What assumptions are blocking you as a leader?

January 28, 2008

I had lunch recently with a very competent business leader who has worked primarily at large Fortune 500 companies. She is the model of Ask, Don’t Tell Leadership in practice. Yet, at times, she finds herself guilty of providing solutions for her team. She assumes that by the time her employees come to her, they have exhausted all possible solutions. She believes that strongly in their capability.

When I asked her, in hindsight, did she find this to be true—Did her employees actually do all the hard work of seeking the best solution? No. Because her employees know that occasionally she will do the heavy lifting to solve a problem, they don’t always push themselves to find answers. She strives to be a Teflon Woman, where problems don’t stick to her. Now, she is trying even harder. To be an effective leader, she knows that she has to be more resolute in delegating responsibility and creating authority. She must hold team members accountable for their own areas of responsibility.

When her team comes in to see her, she now asks, “What have you done to deal with this problem? Where else might you go to solve this issue?” They turn and walk out the door, knowing that she will not be doing their work. Some employees adjust to this framework more easily than others. By maintaining the questioning posture, though, she can better assess whether team members have truly exhausted all possible solutions within their grasp.

Leaders who fall into the trap of completing their team’s work are not only stifling the team members’ growth as leaders, they are holding back their own growth as leaders. If the leader is called upon to solve all or most problems, the company does not benefit from the brainpower of all its employees. If the leader leaves or is unavailable, the remaining employees will not be equipped to solve problems on their own. On the other hand, if the leader asks his/her team to solve problems they encounter, there is a possibility for new and innovative thinking. Individuals will be motivated to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Assumptions in organizations can become chronic. In one organization I observed, the outgoing leader did not want salespeople to work remotely. This became so ingrained that when the leadership changed, the rule about not working remotely remained. Some highly qualified sales job candidates were not hired as a result. When the new leader questioned this process, he was told, “It’s always been that way.”

Leaders must continually question assumptions — their own and others’. Often VPs are not willing to question assumptions, so this becomes even a larger task for the President and/or CEO to accomplish. The exceptional leaders that I know challenge assumptions with questions. In the process, members of their teams become dynamic and innovative leaders in their own right.

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