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Why great doers don’t make great leaders

Liz Wiseman, president of Wiseman GroupLiz Wiseman, president of Wiseman Group
Liz Wiseman, president of Wiseman GroupCourtesy of Wiseman Group

MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time? is written by Liz Wiseman, President of Wiseman Group.

At some point, every new manager has to figure out that it isn’t about them anymore.

I learned this the hard way. I was thrown into my first management job with two significant handicaps. One, I was young (25 years old) and still unsure of who I was as a professional. Two, I’m a doer – the compulsively productive type that gets an intoxicating high in crossing things off her to-do list. But, great doers don’t necessarily make great leaders.

My crisis hit six months into my new job. It was 7:30 p.m. as I sat at my desk in Oracle’s (ORCL) main office tower. The halls were dark and all of my staff had gone home for the night. I was still busy closing out my “to dos” for the day, many of which had emerged during the workday as one little crisis after another landed on my desk. I wondered: Why am I still doing so much of the work? I’ve delegated. Why does it all come back to me?

I became irritated at my team for not doing their jobs. Then, alone in that dark office, I had an epiphany: I wasn’t doing my job. It was my responsibility to manage the work, not do the work. My job was to flow the work to my team and keep it there. It is an embarrassingly simple idea, but as a newly promoted manager, it was startling. Several weeks later, my boss punctuated this realization by telling me, “I don’t really care what you do. You can sit at your desk and read novels all day long. The only thing that matters is what your team accomplishes.”

I realized that I needed to turn my focus outward, enabling everyone else to work at their best. Instead of being a role model, I needed to be a multiplier to my team, sparking good ideas and fueling intelligent action in others. It’s a harder job but a far more impactful role.

Here are a few ways new leaders can look past themselves and focus on their employees:

Listen more than you talk. Your good ideas probably got you where you are today, but now you need to provoke great ideas in others. First, start by shifting your talking-to-listening ratio. Instead of offering ideas, ask questions. Ask the questions that shift the burden of thinking from you to your team. Ask the questions that focus the energy and intelligence of your team on your most important problems.

Define the problems and get out of the way. Once you’ve outlined the challenge, step out of the way. While you work to remove obstacles for your team, remember that the biggest obstacle most employees face is their own manager (especially the “bungee boss” who bounces in and out of the workflow). You might need to tell your team, “Ignore me as needed to get the job done.”

Put other people in charge. New leaders often feel pressure to be “in charge,” so they tackle the big stuff and delegate the smaller tasks to their followers. But, you’ll get more from people when they own an idea. Let someone know they are in charge of a particular project by giving them 51% of the vote but 100% of the accountability.

As a leader you need to refocus your energy away from your own to-do list and make sure everyone around you is doing the right things. Remember, when you make it all about them, great results will come back to you.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

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The one quality all leaders must have by China Gorman, CEO of Great Place to Work Institute.

3 lessons every new leader should know by Sally Blount, Dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

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