“Nobody Does It Better Than Me” Is The Wrong Approach

If the door was unlocked, my habit was to start a morning client well before 8 a.m. It was a chance to make sure I was organized and to check in with folks as to how things had progressed since my last visit a week ago.

One particular morning, I was doing just that at a manufacturing company and as I walked down the hall to the office set aside for me, I heard loud voices in the restroom. As I hadn’t noticed anyone else in the office area I figured I better check it out.  Surprise…the president of the company was teaching a new maintenance person what needed to be done when cleaning the restroom!

I’ve walked through offices, warehouses and plants with executives and inevitably they will stop and pick up a piece of paper on the floor, grab a soda can that has been left behind, straighten out boxes, pull outdated material off bulletin boards and more. These traits aren’t new to me; I assimilated them when they were modeled in my childhood and have carried them with me into the various executive roles I have held.  And, I’ve been asked the rhetorical question hundreds of times…why don’t people see what I see?

The answers are many but the one I rely on most does not focus on the imperfections of others. Instead it focuses on our own imperfections as leaders. Picking up that piece of paper is symbolic of a trait I describe as ‘hole filler.’ We spent the early part of our careers as ‘doers’ and somehow can’t completely break old habits. We see a hole, no one seems to be filling it and rather than finding someone with a shovel, we do it ourselves—it seems so much easier that way.

I’ve observed this behavior in myself and in so many of the enterprises I have served.  The rationale for it is usually along these lines: ‘I know what I want; I can get it done faster if I do it myself; it will take me too much time to get him/her up to speed.’

Sound familiar? Consider the math—if six people report to you and you’re doing 5% to 10% of each person’s job (for them) because they can’t, or you think you can do it faster or better, you don’t start working on your own responsibilities until 10 or 11 in the morning!  Now consider the longer term risks.  Those accountable to you will at least subconsciously begin to depend on you to catch imperfections, run interference and even do part of their job with the unintentional result of depriving them of an environment that sponsors creativity and initiative let alone learning experiences including failure. Even worse, those likely to thrive under such circumstances are likely to be better followers than leaders, not exactly making your job any easier.

Are there workarounds?  Of course: First, if you have the luxury of picking your own team, select those who have the ability to run ahead of you; better to work at reining them in than firing them up. Most of us though start with teams already in place. In those cases, if not in crisis management mode, my advice is to create one disciple at a time.

With each task that you’re tempted to do yourself, but shouldn’t, define what needs to be done, ask that it be completed by a time and date certain and, if at all possible, share your approach afterwards, not before.  Invest the time to understand the other’s thought process and then share yours; give him/her the opportunity to earn your confidence. Sounds too simple I know, but since it requires your patience and some tongue biting, it’s not quite as easy as it seems.

‘Nobody will do it the same way I would and certainly not as well or as fast!’  Oh how many times I’ve been wrong!  As for the president working with the new maintenance person…he was teaching what needed to be done, not how to do it!

Lesson Learned.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.