Here’s a nice story that I found out about as I was writing my book: Hermit crabs have to get new and larger shells as they grow. Moving to a new shell requires a leap of faith, as they are vulnerable while trying on the new shells. This danger is unavoidable: the other option is not growing fast enough and risking getting eaten. What’s even more astonishing is that hermit crabs can line up by size. They form a linked list, and then each one grabs the next shell inline in optimal time. I like to think of it as a pyramid of coaching.

I keep repeating a simple mantra like a broken record: leaders have to grow continuously or risk having their organizations outgrow them. We take it for granted that engineers should regularly learn new tools and approaches yet treat management positions differently.

An essential part of coaching executives is helping them realize where they need to focus these growth efforts. Sometimes, spotting these areas can be tricky. Especially when we are talking about being proactive, we might not be able to pinpoint a problematic area easily. That’s why I always say that as a consultant, being called to put out fires is easy: you can see where the fires are!

Nevertheless, you owe this effort to yourself and your team. The first step towards stable and healthy personal growth is to come to terms with its necessity. One of the leadership approaches that I list in The Tech Executive Operating System is letting things go. I’m not referring to fights or disagreements, but to old habits that no longer serve you.

This relates directly to the hermit crab story. If we don’t let go of things that used to be perfectly fine before, we’re just not going to cut it. With time, we have to learn to identify these places and work smarter, not harder.

Growth Patterns

It has been said before that personal growth seems to follow an S-curve pattern. We find something that works, and with time, as things become more challenging, we work harder and harder. Eventually, a plateau is reached—working harder will no longer work. At this point, we have to make a leap and revamp the way things are done. This is the personal growth that we’re after. We learn how to do a certain thing in a smarter way. Thus, a new chapter begins where this new leap will suffice for a while. You will work harder on optimizing that until another leap will become necessary.

This is exactly what letting go is all about. Assuming that you make the time for retrospection, consider where your time and cognitive efforts are spent. You might notice areas where you used to be extremely impactful in the past, but that no longer justify your increasing efforts.

For example, I see companies that fail to review and alter their hiring tactics and processes regularly. That means that they keep trying to get new hires with the same techniques that worked for the first dozen employees. Often, if we review the hiring efforts, we can notice that some imbalances have been introduced. It might be that the pipeline is still busy, but that your closing rates have dropped—indicating that you might need to change things upstream before spending all of the interviewing efforts on the wrong people.

Another common scenario is when leaders keep trying to remain involved in lower-level decisions and processes. It is common for the VP of Engineering to be a real technical asset for the team, and their input is valuable. However, when the VPs make this involvement, they fail to assess the opportunity cost—what other matters are not getting enough attention because they’re down in the weeds? Failing to realize the tradeoff at play can hurt an organization’s stability in the long term.

Lastly, growth sometimes requires efforts from around you (e.g., when you can no longer personally take care of all issues and have to train your staff to be involved), but it can also be merely a personal issue. I’ve seen leaders who believed that there was no other choice. If you were to ask them, they’d say that there was no option but to work harder and harder—they couldn’t rely on their people. “They’re not there yet.” I’ve found that at least half of the time, this is not the case. The team is capable and willing, and we’re having a hard time letting go. Sometimes you act as a crutch, even though they can already walk by themselves if you let them.

All this to say that we should regularly and routinely consider the ROI on our efforts and find new areas to focus on. Sometimes you might need to learn how to do something differently. Other times, you can just disconnect yourself altogether and watch matters become better than they ever were. You and your team will get burned out without attentive management of your “efforts portfolio” with a healthy dose of rebalancing to adapt to the ongoing changes.