Letting Go

I run an in-house marketing agency for a hotel management company called Innisfree Hotels. The agency started as a solo gig five years ago and today has twelve team members. Innisfree is doubling in size in the next 18 months and so I expect will we.

Our systems for managing our workflow are straining. Millennial mania frames my days. For example, we have thousands of images we’ve produced for websites, print materials, and social profiles stored in a patchwork of clouds and floundering on the hard drives of our over-burdened content creation team. After much research, we adopted a digital asset management platform called Flight to manage this mess. We needed to organize, download, upload, name and tag thousands of images. It was a huge task and it wasn’t getting done.

I took charge (that’s my job right?). I announced that we were going to do this together, today in the conference room. I forced the wild ones to do something tedious for eight long hours. They were bored, frustrated, anxious about not getting to their scheduled work. They were rolling their eyes in open exasperation and resistance. It pissed me off. Spoiled brats. Don’t they know how hard I worked when I was their age? The day ended with me feeling brazenly cranky which caused their resentments to bubble to the surface.

They told me that I have great big amazing ideas but that I do not give them the time to enjoy the creative part of hashing them out and so implementing my grand plans is a burden. They griped about not having enough time to collaborate when launching new initiatives. They moaned about their jobs being a drudgery of endless task lists. They said, “Not enough time for review and collaboration. Where is the time for creativity? You expect us to work too hard and move too fast. You are like a bull in a china shop - a whirling dervish.”

I argued that I didn’t have a choice. Our task list was swelling like a chubby person eating hot donuts. Important tasks were composting week after week. Big wigs outside our walls were applying pressure and becoming indignant about their deadlines. I have to push, pressure and spin or the shit won’t get done.

I felt helpless and hopeless. How do I lead them through this? How do I march us onward and get shit done while finding time for creativity? I looked around our office and felt bad about the yoga mats and coloring books scattered about— artifacts of a creative office that we never use.

Being a dervish works. I get shit done. I’ve built several successful organizations and businesses. I’m reminded that our biggest personal strengths are sometimes our biggest weaknesses. I came out of the womb a leader. I’ve always ‘leaned in’. I own my bossy. Put me in a room with any set of people and I will end up in organizing them. However, I often overwhelm and sometimes, when I am under pressure, I am bully.

I felt my team’s pain and my own complicity. I have heard these complaints from people in my charge before (many times). As we age we get wiser about ourselves and our blind spots. Fixing yourself is another thing altogether. I went home feeling very anxious.

I am lucky to work for a company that supports the idea of paying people to spend a whole day together to talk about their feelings. And they offer a framework and toolkit and very wise and talented corporate facilitator. So we went into therapy. My team shared with me honestly how I am both supporting and hindering them and I shared my authentic insecurities about my leadership skills.

In the middle of it all, our smart Director of Culture looked at me and he said, “Who is putting this pressure on you to get everything done so fast.” And fireworks exploded in my brain. I said, “No one. Me.” Nobody outside these walls really understands what we do. If we did nothing but yoga and coloring for a week probably no one would notice. And in that moment, the tension broke and we fell apart laughing. I am creating the urgency, the pressure and crazy freneticism that disables us from doing our very best work.

Why is change important? We are successful, maybe even the best at what we do! But we spend most of our lives at work and so it needs to be about more than getting shit done — right? Through leadership at work, we can change the world. Maybe our purpose as leaders is to harness our skills to direct people with purpose and empathy. Done right we can elevate our team members and enable them grow into being their best and most impactful selves.

Later that week I contemplated the lists of outstanding tasks written on my office walls, and the ever-growing number of tasks listed in our online project management tool and realized that I needed to share the responsibility. I was making all of the decisions. I was spending hours on the weekend writing tasks lists with clear instructions and giving my team marching orders via a weekly email. It was exhausting.

I realized that ninety-five percent of the daily decisions could be made by other people and that asserting too much control had increased bottlenecks rather than throughput. I realized that my control sometimes signaled a lack of trust and confidence, or even worse, came across as insensitive.

I realized that making decisions about everything doesn’t leave me the time or energy to establish, operationalize, and sustain the values and vision that enables our organization to thrive. I realized making more time to express our vision in a vivid, imaginative way, would likely motivate my team to take action in the present. Vision is what I need to focus on. To have time for this I needed to do more than delegate. I needed to nurture my ability to get work done through others. My head exploded.

The next day I fundamentally changed how I do project management. I added large projects to Basecamp and set long-term milestones but didn’t assign specific time allotments or deadlines. I told my team it was a brave new world and they were now going to set their own priorities, lead themselves through the daily grind and manage their own productivity.

The essential goal of leadership is not task management. It is more about articulating big ideas and creating the structure that underpins success. This might mean outlining how our big ideas intersect with our organizational strategies and the goals of the larger organization. Sometimes it might be as simple as organizing a quiet place to work, a decent computer and something good to eat. Other times it might mean insisting we carve out time for deep listening, empathy, and learning.

So I am going to work on letting go by facilitating the distribution of authority. You might be shaking your head and saying “of course” but this is a major epiphany for me. An epic breakthrough.

I will falter. My leadership brain is wired to take control and give direction. It feels good - like a drug. I get to solve problems, reduce uncertainty by giving instructions, and raise my level of status and authority. But I realize now when I take more than my share of control I am saying, “I absolve you of all responsibility for what happens here,” and I want everyone on my team thinking and taking responsibility for their work.

I am going to remind myself every day that my ability to influence is more important than my ability to control, and that by surrendering control I will foster collaboration, encourage innovation and enable possibility. I am lucky to have an awesome team who isn’t afraid of poking me when I fail. Wish us luck. These are exciting times.