Introduction

Stepping up to the leadership plate can be daunting. A common challenge new leaders face is balancing their existing duties with the additional responsibilities of management. I’m often asked:

How do I balance managing a team with my responsibilities as an individual contributor?

When I was getting started, my boss advised me sagely that balance and time management are paramount: How to get everything done in the limited time you have, or, how to fit 10kg into a 1kg bag.

Getting comfortable with delegating

A common mistake I made early on was not delegating enough. I felt a desire to ‘protect’ the team from context-switching or emergency work. Too often, I would get down onto the field and tackle this work myself. So when I was supposed to be shifting more attention towards people and strategy, I found myself being pulled back into business-as-usual tasks. Instead of insisting on support from my direct reports and peers, I gradually took on more workload. This meant I didn’t have the headspace I needed to deal optimally with all the incoming work that only I, as the manager, could do.

My manager raised this topic with me. He said:

I was hoping you would have helped more with initiatives A, B and C. It’s clear to me what’s going on. You look overworked.

Through brainstorming with him and my mentors, I came to ask myself the following questions:

  • Was I delegating enough?

  • Was I insisting on the support that I needed, from my team, peers and counterparts?

  • Was I managing my time effectively?

Over time, these three questions proved themselves invaluable to me. Through answering these questions, I realised that I was not putting enough responsibility with the team, but trying to shoulder it all myself. I was not insisting on the support that I needed, but working longer to try cover an expanding workload. And I was not insisting on the support that I needed from my peers and counterparts, but trying to do their work for them.

I realised that it was time to get serious about delegating.

An exercise I found insightful was as follows:

  1. At the end of each day, write down a list of all the work I did

  2. Circle any tasks that could have been delegated to someone else

After doing this for a couple of weeks, it really hit home how much work I was doing that could have been done by virtually anyone on the team, while the work that I alone as the manager could do was being left undone; impacting the team and company as a whole. This revelation led directly to me requesting significantly more work from my team members and putting significantly more responsibility for its completion with them.

The fear of delegation is common and a regular topic in my conversations with people. Initially, I too was apprehensive, because at the end of the day, no-one can actually force anyone else to do anything.

Over time, I learned to create the space within the team where the most important and urgent challenges and opportunities were understood. This allowed the team itself to decide how best to pick up new tasks and absorb them into the current workload. Once the team understood its purpose and the roles of each member, the people themselves were able to hold each other accountable to ensure that the team as a whole was delivering.

I learned that when I was volunteering to pick up all the incoming work, I was severely restricting my capacity to work on genuine management tasks. I was robbing my team of opportunities to step up, learn and over-achieve. I realised that everyone on the team needed to become a self-sufficient representative of the team.

Recognising the first team

When I became a manager, I gained a second team that was actually my first team. It is the team that consisted of my new management peers. Sometimes, it’s called the leadership or steering team, if you’re more familiar with that terminology.

Who was on my first team?

  • My boss: head of the area
  • My peers: the other people managers in the area
  • My counterparts: product managers, marketing managers, tech leads, principals and so on

In the context of my first team, I was representing no longer just myself, but my entire team, as an extension of myself. To my direct reports, I no longer represented just myself, but the entire leadership function. I realised that my role was now to align my team with the goals of the organisation. My team was there to help us all achieve the vision set out by the company. It was implicit that I would fully engage my team in order to do this. Of course I should use whatever resources are available, as effectively as possible. This was not in addition to my work; this now was my work.

Conclusion

Earlier, when my manager raised the topic of delegation with me, he was trying to teach me something. From his point of view, he assigned me significant resources in order for me to do what needs to get done. My manager would not tell me how to use these resources. And neither will yours. It is literally our jobs as managers to best use our available resources. That’s why delegation is a critical skill.

Take-aways

  • Time management is a common challenge when stepping up into leadership.
  • Protecting the team from work can be an example of ruinous empathy.
  • Fear of delegation is common.
  • The team members need to be empowered to be autonomous and hold each other accountable.
  • High expectations lead to high performance (under the right conditions).
  • Succeeding or failing on projects that matter is key to growth.
  • Managers have a first team of peers and counterparts.
  • We represent our team as an extension of ourselves in the context of our first team, and vice versa.
  • The role of management is to fully engage the available people and resources to achieve company objectives and ultimately the overall vision.
  • No one else will tell you how best to use the resources available to you, nor can they. That’s our job as managers.