by Morag Barrett

Learning to let go and get out of the weeds

Apr 28, 2016
IT Leadership

We all struggle to let go at times, however learning to delegate, to allow others to decide how to complete a task is a critical skill that all of us need to pay attention to.

2015 was my year of learning to let go.  I will admit that it was tough, I was successful some of the time, like a mother hen most of the time, gritting my teeth and trying not to take over things a lot of the time.  I am, to all intents and purposes a control freak.  Strike that… a recovering control freak.

What am I learning to let go of?

I’ve had a serious dose of life lessons at home and at work. At work I decided to expand my team, to write two more books (both will be published in 2017) and to build an exciting new web resource to support people looking for how to cultivate strong professional relationships (launches May 2016).

My company has grown from one employee (me) and a team of associates that I directed, to six employees and a team that I am both part of and leading.  I’ve learnt that the “Skye Way” aka “Morag’s Way” is not the only way.  Sometimes hindsight showed that “Morag’s Way” was the way and would be the way going forward. At other times hindsight showed me that a new way was in fact a better way!

We are using technology in a way that I hadn’t done before.  We have clients I have never met, leaders we are partnering with because of the efforts of the team.  I can now share the responsibility of growing the business and the benefits that come with success. I know that I will never return to being a solopreneur, however that realization hasn’t come without occasional bouts of heartburn and angst!

At home my sons are now taller than me and continuing to forge their own way in the world. Their desire for independence and not looking to me for guidance is noticeable, and something that I am proud of (most of the time).  This was most ably demonstrated during a recent winter skiing holiday (their first time on the slopes) when two of my three sons (15 & 12 at the time) wanted to ride the gondola and ski down from the top of the mountain unaccompanied after just two days of lessons.  I could feel the heart palpitations and internal dilemma –  they can walk through a city alone, have flown cross the US unaccompanied, so why not let them ski down a mountain alone – all this as pictures of broken bones and everything that could go wrong flashed through my mind.  I let them go, and they made it down safely and loving skiing even more.

This year is the ultimate of parental-let-go-moments as my eldest two sons leave home for University. Other parents tell me that they will return, that this isn’t the end. However, as I count down the days until they say goodbye and move onto the next exciting chapter of their lives I am, at times, overwhelmed with emotion, memories of my little boys, memories of my young men, and of course worries about their future. They will be fine. I will be fine. We will be fine. Especially if I let (them) go.

Learning to let go seems to be something that we all struggle with at different times.  Whether we are parents, leaders or new managers.  The risk is, when we micromanage, when we’re stuck in the weeds and don’t allow others to take the lead, we run the risk of stifling creativity, innovation and stamping out the independence and courage that allows a team (or teenager) to thrive.  And worse? We run the risk of being labeled a “control freak” – not a reputation that many of us aspire to, but may have anyway.

How do you know if you might be a control freak?

Think for a moment, have you ever been to heard to say (or found yourself thinking) the following:

“It’s quicker if I do it myself.”

“I’m simply role modeling how to do it so they know what to do next time.”

“I can’t let this project fail, it’s business critical. I need to be involved to protect my team.”

“I am not telling them how to do it, just what they need to do. That way it will be done right first time.”

“It’s mundane stuff, I don’t want to delegate small things otherwise my team will think I am dumping on them.”

The reasons (excuses) for not delegating are many.  I have client organizations where the CEO (in a 10,000 employee company) has to approve every requisition for a new hire.  In another, one senior leader approves all new laptop purchases.  While these two leaders are well intentioned, and maybe there was good reason why these processes started, those reasons doesn’t apply today.  All that happens is that they slow down decisions, gum up the works and everything grinds to a halt waiting for “approval from the exec”. 

An inability to let go impacts organizations and teams of all sizes, from the start up to the Fortune 100 organization.  From the new manager to the most experienced senior executive.

When leaders fail to let go they act as the role models that others emulate.  When control is tightly maintained at the top of the company then leaders throughout the organization exhibit similar tendencies in their areas of focus.  It’s a cascade effect that helps no one.

My guess is that if you take a look at your schedule for the last week, if you reflect on the discussions and decisions you made there will be several examples where you were stuck in the weeds. Decisions that should have been delegated, discussions you got involved in ‘because you have a passion for that topic’. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The hallmarks of an effective leader is knowing when to step up and step out of the way.

How do you learn to let go?

As with any engrained habit this will take time and practice.  Here are some tips to help you get underway

  1. Ask yourself “Do I really need to be involved in this?” if the answer is “I’m not sure” or “I don’t think so” then back off!
  2. Ask others “Do I really need to be involved in this?” the risk of only asking yourself is that you may be stuck in denial and believe in your need and expertise to get involved… in everything. Empower your team to tell you when to back off!
  3. When letting go it doesn’t mean that you have to step back completely. However, don’t ‘throw the piece of work over the fence and hope your team member catches it’, making sure of a successful outcome will make it easier for you to let go of the next piece of work. When delegating take into account the experience and skills of the person to whom you are delegating, provide coaching and support as needed, so that you, and they are confident that things are moving in the right direction. 
  4. Set clear expectations. Discuss your expectations for the end result, any potential concerns and let your team member know when to escalate and involve you. Articulate the potential warning signs of a project going off-track to avert potential disasters; Which decisions they are empowered to make without reference to you, and which need your involvement; and be clear on milestones and review dates. This last point is critical. It allows you to follow up without micromanaging, and, if needed provide guidance and course corrections before things become critical.
  5. Involve your team.  Let others know that you are trying to let go and get out of the weeds.  Ask the team to tell you if you are getting in too deep and can let go.

Don’t allow the illusion of being in control prevent you from doing the most important task you have as a leader and manager – developing those that report to you.  Build a team that can work independently and interdependently, where trust is explicit and clear communication and accountability is understood by all.  Otherwise you will find yourself with a line of employees at your desk, dependent on you and your input, which will stifle the team’s ability to grow. Don’t be a control freak, learn to let go.