When the Boss “Helps”

I dedicate this post to all the people who worked for me that I did this to. You know who you are.

There is nothing more annoying than a restless leader. Everything is working smoothly, humming along like a well-oiled machine. They have just come out of an intense period of work or personal challenges, where they were in the groove, whacking one mole after another. They’re fired up and can’t sit still. They know they’ve given you a lot to do and that it all depends on you now.

And they get the dreadful idea of helping.

Oh, they mean well. Maybe they used to do your job or a form of your job, and they really think they can be a pair of hands for you. But the things that make them a great leader are the same things that make them a terrible pair of hands.

Great leaders are great because they empower others. They are decisive. They think big.

When they act as pairs of hands, great leaders dis-empower others. They make decisions quickly that require more tactical consideration. They think big and take on sweeping change in a situation which requires detailed coordination instead.

I did this from time to time. Sometimes when my team was working well on its own, I felt restless and disconnected from the work. I had done the hard work of building a team that could handle the work without me, the big challenges were over and yet I felt restless. I could see my team was busy and there were new things I wanted to implement so I started thinking about what I could do to move those things forward, while they continued to focus on their work. That often took the form of changing the format of the tools we used to manage the business every day. There my team was, finally feeling like they were finally climbing off the thin ice onto solid ground, and I “helped” by doing something and, while doing it, changed the format or timing or scope of the work they had gotten used to, sometimes with very little notice, forcing them to scramble to incorporate these changes into daily operations.

Finally they got smart enough to plan “pair of hands” tasks for me to do when I got like this — tasks over there, waaaay over there, far away from them; tasks that were active enough to burn off energy and boring enough that they would drive me back into strategic mode.

So what do you do as a leader when you start to feel this way?

The first step is to recognize this tendency in yourself. It often follows a period of intense strategic or political activity, when your team is busy with tactical execution. If you can recognize it, you can plan what you do next instead of driving your team crazy helping your team so that, when you get to that point, you have something else to do.

And what is that something else? Look away from your team. Look outward, at your customers. Go listen to them or watch them shop, understand them better. Or go check out the competition. Continue thinking big. Continue to strategize about the changes you want to make once the team gets done executing the things they’re working on now.

Stay at the strategic level.

Don’t “help.”

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