Let Go of the Reins

Can your team get along without you?

When I was younger, I used to have trouble taking vacations from work. When I was 21, I earned a big promotion: I was promoted to store manager for the third highest-volume store in the company. I was proud – store manager at 21! – and I was determined to do such a good job that it would show everyone that I was up to the job.

It never occurred to me that they already knew that – if they hadn’t known that, I wouldn’t have received the promotion.

The store was a nightmare.

There was a huge, company-wide stock management initiative going on. At the store where I had been assistant manager, we were in the last stages of completing the initiative. When I arrived at My Store, I could see that they not only hadn’t completed it, they had gotten maybe 10% into the initiative and hit a wall. They had pulled some of the obsolete stock and piled it up in the basement and left it. I would have liked to tackle that first, clear the decks, but I had other problems I needed to deal with.

I had no staff.

The previous assistant manager at this store – a woman who had transferred from my old store, where she had worked for years, and who had trained me – had, unbeknownst to me, been trying to get promoted to store manager in My Store. (It was probably good that I didn’t k now – I probably would have declined the promotion if I had known she was also vying for it, which would have been a stupid decision on my part.) When I got the promotion instead of her, she and most of the staff, quit. I was left with two part-time cashiers who were only available 4 hours a day, for the same shift, the receiving staff, and one bookseller.

Then the stockroom shelves collapsed on the bookseller, breaking his arm.

I also had no customers. The day I took the store, the building staff put up scaffolding in front of the store, effectively hiding it from potential customers, and they didn’t take it down until the day I left a year later. Sales immediately dropped, which worried my boss – had she made a mistake promoting me – and made me work all the harder.

I stayed late every night and came in on weekends to try to whip the store into shape.

After about 9 months, I finally took vacation. I didn’t want to go – I didn’t see how my team could get along without me, and I kept saying I was going and finding one more thing to do. Finally, my assistant manager shoved me out the front door and locked it.

“If you don’t go on vacation, I won’t unlock the door. And the customers won’t be able to get in and we’ll lose sales,” he said with a wicked look in his eye. I gave up and went on vacation.

To my surprise, when I returned, the store was still standing. No reflection on them – with everything else that had happened that year, it was truly a surprise that the sidewalk hadn’t collapsed into the stock rooms underneath, that the employee break room hadn’t flooded again, that the whole dang thing hadn’t fallen into a sinkhole. I honestly felt, for much of that year, that I was holding My Store up on shoulders, like Atlas. And I couldn’t step out from under the weight without My Store crushing my team beneath it.

I learned differently.

As a responsible person, this is a lesson had to learn repeatedly before it stuck.

Often, responsible people think that their team depends on them, that the whole system will break down if they’re not there to make it work.

It takes courage to let go and see what happens. You keep thinking maybe they’re not ready. The fact that, when you let go of the reins – just for a moment to see what happens – they do things slightly differently than you would have done them, seems to prove your point.

What will people think if you delegate more and things fall apart? How will people judge you?

The thing you may not realize is that people are already judging you. Your team senses your lack of trust and judges you. Your boss doesn’t see think that you are a great manager because you’re the only one who can do this thing; your boss is wondering why you aren’t learning to delegate.

Even in your personal life, your partner is wondering why you don’t expect the kids to help more. Why you have to be the one to do everything for your elderly mom.

I’m not advocating that you just throw up your hands and walk away – that’s a passive-aggressive way of proving to yourself that the world can’t turn without you. You’ll need to learn to delegate, you may need to organize the kids, teach them to cook, to run the washing machine. To hold them accountable. That requires a different set of skills, a different definition of success – for them and for you.

Let’s experiment: what happens if you let go of the reins, just a little?

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