By Marshall Goldsmith
The editor-in-chief of one of the top women’s magazines is a very dedicated and well-organized leader. In the past, she always took pride in her ability to juggle a high-pressure job and still maintain a sane personal life with her husband and two young kids. As a devoted mother, she always tried to be home by 6:30 each night to spend time with her children. Her staff considered her to be a great boss. She was an excellent listener and kept her door open to everyone.
One unexpected outcome for her openness and inclusion was that she began to make more and more excuses for working late. Soon she was regularly at her desk until 9:30 or 10 p.m. At first, she thought it was simply because she loved her job. (Running a glamorous money-making magazine can be a ton of fun!) But as she analyzed the problem, she realized it had nothing to do with her love for her work.
Her staff depended on her too much.
One of the potential dark sides of power is creating dependency. Great leaders know how much they depend on the people in their organizations. They don’t just count on the power of their positions to get things done; they personally create the kind of loyalty and respect that inspires people to “take the hill” even under the most difficult circumstances. But dependency is a two-way street. The more the leader is respected and admired by the staff, the more the staff may feel the need to gain the approval of the leader.
The currency of access is seen as a sign of importance and acceptance. Staff members often assume that if their leader chooses to spend her limited time with any one person, that person’s ideas and opinions must be uniquely valued. This usually plays out as a grab for face time with the manager and can lead to a dependency that becomes trouble.
My editor friend had created an environment where getting face time with her was as easy as going to the ATM. This developed into a never-ending spiral where she could never leave the office. People were always coming by, saying, “I just need a couple of minutes of your time.” As we all know, a “couple of minutes” always means more than a couple of minutes. She tried to give her staff whatever they needed. It just seemed as if they needed too much.
She finally became frustrated, gathered her staff together, and announced, “From now on, my door is closed at 5:45. After that, no more face time. At 5:45, it’s get-out-of-my-face time!”
Not surprisingly, this approach didn’t work. She was punishing her staff for a situation she had created. They felt abandoned by her speech. She wanted to empower her staff to take responsibility, yet she still wanted to provide help when needed.
She came up with a wonderful idea—one that I hope will help you the next time you feel trapped by a staff that wants more than you can give. She set up one-on-one meetings with each of her direct reports to discuss their responsibilities and her responsibilities.
First she asked each person, “Let’s review your key areas of responsibility. Are there places where I can let go? Are there other instances where my help can make a big difference?”
Her staff acknowledged that they really didn’t need her input on many decisions. They had just gotten used to checking in, in a way that was probably not the best use of anyone’s time. Each person was also able to focus on areas where her involvement was having a real positive payoff.
Her second question involved her areas of responsibility. She asked, “Do you ever see me doing things at my level that I don’t need to be doing? Are there activities that I could be delegating to others?” Every person had at least one good idea of how she could let go of part of her work, helping her simultaneously save time and develop the skills of each member of her staff.
She thanked everyone and implemented almost all of their suggestions. She realized that while part of the problem was their need to depend on her, another part was her need to feel important and needed by them.
Follow this course, and face time will have as much value as Confederate paper. Within a year or so, employees will be developing on the job so well that they may need to have a discussion about how they need less face time and more out-of-my-face time from you.
Marshall Goldsmith is corporate America’s preeminent executive coach and founding director of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.