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The Trap Of Being A Hard Worker

This post first appeared on Forbes.

Even good qualities can be limiting. 

Darius (not his real name), a VP in engineering in a Bay Area fintech company, read the first page of his 360 feedback review. “Hard-working. Trustworthy. Reliable. Even-keeled. Loyal. Great work ethic. Low ego. Problem solver.” He was initially very happy with how his colleagues saw him. These descriptions felt accurate to him and they matched his values. But on reflection, he realized that some attributes were missing from the list. Inspiring. Strategic. Leader.

Darius leads a sizable team with a director and two senior managers reporting to him. Unlike some leaders who have a hard time delegating, he is not a micromanager, but he does pride himself on his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get into the technical details. He finds it fun and satisfying, and he tells himself that it is important not to get too far away from his technical roots or he will risk losing credibility with his team. Unfortunately, he is spending too much time with his sleeves rolled up solving and too little time communicating his vision and strategy, advocating for executive support and holding his team accountable for results. If he wants to be (and be seen as) a leader and continue to advance in his organization, he will need to change his focus.

Individual hard work doesn’t scale. There comes a time in the careers of hard-working managers and leaders in high-growth companies where they hit the wall of their own limitations. This experience is painful in part because it is a challenge to their identity. If your superpower has always been an ability to work hard, it may be difficult to let go of the satisfaction of delivering a result or the adrenaline of being the hero who comes through in crunch times. But growth-minded leaders realize that growth happens through scaling the team and creating the conditions for others to execute and succeed.

If you are finding that, like Darius, your reputation for hard work may be getting in the way of being seen as a leader (a challenge that can be particularly acute for women, whose leadership potential is often underestimated), try the following behavioral and mindset shifts: 

  • More coaching, less solving. For an organization to scale, your team needs to be able to solve their own problems and your leaders must develop their own points of view. While it can be valuable to get into the trenches with your team, instead of rolling up your sleeves and jumping up to the white board yourself, start with coaching questions and provide thought partnership but not solutions. If the managers who report in to you have not had the chance to develop their strategic skills, you may need to provide more scaffolding. Take care not to shift responsibility for the solution (the “monkey”) from them onto you. Up-leveling your team is one of the most valuable contributions you can make to your organization. 
  • More communication, less doing. Many hard workers place a high value on doing and disdain those whom they regard as “all talk, no action.” But at an executive level, strategic communication—to your team, to your cross-functional peers, and to organizational leadership—is the work. Create a regular communication cadence to: share your vision, priorities, and progress; advocate for resources; promote your team’s efforts; break down information silos; listen with empathy to what is working and not working; provide prompt feedback to team and co-workers. Your capacity to influence and empower others is way more important than your ability to do things yourself.
  • More framing and context, less detail. One of the hallmarks of good communication is tailored to the audience. Executive communication should be clear and succinct and focus on the big picture, providing no more detail than is needed to understand the message. When communicating to your team, be similarly conscious of their needs and be sure to provide context, prioritization, and visibility around the next corner, when possible. In providing this higher-level guidance, you are both giving them agency over execution and providing critical insight into planning and prioritization.
  • More response, less reaction. Responsiveness is thoughtful action that takes into consideration the need, context, trade-offs and consequences of the action. Reactivity is often an emotion-driven action that seeks to make a problem go away rather than addressing context and root causes. If you have a knee-jerk impulse to spring into action to rescue a situation, pause. Take time to listen, reflect and respond mindfully. In addition to taking smarter action, you will be able to shield your team from being whipsawed by repeated direction changes. 
  • More balcony, less dance floor. Your highest contribution as a leader is strategic and creative, and it requires that you adapt to changing realities. In order to contribute meaningfully, you need to step out of the fray and observe and reflect on what is happening. Ideally, you should get in the habit of setting aside time for observing, for learning and synthesizing. (Schultz hour, anyone?) But you can hop up on the balcony (metaphorically) any time. For example, if you are in a meeting where there is a contentious discussion about resource allocation, get up there and observe. What factions emerge? Who is talking and who isn’t talking? What isn’t being said? What assumptions are taken for granted?
  • More system, less individual. As a leader, you have the capacity to intervene at the level of the system, not just the individual or the specific problem. Frequently my clients tell me that they are simply too busy fighting fires to take the actions that would prevent those fires from starting in the first place, like strategic planning, relationship building or hiring. If you or members of your team are constantly putting out fires, you are experiencing a system failure. Individual heroic efforts and fire-fighting, though they may solve the problem in the moment, prevent the cracks in the system from being revealed. Though it is painful, you may need to let some fires burn so that you can address bigger, strategic and systemic solutions.

To be clear, you can still be a diligent, reliable, low-ego problem solver, but these attributes need not define or limit you. It is about substance and about “leadership brand.” Shifting in your attention and behavior to increase your system effectiveness will benefit your team and you. It will help you grow a sustainable team that is less dependent on you, increase your organizational influence and develop your own identity and reputation as a leader.