Dear New Leader,
You are about to hit the road on a challenging, exhilarating and rewarding journey—leadership. Like a Rolling Stones tour, there will be an audience watching, high profile sets, and a band ready to play. But the biggest challenge you will face won’t be long hours or crazed fans: it will be managing yourself.
As an individual contributor, you were probably the rockstar of your craft, whether you were selling, coding, designing, or analyzing. In fact, your rockstar status probably contributed to your promotion into a leadership role.
Now that you are a leader, you have a completely new role on the concert tour. You may still be selling, coding, designing, analyzing…. but your primary role is to develop and grow your team. You are moving from the rockstar to the backstage roadie, helping your co-workers shine and become rockstars themselves. These fledgling rockstars may even outperform you someday.
This probably feels like an identity demotion. After reaching the top of your field, now you are at the bottom of another one. Not long ago, you were up on stage, getting the applause and standing ovations for your own killer guitar solo, but now you are behind the black curtain, watching your team get called back on stage for an encore.
You will feel lost and confused at times because the skills that made you a rockstar will not make you a great roadie. Now you need to coach, give feedback, and delegate.
These skills are important. But the hardest part about this new role is managing the perfectionist inside yourself. As a rock star, you could be a control freak. Rockstars can be divas about the set, lighting, order of their songs, what they wear, even the food they have in the green room (Rumor has it Van Halen would request M&Ms with all the brown ones taken out in their green room! Apparently, they used this as a test to see how detail-oriented the logistics team was).
However, now that you’re a roadie, you don’t have the same control you once did, because instead of being the star, you are the supporter of others. Despite this shift, the former rock star and perfectionist still lives inside you. You may not even realize its presence, but that perfectionist will surprise you when it surfaces in the most innocuous ways.
You will watch yourself delegate a piece of work with the best of intentions. Then, once the work returns to you, you will panic at how different it is from what you would have done yourself. You will sit at the edge of your seat, trying to decide if you have time to re-do it, or if you can give them feedback without sounding too critical, or if you will just let it go. The perfectionist in you will be dying to take over, just like a passionate roadie backstage, twitching to grab the mic at every off-beat note the rockstar plays.
Below the surface, you are grappling with letting go and making the transition away from individual contributor: Do I trust my people? Is their work up to my standards of quality? How do I balance the growth of my team members and the client results I am trying to achieve? How do I get out of the way of the people that I am leading?
You will watch a new team member struggling to figure out a problem and think, “This is easy. I know how to do this. Let me do it. I can save us both time.” It will be painful to watch your team struggle to learn skills you already know so well. You will want to jump in and do the work for them, particularly as you balance time pressure and customer demands.
Your perfectionist tendencies are often masked by innocent-sounding thoughts like, “She needs my help,” “I’ve done this before,” “He is under a tight deadline,” “She said it wrong,” or “We don’t have time for this.” There are millions of iterations, but the question is the same. Will your need for control allow enough space for others to shine, and even surpass you?
As a leader, your job is to enable your employees to do their best work and help them learn to be the best workers they can be. This means trusting your team and giving them enough freedom so that if they make mistakes they will be able to learn. One of the hardest things about being a leader is knowing when to step in and coach or correct – and when to stay out.
This struggle arises from two core areas:
- The identity demotion we face as leaders. We are used to the ego boost we get when we know the answer, solve someone’s problem, and come up with brilliant ideas. It feels gratifying, and it can be hard to stop focusing on our own intelligence and efforts.
- The quest for perfection – for the client, for the results, for other co-workers – combined with a lack of trust in your team’s ability to create an amazing outcome. You likely feel you have “no choice” but to take over when results are on the line.
The quest for perfection can be a talent growth killer. When you are trying to present the perfect deck, the perfect client pitch, the perfect spreadsheet, you leave little room for the inherently messy process of your team trying, growing, and learning.
Letting the perfectionist take over creates a codependent culture within your teams. Your reports will continually come back to you with more and more problems to solve; in addition to standing in the way of your team’s development, you are also sabotaging your own productivity as you will consistently get pulled into doing more of the work yourself, leaving less time for more strategic or cross-functional work.
When I work with leaders, I can spot this dynamic right away. These leaders are the ones constantly checking email, stepping out to answer phone calls or talking to their team. When I ask them to be present in the session, they say, “But my team needs my help on this.” Unless the team is in crisis at that moment, it is more likely that the leader’s inner perfectionist has been running the show for a while now, creating a dependent team that is unable to think or act for itself. As a new leader, my friend once got the feedback: “You are irreplaceable to your team. That is a bad thing.”
The true challenge in being a new leader is giving your employees enough freedom so that if they make mistakes they will be able to learn, but also managing the product or experience your customer receives so that your business is not negatively impacted by your employees’ learning.
At the end of the day, we only have control over ourselves. The roadie can help the rockstar practice, but once the rockstar gets on stage, the roadie can no longer control how well the rockstar plays, or if the audience likes the song, or if the drummer is on beat.
What do you do if you see yourself being a perfectionist? First, catch yourself in the act, and have a sense of humor about it. Then, think about what you need to feel safe giving the task away – set milestones, guardrails, or check points so you can feel like the task will be handled well. Finally, remind yourself that mistakes are an inevitable part of a rockstar’s learning curve and rarely are these mistakes career-ending.
As a new leader, your greatest task is managing the perfectionist inside yourself: What will you exert control over? And much more importantly, what will you let go of?
The tour bus is packed and the rockstar is waiting. In a few short hours, the rockstar will be on stage without you. It’s time to let go and let them rock the show. Good luck, roadies.