I was coaching a senior level executive in a large company a few years ago and, like many of us, her number one issue was that she was overwhelmed with too much work, and needed to find a way to better manage her time. As I often do at the beginning of a coaching engagement, I interviewed a number of people who worked with her to gain perspective on how she was viewed by her peers and direct reports. When I went to debrief these interviews with her, I was happy to report that everyone had a high opinion of her and really enjoyed working with her. The one consistent feedback request was that she needed to find a way to be more available. I had a lot of great feedback to share with her, and our debrief would be overwhelmingly positive, but when I delivered the point about her availability, she was completely distraught. She told me how she never put down her cell phone because she was constantly emailing and texting her team mates. She felt like she was available 24/7 and never had any time to herself. While their primary feedback was that they wanted more of her time, her main objective was to find a way to get some of her time back!
On the surface, these two objectives seemed completely opposed, so we dug a little deeper. We sat down and started going through some of her emails to see if we could find a trend. It only took a few minutes before we found something. My client was right: she was extremely accessible and responsive through email and text. The issue was that because she was so available, her team had started asking her about everything. Any decision, no matter how small got run by her through email or text. Most of these required only quick responses, but because the volume had grown so much, responding to all of them was taking a lot of time. More importantly, it was contributing to what she described as always feeling scattered: Because her emails were constantly dragging her down into the minutiae, she felt like she was struggling to maintain her focus on her main priorities and goals and she didn’t feel like she was always making the best decisions because she didn’t always have context.
After we talked about it for a while, we both realized that she had created a culture of dependency on her team: without her to make decisions, even trivial ones, her team was paralyzed. Since she was so good at responding, she had reinforced that behavior over a long period. I also realized that what her team meant when they said they wanted more of her time is that they felt like they needed more meaningful engagement. They wanted her to come to their meetings, spend more time sharing her vision with them, and solving the complex issues that came up. The team had great respect for her, and they were desperate for her to share more of her wisdom.
On the surface, the solution was simple: she just had to stop being so responsive on emails and texts. This was obviously not something she could do overnight, but through a series of discussions, she realized that rather than simply replying with an answer, she could ask for recommendations. Often, she found she could just reply with “it’s your call.” She also started deferring things to her weekly one on one discussions. These weekly sessions provided the opportunity to engage more genuinely, understand the context for what was going on, and support her team not with answers but with probing questions that would help them develop better skills to make their own decisions.
The real solution was that in order to succeed, she had to adapt a new behavior pattern: one that encouraged independence and collaboration from her team members. It took a lot of focus and patience on her part, but over a few months, a new culture of independence started to emerge. She was able to engage more deeply with her team and morale started getting better. Eventually, the team started picking up on her new behaviors, stopped sending so many emails, and even started deferring questions to their 1 on 1 sessions where they could engage more meaningfully.
The most important thing my client learned was that how she behaved as a leader was what drove the culture of her team. By learning to coach her employees instead of just giving them the answers, she was able to improve the overall culture and focus more on making progress toward her important goals. She also found a way to make more time for herself. This is an important lesson for us all as leaders: We don’t always have to know the answers, but we do have to ask the right questions.