Great Leaders Are Always Training Their Replacement

This article first appeared on Forbes.com

First and foremost, as a leader you are responsible for the quality of the output of your team: making sure the work is done brilliantly and effectively. You are also responsible for getting work done efficiently, on time and within budget — those pesky factors that sometimes feel as if they obstruct the brilliance, though usually they actually enable it.

But that’s not enough. As a strong and successful leader, you will also be equally invested in the advancement of your team, helping them to gain skills and build their careers. Too many leaders don’t get it, but their own growth depends on helping others grow. Just as you have your own personal strategy for career advancement, you should be training your successors so that your move upwards can be supported by a loyal and well-trained replacement, fully equipped to step into your shoes.

As any project progresses, there are inevitably hitches. Many of them are the unexpected turns that rock us back on our heels and force us into coming up with fresh and creative solutions. Your ability to deal with these challenges is why you got to be a manager in the first place. All your valuable experience comes into play, along with your undoubted wisdom, so you know just what to do. You are tempted to say, “Let me take care of it. I’ll get it sorted out.” But my experience coaching leaders and running departments in ad agencies says: Do not take the problem away from the team however much your instinct is to solve it yourself.

Because inevitably, your team will come to you with a problem: “We don’t have an idea yet,” “We need another $100k but can’t get it approved,” or that old chestnut, “I can’t believe the client can’t see how brilliant the work is when it’s so obviously better than anything they’ve had before.”

Pause for a moment.

Instead of leaping into action and fixing it yourself, try this: Tell your team you want them not just to bring you the problem, but also to bring some ideas for how that problem can be solved. When they do this, they don’t have to be sure they have the right solution — and it may not be the solution you’d come up with — but they’ve been compelled to think outside their own box. They will often come up with a perfectly good plan before you even need to say anything.

Implementing their solution may involve your participation, but let them try and figure it out on their own first, and then get your guidance. I did this with my ad agency teams and years later — long after we had worked together — they told me it was the best thing I did for them. By letting the team feel the responsibility for their own successes, you, as a leader give them a critical opportunity for growth. I worked on a number of films with a well-known composer who would supervise the music recordings. After a take, he would beam encouragingly at his orchestra and singers and say quietly, “That was absolutely perfect. Now let’s see if we can’t do it a little bit better.” They always did, and so of course it came out better than perfect!

So, as a manager, you should be training your team members to push themselves for better work and to deal with the unexpected and not depend on you bailing them out. By doing this, one of them will be ready to step smoothly into your place when you get that inevitable promotion — or make the dreamed-of move to the beaches of Tahiti.

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