Scaling Great Heights — On Leadership

One of the best pieces of advice on scaling I’ve received was from Aman Bhutani. He had just joined Expedia as the VP of Technology, and I had the opportunity to work with him closely on a project. I was running every single decision by him at first, and one day he sat me down and said something like, “Just go and make decisions. As long as you make sound decisions at least 80% of the time, I will help you in the times that you make mistakes. If everyone ran every decision by me, I wouldn’t be able to scale.”

“Scaling” is the ability to influence your team members to perform in ways that 1) create exponentially more benefits for your organization than you could on your own, 2) propel the professional growth of said team members, and 3) relieve your work and stress load.

So how do you scale yourself? Here are some things that I’ve learned so far:

  1. Know your team members— Not every person will be able to be able to help you scale at all times. Know when to step away from a project and let it fly, and know when to zoom down to help. If you know in the beginning that a project/team is not staffed correctly, set expectations and train them upfront. It isn’t fair for your team if you set them off on the project knowing they are likely to fail before the project is complete.
  2. Be consistent. It’s easier for your team members to channel their inner-you if you are predictable and consistent in how you make decisions. If they’re having to constantly second-guess what decision you would make, it slows progress down significantly.
  3. Once you let go of decision-making authority, become comfortable with the fact that decisions are going to be made without you. And these may be decisions that you wouldn’t have chosen or results that you could have done better. Which leads to…
  4. Handling your stress. How stressful is it as a manager to give up control over a project, especially when output or decisions are different than the expectations we had (or “worse” than we could have done it)? Be able to identify when you’re in your “stressed state” and control your emotions/stress response while you assess next steps. Is it worth the cost (both real costs and hit to morale) overturning the decision or redoing the work? How can you coach your employees to execute to the level of your expectation? Fail fast and…
  5. Make it a “safe place.” People operate best when they’re not stressed, and part of your job as a leader is to make work a safe place*. While it can be disappointing if a work item doesn’t turn out as expected, take this as a learning opportunity for yourself (did you mis-assess the team’s abilities or not set expectations appropriately?) and for your team members.
  6. Keep tabs on the project — Even if you have a team you trust running with a project under your purview, make sure there are ways you keep in touch with the team so that they can ask questions or so that you are not surprised late into the project deliverable.
  7. The downsides of NOT scaling — When you choose to be involved in every decision, your team is stalled (some team members may even fear making progress without your permission) until you get around to telling them what to do. In addition, your team may become frustrated or demoralized, especially if you have senior members on board. Be the leader people want to work for and work with.
  8. Finally, remember that you are growing your employees by giving them this opportunity. Part of your job as a leader is to grow people, and how can they grow if they aren’t given opportunities to learn and succeed and fail? Celebrate their wins, and help coach them through tough times.

Becoming a leader (growing beyond a supervisor or auditor) means that you need to focus on scaling yourself through your team members. The day Aman clued me into the concept of “scaling” opened my eyes to a new level of leadership, and it was empowering. Subsequently, it allowed me to grow and succeed as a leader, allowed me to stumble and make mistakes in a safe environment, and allowed Aman to capture back some of his own precious time.

Since that day, I have used versions of the same speech on my own teams when I would see talented people holding themselves back because they felt like they had to “run things by me”. Try it out. Your future self and your team members will thank you for the opportunity.

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* Simon Sinek, author and inspirational leadership expert, explains the “safe place” better than I ever could — Watch here.