4th September 2020

It’s time to let go!

By Dr Caroline Horner

Experts command our attention and respect. Their knowledge and experience influence and inspire us to change our thinking and behaviour – they represent an incredible source of power.

It is therefore understandable that leaders want to be seen as experts. Historically, that’s how people have climbed the career ladder gaining hierarchical power and expert power on the way.

I propose that leaders don’t need to be experts. In fact, I believe it’s better that they aren’t.

Here’s why.

In today’s increasingly complex and fast-moving world, the main job of a leader is to enable other people to perform, to let others shine.

Some leaders might find this an unsettling thought. After all, demonstrating one’s knowledge and expertise is a core to way add value, gain recognition and feel needed. Having a strong sense of our value contributes to our self-belief.

It’s especially hard for leaders who have built a successful career based on being the ‘go-to’ person who is proactive, takes charge, is self-directed and delivers to a high standard. It’s hard for them not to think, ‘How do I add value if all the expertise sits in my team?’ ‘How will I be recognised, differentiate myself?’

Here lies the paradox: to be an effective leader, you need to let go of your expert knowledge and build your expertise in creating space for others to perform and learn.

Believing that there is only one ‘right’ answer (and that you are the sole source of the answer) doesn’t build confidence and capability in others. Nor does it enhance skills capacity in your organisation. It takes focus away from areas where one’s insight and influence is most valuable.

But it is hard. Letting go and allowing someone else to do something you’ve done for years differently can be frustrating especially when they are learning and it takes them longer.

Speaking from personal experience, this was one of the toughest transitions in my career as a leader. Learning to sit on my hands and trust that things would get done (just not in the same way as I did them) was at times excruciating. But what a world was opened up for me when I eventually was able to let go!

I observe in others that it isn’t the expert leaders who are most effective, it is those who are self-aware, more ‘comfortable in their own skin’ and able to self-manage. They don’t rely on expert or hierarchical power to feel secure but instead invest time in building trusting relationships. These leaders engage and inspire teams to exceed their performance goals and push for innovation.

Before lockdown, a lot of senior leaders held the view that working from home was a euphemism for skiving.

The view was that unless you were sitting at your desk in your manager’s sight that you couldn’t be trusted to be productive. How this view has been challenged! And yet some managers still find it difficult to trust employees. The ‘Zoom’ world makes it almost impossible to ‘check-in’ or see their team’s progress and this triggers anxiety. For some the response is to micro-manage and insist on getting into the detail of every last thing in order to feel reassured.

It’s not only our environment that is changing, our workforce is too. Those coming into the workforce have high expectations. They expect a seat at the table and for their voice carry the same weight as the longest-serving member of the team. I should add that there is no value judgment attached to that – it's simply how the workplace and society has evolved.

The days of being a dogsbody and learning from those in authority, earning your stripes before your voice or perspective was valid is on the decline. So, to guide and inspire the future generation of leaders demands we adopt a different stance and requires us to get out of our comfort zone to embrace different ways of ‘being’ and ‘doing’.

In short, from my perspective an effective leader is one who creates a work environment in which everyone can thrive, learn and find the support they need not only to perform to keep up with the pace of change, but to set it. They see themselves as enablers, a leader-as-coach, if you will.

I want to reassure leaders that you will increase your influence if you create space for others and ‘let go’ of the need to be the expert in everything.

If you master this transition, you’ll have a metaphorical hand free to invest in tasks that energise you and serve the people you lead, much better.

These observations informed and helped to shape the i-coach approach, which is uniquely designed to help leaders through this critical development stage. For us it is primarily about mindset. Giving up the need to have all the power, to be the expert or in control is the dominant developmental shift. Of course, skills and techniques are useful, but these are all influenced by our mindset. The core work is thus on yourself!

I encourage all leaders to welcome in those coaching skills which help to ensure better performance and a healthy working environment: the ability to have different conversations, build trust and encourage a learning mindset in others too.

You don’t have to start this journey alone. The Coaching Essentials programme supports leaders and managers to embrace a coaching mindset and confidently use foundation coaching skills. The programme is designed to help you have different conversations, build trust and encourage a learning and performance mindset in others too.

Caroline’s top tips

  • Know where your value lies. A leader is most valuable when they create space for other people to do their best thinking. They ask thoughtful questions, lend their reassurance and are fully engaged with ideas and people
  • Be present. Good relationships are built principally through trust and conversation, so leave your phone in your pocket, don’t think about your to-do list or the next meeting and focus on the person. Make them feel they are your priority. This investment, even for a few minutes, will pay off.
  • Recognise that there is a difference between listening and hearing. It is irrelevant if you think you’ve listened, the key is that the other person feels heard. Use active listening techniques to demonstrate that you have listened and understood. Also notice how often you speak and the tone of voice you use. Are you dominating the conversation? Are you falling into an advice-giving or lecturing tone? Try not to fill the space, silence supports great thinking so remember less is more.
  • Know yourself. I believe that there is no ‘right’ way to coach. If you possess a deeper understanding of your strengths, preferences and triggers, you can flex your style of leadership to the context and person you support.
  • Encourage curiosity. You should allow yourself to be more curious about others and encourage this in those you lead. Get to know their values, preferences and learning styles so you can adjust your approach to help them get to their sweet spot.
  • Don’t assume you are good at the basics. A healthy level of self-reflection will highlight the areas which need a bit of buffing.