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Down in the Weeds

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Have you ever heard of someone being in the weeds? I’m not talking about gardening Australia rescuing the petunias. I’m talking about when there are multiple streams of information coming at you all at once and you find yourself lost in the details, unable to rise above and see the bigger picture. Many of us believe the only way to deal with it, is to roll up the sleeves, grab a second cup and slog through. As leaders we obviously need to know the details, we need to have access to all relevant information and we need to be able to use this to make decisions. What is potentially more critical though is that we are able to immediately direct our attention where it is needed at any point in time and understand how our efforts will fit into the bigger picture. In leadership positions the hours can be long, the tasks can be demanding and if we are not focussing our energy where it needs to be we may be adding little value to the work we are entrusted with. Getting caught up in the minuscule and being sucked into the detail vortex drags us into the weeds and potentially detracts our attention from what’s important, sending us down a slippery slope which may have unintended consequences.

Leadership is about building the right conditions for things to flourish, if you achieve this the weeds will take care of themselves.

Unfortunately for some leaders they spend too much time amongst the weeds and lose sight of what’s important. It can happen to all of us at some point in time when work mounts up and we start to feel like we have lost the reins. It’s here that you’ll start to use the ‘if I just’ statements. If I just had some more time, If I had just done it myself, If I had just watched that more closely, If I can just get this done. When this happens you are well and truly in the weeds. Weighed down by tasks that are better left to subject matter experts who have the knowledge, skills and technical expertise to complete the tasks required. Living in the weeds is not leadership, climbing out of them and building the capacity of others to help navigate through them is the role of an effective leader. Our most effective leaders never spend too long here, they recognise that this will prevent them from doing the most important task they have as a leader and that is to develop those they lead.

As you head down into the weeds you start to leave the leadership role and head into the role of management. The weeds are generally the tasks that can be delegated to those you lead who have direct contact with the matter at hand. The trap for those new into leadership is that they try to keep up the illusion that they are in total control and have full coverage of all areas. When you get into the weeds you start requesting all the details to ensure things are on track and then start to put in place systems and structures to avoid this happening again which require a constant stream of information being available to you. This then leads to following up in minute detail each element of an initiative or program in an attempt to ensure that all the moving parts stay on track. By doing this, you hope, you  can  keep it all on track, keep everyone in their lane and ensure that all programs are completed on time,  every time. This may get the job done but the unintended consequences can erode trust and disempower those you lead as you enter the realm of the micromanager.

Unfortunately, with all best intentions micromanagement has consequences for those we lead. Whilst the intentions may be pure, the behaviour tends to disempower. Micromanagers spend a great deal of time examining the work of their team and less time focusing on the things that really matter. As I’ve said previously it’s great to be across all elements of your work but trusting that those you lead have the skills and capabilities to produce what is needed for you is an essential part of leadership. When leaders start to micromanage this filters down through the organisation and drives a pattern of behaviour that does nothing to help promote a positive culture. If things are not happening as they should then coaching and mentoring is the pathway rather than micromanaging. As a leader you have two courses of action here: either you trust your subject matter experts who are in the weeds working with their teams or you head down there and start to make the decisions. Whilst option two may be required on some occasions if it becomes the norm rather than fertilising the ground to prosper you are stifling any growth that may occur. What also creeps in is a feeling  by those you lead that you are creating work for the sake of it as you remove any control they have on their area of expertise. Come up from the weeds and direct traffic from the balcony, you’ll get a clearer picture and will be able to see how all the avenues of work intersect.

One proven method to help stay out of the weeds is to delegate. Delegation is an art form that must be learnt and mastered to be truly effective. Delegating to get things off your desk has no real impact other than to lighten your load. Understanding the skills and capabilities of those in your team and delegating to their strengths is an effective and efficient strategy used by our most capable leaders. There are days when it is necessary to get down into the weeds and there is nothing wrong with being a hands-on leader, working shoulder to shoulder to guide, coach or learn with your colleagues, this is a valuable part of leadership.  It’s when the fulcrum tips and you start to do tasks for those you lead, impacting on their  professional capacity to perform their role that you’ve gone too far. This moves into micromanagement territory which can lead to a loss of trust and disharmony. By micromanaging you are placing all your energy in areas where there are usually quite capable people already working on a solution. In doing so you are taking away the decision making process from those you lead.  Smart leaders harness the skills and experience of those they lead and align them to the right initiatives freeing themselves up to make the decisions that matter. It’s always intrigued me why some leaders have experts on their team but fail to take their advice because it does not sit with their agenda. If a surgeon tells me I need urgent surgery I’m not questioning them because it will ruin my plans for the weekend, I’m getting the surgery. We should continually strive to effectively utilise the skills and experience of those we lead to help guide our decisions.

As mentioned earlier there will be times when you need to take a deep dive into the weeds to see first hand what is occurring. Whilst on the surface this could appear to be an attempt to micromanage, I’d prefer to look at it as a coaching opportunity. The difference is the purpose of your deep dive. If we use this as a coaching opportunity it allows you to work alongside colleagues, providing guided and constructive advice to enhance capability and refine skills. Micromanaging on the other hand is pushing colleagues to the side and completing the task for them. A coach sets expectations and goals whereas a micromanager sets boundaries and parameters. It may sound like semantics but it all hinges on the intent of the leader. Is it a punitive approach to show why someone is not achieving or is it a learning opportunity to build capacity? From my experience the latter is the most effective path.

As work starts to pile up there are a few questions I ask myself to help stay above the weeds. Does this really require my attention or can it be delegated? Who has the expertise to complete this task?  How will I get reliable and accurate  information about this when I need it? Does it need to be done now? By answering these questions I am able to, for the most part, stay out of the weeds. It’s worth considering what structures you have in place that allow you to get authentic feedback and real time information when required? How have you empowered and built trust with those you lead to ensure they alert you to any potential issues and offer solutions before they turn into bigger issues. When we get the information we must decide if we need to get down in the weeds or just ask the right questions to assist in gathering enough information to develop a solution. By asking coaching questions of those we entrust to run programs and initiatives we will in most situations develop the right solutions. I’ve found when people come to you for solutions they usually have something in mind. Your role is to ask questions so they can develop the solution, which in turn gets buy-in as there is a sense of ownership. By using this approach you allow the solutions to grow out of the weeds. 

Spending our days in the weeds is not the most effective form of leadership. I’m not suggesting that we don’t want to know the details, it is important that we have that information at hand. Obviously when we are mapping out a plan or a strategy the specific details are a crucial component and tracking progress against details are key to keeping things on track. It’s when this becomes your daily work and you remove the responsibility of those you lead to make informed decisions that you need to rethink your approach. Developing effective systems and structures that become the norms of how you operate provide scaffolds to work within and should remove the need for you to micromanage. Building a culture of open and honest communication where a wide variety of views are accepted, not always agreed to, but certainly heard, will empower those you lead to make decisions, voice opinions and trust that when you make the final decision you have done so after considering all the evidence available. This will keep you out of the weeds and allow you to focus your energy on achieving successful outcomes for those you are entrusted to serve. When you next start down that path, take a minute to ask yourself what’s important and who on my team have I entrusted with this task. If you’ve built capacity and trust, those you lead will be skilfully navigating the weeds for you. Leadership is about building the right conditions for things to flourish, if you achieve this the weeds will take care of themselves.


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