Leaders and managers like to be in control, but sometimes the right path forward means giving up some of that control to those who can make better decisions.
I’ve often said that the biggest transition in a career is from individual contributor to manager. There are plenty of steps, some bigger than others, but this I find is the biggest for many. This is the moment when you first give up control.
Many first-time managers, unfortunately, see management as power, and therefore control. You can finally tell other people what to do. Yes, you can. However unlike in say the 1880s command and control isn’t well received. Today's white-collar workers, particularly Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z, don’t like to be treated like a cog. Should I find the need to say “because I’m the manager” to a subordinate then it means that there was a communication breakdown.
It can be scary because you are giving up control. As an individual contributor you make it happen. You can work harder or try to be more clever. As a manager, you can guide, influence, and help (or stymie, threaten, and hinder) the team but you by yourself can’t make everything happen. Your success is no longer totally in your hands.
A few years back I was horseback riding in the Andes Mountains. I’m an experienced rider, but by no means an expert. We were high up on a mountain slope on a path barely two feet wide at times. At various parts of the train there were rockslides. The path itself was swept away by a ravine, a few feet across, cutting down the side of the mountain. The lack of vegetation suggested these were recent.
It’s unnerving to think that on this high up, narrow path the horse is about to step on potentially unstable ground. The best-case scenario of a fall would be multiple broken bones, lacerations, and maybe a concussion, hours from a hospital; the alternatives only get worse. The natural tendency would be to try to carefully control everything in such a dangerous situation.
I did the opposite. This is a trail the horse has been down before. The horse knows the trail and the horse certainly knows its body and balance better than I do. I let the reins go slack and trusted the horse to cross the ravine on its own.
At each crossing the horse knew exactly where to step. We crossed multiple rockslides safely.
As a manager we understand the situation the team is facing. In many cases we have more visibility into the bigger picture, like potential impact to revenue, or strategy direction. Conversely, the team often has more visibility into the on the ground details. When I manage a smaller sized team of engineers, I may get into the code, but I will never know parts of the code as well as someone who spends hours a day working in it. If they tell me there’s an issue or that the code is more complex or problematic than I think, I have to trust that they are right.
Sometimes I need to use the reins to guide the team. Other times I need to trust that the team knows what it's doing and put the fate of the team, including my own, in their hands. If you can’t do that, then you’re not a manager, you’re a dictator.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.