Giving up control as a leader can be tough. I learnt this week that I prefer to have my hands on the steering wheel at all times.
It’s been a momentous week in the Fisher household. My eldest son, Tommy, got his learners licence. He passed the online test on Wednesday night and then on Thursday, his 16th birthday, I picked him up from school at lunch time and he collected his license at the Department of Transport. He was behind the steering wheel by 1 o’clock. And it was the most terrifying experience of my life!
I so wanted to be that cool and calm parent, being encouraging and supportive but instead I spent the whole time in a state of panic, saying ‘brake….brake….BRAKE!!!!’ In my head I knew that this wasn’t the way to lead, teach or mentor but I just couldn’t seem to help myself.
Since Thursday, I’ve been thinking about why this experience was so scary for me. I think it came down to a combination of two things. Firstly, I felt a huge loss of control and secondly, I perceived there was a high risk involved.
The minute I moved over into that passenger seat, I lost control and I didn’t like it. I’ve been a lawyer for a long time, and I’ve interviewed my fair share of clients seriously injured in motor vehicle accidents. I’ve seen how it can devastate lives, so to me, getting behind the wheel of a car and driving is a high-risk activity. I was completely out of my comfort zone.
Now, this is not the first time I’ve felt like this. There have been moments in my career when I’ve been reluctant to hand over control. Because being in control feels good, right? It feels powerful. As a leader, you want to keep your hands firmly on the wheel at all times. It can be really tough to hand your keys over to someone else. This is particularly the case when there is a high risk involved, maybe a project with your most important client or a big sales pitch.
I was speaking to a client last week who is one of the owners of a professional services firm. He was discussing with me his role in the firm and his strong personal connection with his clients. He personally attends all the sales meetings with these clients. However, he now faces a dilemma. The business is growing with plans to expand interstate and it’s not going to be possible for him to do all of this work himself. It’s time for him to give up some control over this process and provide an opportunity for someone in the firm to step up.
In leadership (just like in parenthood), sometimes you have to step aside and give up control. Terrifying? Yes but absolutely necessary if you want to grow the skills and experience of your people. So, how can you do this successfully? How can you sit in the passenger seat without being in a constant state of panic?
• Firstly, it’s important that you have confidence in the person you’re handing over control to. There must be a certain level of trust in their capability. This is why it’s so important to start developing your people’s leadership skills from the very start of their career. There is no point in waiting until someone is appointed in a formal leadership position and then starting their training and mentoring.
• Secondly, you can employ the “dual control” technique. This is just like being in a driving instructor’s car where the instructor has a brake and accelerator on their side as well. What is your leadership succession plan? Who are the up and coming leaders in your organisation? Start handing over the keys to them now to drive around the block with you by their side. You’ve got the brake right there if you need it. Take them to that big client meeting, let them present to the board, allow them to facilitate a segment at the next strategy day.
Your role as a leader is to give people a sense of responsibility and you can’t do this if you are the one always driving.
How is anyone else going to learn and grow? And how are you going to be able to move onto another position, when there is no one who can do what you do in the organisation? It’s time to lead by giving up control.
(And please wish me luck with my son Tommy in the driver’s seat!)