This is a simple way to build trust and confidence in your Force Multiplier. Start small with decisions that have little impact or aren’t important to you. Build from there. Set parameters around your calendar, around spending, or around what types of communication require your approval. Otherwise, delegate the authority and decision making power to your Force Multiplier. You will both appreciate it!

  3. Create a structure around reporting and regular updates
    There is nothing wrong with leaders wanting to be informed. It’s the unexpected (and frequent) requests for information or updates that can drive an employee crazy. Set it and forget it. Proactively decide what information you would like to see and when. Then delegate that out to your Force Multiplier or another team member. You will still get what you need, without them feeling micromanaged.

  4. Schedule regular meetings with key team members
    This is a similar concept to reporting. Make sure you have a least one weekly 1:1 meeting with your Force Multiplier and any other key stakeholders in your company. During that time, you should be able to go over priorities, new projects, make decisions, and answer any questions. Then they can go forth an execute. And you can go forth and lead.

  5. Provide more clarity and context through communication and coaching
    An important part of a leader’s role is to coach and train their employees to become leaders too. It’s even more important to teach your Force Multiplier how to think and communicate like you do, to be an even more valuable extension of you. When leaders put in the time to clearly communicate their expectations, provide context about a particular issue, and then coach their team along the way, they are going to be much more comfortable letting go. But it does require the investment into your Force Multiplier. If you are unwilling to spend the time coaching and communicating, then you are only doing a disservice to both of you. You will continue to lack leverage and your Force Multiplier will continue to feel underutilized. Leaders provide clarity and teach their team. Believe me, it will provide a 10X return on your time and energy when you do!

Take some time to really look at yourself and reflect on whether or not you are a micromanager. Facing the hard truth and accepting where you can improve is a sign of a great leader. And, the good news is, you can learn to stop micromanaging, let go of control, truly leverage to your Force Multiplier, and actually lead. Leadership is inherently hard. Don’t make it more difficult for yourself or your team by micromanaging. Learn to let go and do what you are meant to do – lead.

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