When you need to get out of the way: 7 mistakes to avoid as a leader when your team needs to shine

As a leader, sometimes we think we need to have all of the answers. Being that go-to expert in everything we manage makes us feel valuable. We sometimes think the way to really shine is to be the one answering all of the questions, delivering all of the presentations, being the face of everything your team is working on.

Unfortunately, some cultures can reward this behavior. The one out in front is the one that gets recognized through awards, pats on the back and even promotions. However, being a good leader also means getting out of the way – giving your team their day in the sun. Good companies and healthy cultures support this behavior and reward the manager for being a coach, mentor and advisor to their team members. When a team member shines so does the manager.

This behavior is especially hard for those new to management. When you are used to being the doer, you are the one representing the project. When you transition to management, you need to become less of a doer and more of a coach. It can be difficult to move from being the star on stage to directing behind the scenes.

This is why I caution people who want to become a people manager. It can be very rewarding but the role of a manager can be quite different. You now orchestrate instead of doing. You coach instead of play. You assign work and hold accountable instead of doing it yourself. You delegate and trust instead of depending only on yourself. These are tough switches to make.

But even seasoned leaders have a hard time letting their people deliver the message to senior leaders instead of delivering it themselves. This can create bad feelings for your team. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if you put in lots of time on a project only to have someone else share it with the world? Maybe you know this feeling. It is tempting….but resist the urge.

Here are seven mistakes to avoid when you think you should do something yourself as a manager:

  1. Don’t respond for them. We still communicate quite heavily over email. While we have tons of virtual tools today to communicate, we still rely on email to deliver one-way messages. If someone asks you a question about a project your team member is leading, either respond and copy them so they can add to the response. Or, respond by stating that Bill on your team is the expert and he can answer their question. Let the expert field the question.
  2. Don’t make up an answer. When someone asks you about a project your team is working on, it is okay to say you need to check with them to get the answer. Some leaders think it is a weakness to say I don’t know. It isn’t. It is weaker to make up an inaccurate or half-complete answer because you think the asker believes you “should” know the answer. As managers, we juggle a lot. Sometimes, we juggle our own projects as well as help manage projects others are working on. You can’t possibly know the details of everything. Admitting you don’t know, but that someone on your team does know, is much more helpful.
  3. Don’t hoard work. Most of us are high performers and perhaps it is our performance that got us promoted in the first place. The key to being a good manager is to spread the work. This is the most classic challenge I see with new managers – going from doing all the work to assigning, coaching, steering, managing the work. If this is a problem for you, start small. Start by giving your team member a chance to lead one project. Have status updates with them but let go of one thing to start.
  4. Don’t steal the spotlight. Like above, perhaps being in the spotlight is what got you promoted to a manager. If so, it will be tempting to remain there. My favorite book title of all time is Marshall Goldsmith’s: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. He has a lot of points in this book about driving your career and being successful. But, one theme is you need to do something different to continue growing. Moving into a people manager role is one of these career changes that requires new skills and mindsets. Resist the urge to steal the spotlight. Share it with your team. They will be engaged in their work and loyal to you.
  5. Don’t put your ego first. Ego is tricky. Even the most humble of us have a little ego that can get bruised or puffed up from time to time. We may feel threatened by a star team member who gets lots of attention. This is normal. This is human nature. We need to put our egos in check here, however. Remember: When your team member shines so do you. Also, if your team member does a good job, your team may be handed more work, trusted to take on more, asked to lead the critical project. These are all positive outcomes. It is even possible, that you are recognized as a great leader, which could mean more promotability for you as well.
  6. Don’t be afraid. One manager I had years ago felt if he wasn’t the star of the team, he would be let go in deference to his right hand, which was my peer at the time. Unfortunately, when we move into a sense of fear, we get desperate. When we get desperate, we fall into old patterns and go into survival mode. Try and identify if this is your circumstance and head it off. I have always said, no matter where I work, that there is significant work to be done. There is more than enough work to go around to keep people busy. If you live in fear of losing your job, you may not make the best decisions.
  7. Don’t be absent. All of this said, you should not be absent either. I have come to learn that there is more than one solution for every circumstance and that the one in the middle, the compromise, is usually best. So, instead of choosing between yourself, as the manager, and Bill, your team member, to deliver the presentation to senior leadership, do both. As his manager, you can set the stage, kick it off and be present while he delivers the crux of the message. There are many ways to be present and to be seen as part of the winning solution but not hog the spotlight.

As with many areas, being a manager is a delicate balance between so many things, including doing the work, getting recognition, and being the one to present/be seen as the face of an effort. Deciding what works to give fair credit to everyone involved will be the best path for your career and your team member’s. Find ways to compromise and balance your needs and your team’s. Success lies in the middle.

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