The Void of Empowerment

A recurring issue for people as their position in a company becomes more senior—either due to being promoted or having the organization grow under them—is the feeling that they are slowly being moved away from influencing the team. We all talk about empowered teams, but what happens when you actually achieve something that resembles such a holy grail? All of a sudden, your calendar seems not to be as packed, and you might feel like you are not needed as much. How should you be spending your time?

Breaking Down the Fear

What is the problem, really? Why are many finding themselves feeling left on the side of the road? I believe there are a few common factors.

Fear of micro-managing: Good leaders are aware of their actions and know that micromanagement is bad. Sometimes, this can be taken to an extreme, where we feel like every comment might be stepping on people’s toes or a suggestion means that you’re hurting people’s autonomy and empowerment.

Calendar blame: If, by some magical way, you suddenly have more free time on your calendar, you start feeling like you’re not working. We’ve taught ourselves that we have to be busy, but busy is easy. Having time to think is not a bad thing!

Lack of direction: At the end of the day, if you haven’t evolved the way you think about your role and definition of success, you’ll feel misplaced as the team becomes more and more independent.

What You Should Do

The figure above is from chapter 5 of The Tech Executive Operating System. In it, I list out a recommended default allocation for your time when leading a healthy team. That’s not to say that your calendar should look precisely like this, but it helps to think why and where it differs.

This allocation stems from a definition of leadership where we view the leader’s role as growing the team itself. Your output isn’t the team’s output—but the team. Can you create a team that’s constantly improving? That can handle the challenges that are coming its way? That provides remarkable innovation and impact on the entire company regularly?

I won’t go into the entire allocation here, but I want to list out some of the chunks and show how they derive from that definition, so you can understand my way of thinking when helping my clients shape their day-to-day.

First, realize that a good portion of the time here is not translated to “sitting in a room to talk to someone.” Leadership blocks, management-by-walking-around, personal work time (and email) all look like you’re sitting or walking around by yourself. Put aside the calendar blame and don’t feel ashamed for sitting down to think a bit. If you’re constantly running from one meeting to the next, you have no time to look at the bigger picture and zoom out.

Second, a lot of these are aimed at working on the team as opposed to in the team. Spending 25% of your time on one-on-ones is because coaching and mentoring should be a sizable portion of your focus. You shouldn’t be doing a lot of the work yourself, but instruct your managers and senior ICs in growing to their next level. That’s how you function as a force-multiplier: by making everyone around you better.

Lastly, another vital aspect in your time allocation and focus should be ensuring that you retain your connection to the team, the product, and the market. Regular skip-level one-on-ones mean that you still get a “heartbeat” of how the team’s doing at all levels. Investing some of your leadership blocks in healthy customer friction, e.g., joining calls, reading reviews, and similar activities. Other portions can be spent honing your Product Mastery. And some are simply for you to think strategically about things. In an organization where most people are likely thinking about putting out fires and whatever is due today on their Jira dashboards, having a responsible adult that looks to the horizon from time to time is invaluable.

If you’re having a hard time defining your role or ensuring you are being as effective as you should be, I’d be happy to chat.