Be the Power at the Back of the Room

power at back_teamIt’s a story that plays out every day in organizations of all shapes and size.  Here is the scenario:


Tom has had a successful career managing programs for the organization.  Truth be told, he is one of the best at what he does. Eventually, Tom is promoted to executive vice president.  In his new role, Tom manages all of the program managers who do what he used to do, including the person he promoted to take his place.  As executive V.P., Tom’s role is more strategic; establishing a direction for his team, and coaching and motivating his program managers to help them be successful.


The problem is, Tom loves getting involved in the everyday details of the various programs and projects.  That is what he is good at and something for which he is most passionate.  His insistence in meddling and micromanaging discourages and demoralizes his talented team.  Some grumble, others quit. Trust crumbles and the company is no longer a great place to work.


Sound familiar?


I’ve coached lots of “Toms.”  They are always challenging assignments because first Tom has to be confronted by his CEO and others about his leadership shortcomings.  Then, Tom needs time to heal before he hopefully is ready to accept coaching.  If he reaches that point, there are six major areas in which Tom will need to develop expertise if he is to excel (or even keep) at his position:


  1. Delegation PLUS empowerment. Tom was really good at handing off assignments.  He was really bad at letting people do the job.  He had to learn to trust his team to do their jobs, and understand that his role is to be there to support them when they need help.  It’s okay to establish timelines for updates and check-ins, just avoid the temptation to take over;
  1. Ask questions. This is a hard one for leaders like Tom that have spent a career telling people what to do.  He had to learn to discipline himself to ask questions when people were seeking guidance.  Powerful questions are the best way to help your team members develop their own solutions and build problem solving skills;
  1. Listen.  This one is REALLY hard for leaders like Tom.  It also may be the most important trait for leaders committed to building a great team.  Tom was used to being the first one to offer an opinion during team meetings.  This had the effect of shutting down honest dialogue because the rest of the team already knew they were going to do what Tom had decided.  Tom had to learn to be the “power at the back of the room,” speaking last if at all, serving in more of an advisory capacity and letting the rest of the team drive the discussion;
  1. There is more than one way. Tom had to learn that his way wasn’t the only good path to success. He had to let others propose and implement different approaches, which in many cases turned out to be just as good if not better than his own idea;
  1. Let them make mistakes. One of the best ways to learn is from your failures. Great leaders are okay with failure and encourage their team members to view the mistakes as the doorway to opportunity.  All too often, people like Tom give lip service to embracing failure, however when the mistakes happen, people get their hands slapped and may never get another opportunity; and
  1. Celebrate their success. Tom had to learn not to take the credit himself. Let others have the spotlight.  Be their cheerleader and make sure they get the recognition they desire and deserve.


Leaders like Tom that are willing to commit to working really hard at these six principles will find the foundation of trust begin to solidify.  It takes time, however, I have seen many Toms dramatically improve their leadership skills, and seen their teams flourish as a result.


What techniques do you use to be the power at the back of the room?