Too busy to lead: The diary of a well-intentioned manager

Graham Winter presents the true story of Alex, a manager in a medium- to large-sized Australian company, struggling to make the transition from ‘manager’ to ‘leader’manager transitions

Too busy to lead: The diary of a well-intentioned manager
Do you accept that the first and most important role of a leader is to build a resilient and high-performing team? 
Take a moment to really think about that before you go on to the five steps below. And even if your answer is a resounding “yes”, this can’t just be something that sounds like a good thing to do – it’s got to be a career choice. 
Why a career choice? 
Because you’ll let go of being the technical expert who answers all the questions, and become the coach who asks the questions and facilitates people in finding the answers.
Of course this isn’t going to be easy, because you won’t get the same recognition that you are used to, and you’ll also feel out of control and exposed by people who don’t do things as well as you do.
Finally, this is about relationships and emotions. You might think that’s soft stuff, but it will help to start thinking about emotions as data, and relationships as  your new most important tool to get things done. 
Ignore the tempting advice that great leaders sell a vision. Some do, but you’ve got problems to address such as budget, out-of-date systems, a transformation program about to sweep like a tsunami through the department, and more than a few stressed-out colleagues who wouldn’t mind blaming your team for their shortcomings. 
Now that’s all a bit negative, so let’s do what pragmatic leaders do in this situation and focus on selling the one problem that everyone will buy into: “How do we build a team that’s got more influence in this enterprise?”
You’ve spent your whole career getting rewarded for solving problems. Now it’s time to reward other people, but they’re not as skilled as you are yet, so be patient. Start by teaching everyone how to use a common problem-solving tool. Don’t worry about it being perfect. This is what’s called an ‘adaptive’ challenge, which means you are helping people to learn, so a few mistakes are a sign of progress, not a reason to stop. 
Look at your meeting agendas. Bring problems, not answers. Bring flip charts and pens, not just reports. Bring questions – challenging questions – and then coach, encourage, and stay committed to developing a team of problem-solvers. Nothing will liberate you and your team better than having everyone skilled and responsible for solving problems.
As your team gets better at problem-solving, it’s time for you to get better at establishing expectations. Most teams have lots of expectations, but they don’t share them with each other and then they get annoyed or disappointed when people don’t meet those expectations. That breaks down trust and confidence, which is poison for any team or organisation.
Always keep in mind that people, not teams, form relationships, which means that good leaders spend one-on-one time with their people and one-on-one time with key stakeholders. 
Use that time to share and negotiate (two-way) expectations about what needs to be done and how to do it. With practice you’ll get alignment to happen instead of just being a nice buzzword to discuss at those team leader training sessions. And keep score so you can recognise success and coach people through difficulties.
As neat and sensible as the first three steps are, the reality is that bosses aren’t always rational, and workloads are not predictable enough to fit snuggly into the resource boundaries. However, that doesn’t mean it has to throw you into an emotional spin that keeps you awake at night and frustrated by day. 
Instead, your next task is to choose an active calmness regime. Take your choice: meditation, yoga, rock climbing, prayer, walking, or anything else that calms and disciplines the mind. Social media and TV are not included! 
Leaders who do well under pressure don’t absorb the pressure and instead stay slightly detached. This comes from practising calmness in the same way that Olympic athletes do in their training. And maybe add the word ‘perspective’ to the list because it’s a lot easier to handle the upsets when you’ve got a friend, colleague, partner or coach who can help you to keep perspective when the world seems to be arranged specifically to annoy you.
Businesses always call their work units teams, but many fail just about every test of teamwork. At the very least, ask yourself and your team these three questions:
  • Do we have a clear sense of common purpose?
  • Can everyone see how their efforts contribute to that purpose?
  • Do we regularly review what’s happened and what we’ve learned?
With clear purpose, meaningful roles and regular learning, a team will emerge. People will be less guarded and more vulnerable with each other because they’ll be more confident in their own roles and comfortable to learn from experiences. They’ll see problems as something to solve, and they’ll dwell less on what might have been. In a word, they’ll be resilient.

Diary note Tuesday

These 360 feedback comments are so unfair!
  •  Spends too much time in her office
  •  Micromanages
  •  Always too busy to listen
  •  Is distracted whenever you try to have a conversation
  •  Never gives positive feedback
For goodness sake! I start work at 7.30am, rarely get home before my youngest is in bed, and haven’t had a work-free weekend in three months.
What am I supposed to do? My boss is worse than I am. Never says “Well done”. Just shuts down any attempt to challenge the workload. 
“Have you got a problem with that?” he’ll ask, cynically. His boss is worse again. It’s like working on a production line and I can’t keep up.
Tomorrow is a day I so don’t need. A training course on team resilience.
Resilience! As if that’s going to help. Maybe the trainer’s got three extra hours to give me every day? That might make a difference.
Sleep. Not much chance of that. I cannot believe that 360 feedback. I do spend time with them, and that’s why I never get home until late!
Diary note Wednesday
Two trainers!! I wish I had two people to do my job. We begin with a question: “Who solves the problems in your team?”
Simple answer: “Me”.
“Well then – you’re screwed,” replied the second trainer, almost dismissively.
“Excuse me?” I ask, gobsmacked.
“You’re not a leader. You’re still the subject matter expert that you were before you got promoted.”
I was about to let fire when she continued around the room, one by one challenging my dozen or so colleagues to see if they were any different. Same issue, time and time again. Everyone is too busy to lead.
“Perfect,” said the first trainer, confidently. “Let’s get started on the five steps that will get you out of being the subject matter expert and into being a leader.”
She gave us a little mini-workbook with some interesting principles and a planning section to jot down personal actions. I’ve really never made a plan like that before. In fact, I’m going to read the principles again right now.
Diary note Monday
Three months since I did that resilience workshop. Wow. It’s amazing how things seem so different. I now look at colleagues in other departments who did the training but didn’t apply the principles, and they’re still stressed to the eyeballs!
My team’s not perfect. And I’m still trying to do too much. But things seem easier, simpler and clearer. Today my team actually solved two problems before they got to me, and my boss now accepts my calm challenging of his deadlines and priorities.
We did a mini-360˚ last week and I got the feedback from HR this afternoon. What a difference:
  •  She seems to care about us more now
  •  Good listener
  •  Makes you feel more valued
  •  A big improvement but still a long way to go
LOL. That last comment would have pressed my button three months ago. Now I can laugh, and that’s what the trainers said at the workshop. “You’ll always have business KPIs, but make sure that you and everyone in the team laughs at least once in the morning and once in the afternoon. That’s a real indicator that success is sustainable.”
That suggestion is gold. This leadership stuff ’s a lot easier than I thought. Anyway, time to sleep. I’ve got a team to lead in the morning.
*Based on a true story with details changed
About the author
Graham Winter is a speaker, consultant and best-selling author of Think One Teamand the recently released First Be Nimble: A Story About How to Adapt, Innovate and Perform in a Volatile Business World. He is client solutions leader for Australian-headquartered Think One Team International and can be contacted for bookings  and advice at or

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