After many years of hard work building a positive reputation, Jules and her team were suddenly struggling to keep up with customer demand for their services. As the client relationship manager, Jules met with customers to identify their specifications and report back to the development team. She also managed all communications with the client during testing and implementation.
After Jules shared this story with me during our coaching session, I asked her to tell me more about the work that kept her on her computer late into the night. She stated that she reviewed the team's work before implementation. When she found issues, she felt compelled to correct everything herself because the deadline was looming, and she didn't want to risk being late. From her point of view, the time required to explain the needed changes to someone on her team took longer than the time for her to do the work herself.
This repeated decision becomes a trap, however, because it robs her team of the opportunity to learn about their mistakes. Jules is missing the teachable moment with her team. She is leaving on the table the possibility to increase the capability of the organization. Instead of growing with her, their knowledge deficit widens and keeps them trapped in the cycle of not delivering to Jules' expectations.
Breaking free of the hero's trap is tricky and requires a commitment to change by everyone involved. Through our coaching conversations, Jules identified that she wanted to don her hero's cape to empower her team rather than rescue their work.
Jules had to let go of her self-image as the person who delivered for the customer. Now she was responsible for creating, maintaining, and growing an organization that shared ownership for that customer experience. As Jules embraced her new role, she watched her team step up and thrive.
Vince was successful. His had reached his five-year income goal, and his company was growing. His book of clients was increasing, and so was his staff to service them. Despite this, Vince had a big concern keeping him up at night - cash-flow. Recently he had to use his credit line at the bank to cover payroll.
All of us can think of a version of this story from our work experience. It is far from uncommon for employees to ignore policies, cut corners on procedures, or treat rules as general guidelines. Our HR systems have designed many solutions for improving employee compliance.
When the firm was less busy, entering time into the billing system was typically completed on Fridays. Thus, employees lacked the habit of capturing billable hours daily, let alone multiple times a day as work shifted from one project to the next. As the pace of work increased, the thought to change the timing of input did not change. Everyone continued to focus on the end of week deadline for capturing their billing information. Lacking accurate capture of the information, employees estimated their time on client work and listed the balance as administrative time.
Additionally, as the complexity of the work grew alongside the volume, more work hours were required late into Friday and even the weekend. The time that many employees used to complete entries into the billable time system was now taken up by client work, and so they forgot to make their entries. Deep into the creation of deliverables the following week, many people ignored the requests to enter billable time from the prior week, planning to enter two-weeks worth of billable time when Friday came.
I shared my findings with Vince and assured him that employees meant no harm and did not understand the issue that they had helped to create inadvertently. I explained that the challenge he and his team faced was shifting a habit, which is often difficult to achieve. Vince needed more than compliance by his staff in using the billable time system. A quick and lasting change necessitated their participation in more efficiently integrating time tracking into their work processes. Together we agreed on this outcome: create shared ownership for accurate and timely reporting of hours worked.
As our coaching work moved forward, I advised Vince to educate his team on the lifecycle of client work, including the contractual assumptions about completed work and payment by clients. Providing this context shifted the reporting of billable hours from an internal administrative task. Employees now understood how they played a direct role in the finances of the firm. They had a compelling reason to change their habits, and the conversation expanded to using systems to automate some aspects of billable hours reporting. Vince and his team were using their collective knowledge to find ways of working smarter.
Non-negotiable requirements exist in every business, and as a leader, you are accountable. It often seems expedient to demand compliance. The lack of understanding, however, makes this an act of servitude rather than an act of ownership. Having employees who are co-creators in your business success requires meaningful conversation, and the extra time it takes is an investment in your Extraordinary.
Jennifer opened her business eight years ago. She was proud of the growth of her reputation and her earnings, and she saw the potential for a significant infusion of customers and growth. Her core team had steadily grown over the years, showing consistent dedication and commitment to the success of the firm. Recently, two of the most respected team members moved into management roles, freeing Jennifer to focus on sales and business development. Jennifer knew that this required an adjustment by everyone, as the managers took responsibility for work that was previously directed by her. She was tired after eight years of being everything to everyone and eager to see this transition complete.
Go ahead, nod your head if this sounds familiar. Maybe you are the leader in this scenario, or perhaps you were a staff member. You are in good company. Most successful businesses and leaders hit this stumbling block during growth.
And even though common, the above scenario often creates a downward spiral that is costly.
It is common to want to assign blame. Are the managers not capable? Is Jennifer a control freak? In my experience, those are the wrong questions. The dynamic at play is complex and subtle, making the use of simple characterizations - good/bad, right/wrong - unproductive. I'm offering an alternative, empowering construct for uncovering the source of this commonly experienced roadblock to success.
Humans are complicated thanks to our evolved brains - yes, the primary enabler of your success is often responsible for tripping you up. Our brains function on two levels, the conscious and the unconscious, and it is the unconscious mind that acts as the stealthy, unseen challenger to our expressed commitments. Let's look at it in action.
When examined in this light, we uncover the tug of war between equally worthy commitments. Any CEO who failed to embrace accountability for company reputation, stakeholder confidence, and employee satisfaction would put her company at risk and be judged negatively by investors. The roadblock is not about the competing commitment; it is about our unconscious response, which is formed by habit, untested assumptions, and fear. Jennifer is stuck in a cycle that is fueled by good intentions, and nonetheless at cross-purposes.
In their traditional context, roadblocks provide a safety barrier. They communicate, "Don't come this way; it's hazardous." We are compelled to slow down, disengage our "autopilot" brain, and pay closer attention to what we are doing. As a CEO Coach, I call that a learning moment on a silver platter. So go ahead, claim it by following this simple detour.
Jennifer began working with Ignite Your Extraordinary: CEO Coaching. She started asking for feedback from her managers about when and how she involved herself in their responsibilities. She invited her account services manager to travel with her to clients to facilitate a warm hand-off for questions and follow up regarding ongoing work. Jennifer practiced asking questions, creating alignment among her leadership team and confidence in their shared approach to delivering on their market differentiators.