Imagine an organisation where leaders are swarmed with tasks to the point they don’t dedicate any time to leading teams. Now imagine an organisation where leaders only focus on the performance of teams and try to micromanage every situation. Since neither option is ideal in most cases, so leaders need to free up some of their leadership capacity to support their teams in delivering work. Once they do this, they can get involved as needed while feeling comfortable that their teams have the autonomy to deliver work smoothly, no matter how bureaucratic their organisation might be.

Free Your Leadership Capacity

Being a modern day organisational leader is like driving an old broken car with a flickering dashboard: everyone is asking for attention, and coming at them with new requests, while the leader simultaneously attempts to drive everyone to a desired destination. Regardless of which warning lights the leader prioritises, one component stays the same: the passengers’ arrival must come first. To ensure contribution to the organisation’s vision, while fulfilling team leadership duties, leaders need prioritisation techniques that align tasks to strategic objectives while freeing their leadership capacity to nurture team environments and provide support. Mike Figliuolo encourages a prioritisation technique known as strategic filters that uses qualitative and quantitative funnels to solely focus on tasks that contribute to previously defined objectives.

  • TIP: To get started, you can identify OKRs and use strategic filter tests to see if tasks contribute to your objectives. If not, practice saying “no” to tasks that come your way and deprioritise accordingly. This will help free up your leadership capacity.

Create the Right Circumstances

Teams need to work in environments that support their success, free of micromanagement, with enough autonomy to carry on completing tasks without hand holding. While the idea of being a self-starter is not new, we cannot expect our teams to feel comfortable going through the organisation and fulfilling tasks that contribute to objectives at pace if the organisation and the immediate environment do not support autonomy. The idea of agency and control in autonomy is well-researched, but more practically, we need to focus on creating what Jane Frankel calls the three selfs of self-confidence, self-accountability and self-sufficiency.

It is worth trying Jane’s seven tips, such as reinforcing an autonomous narrative, keeping people fully informed and creating a ‘digital nervous system’ to enhance the autonomy of your teams.

  • TIP: To get started, you can use your organisational voice in communities (Viva Engage if your organisation has it) to keep everyone informed and allow your teams to book time with you where you can nudge autonomy. It is not enough to say “book time if you need it” in some organisations. Use Microsoft Bookings or Calendly to warmly welcome your teams speaking to you.

The environment is one component, but team size and organisational structure is another. Many organisations including Amazon, X, and Shopify (see next link) started analysing the amount of hierarchical steps in their organisations in an effort to boost productivity and eliminate bottlenecks.

Philip Arkcoll provides some compelling data on how Organisational Networking Analysis (ONA) can be used to assess optimal team size to both free up leadership capacity and create the needed circumstances for teams to succeed.

A key pointer from this data is that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t usually work (does it ever?). We need to understand what team size (and hierarchical structure) provides the optimal environment for our teams to succeed, while freeing leadership capacity so that leaders can engage optimally with teams and individuals.

  • TIP: To get started, you can turn Philip’s take aways and observations into a Microsoft Forms (or other survey tool) for both leaders and team members. For example, the leaders form would involve questions like “do you feel overloaded and do you have insufficient time for your own tasks on tops of leading your team” and “do you have enough time for 121s with your team”. This would be the first step to your ONA.

Continuing the driving metaphor, another approach involves steering your team clear of bureaucracy. Leaders have the opportunity to create work paths for their teams and should own the process of making their jobs easier. After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk, Joost Minnaar highlights what Isaacson describes as Musk’s Algorithm to bust bureaucracy. Leaders can follow Musk’s five step process (in chronological order) not only in production settings to cut out noise, and automate processes to make delivery work much simpler for their teams. By cutting out bureaucracy, teams will be able to practice autonomous work without the need to ask for approval and will deliver more value rapidly.

  • TIP: To get started, you can encourage everyone to participate in a Musk Algorithm workshop where everyone shares their ideas for each step. This is an important opportunity for a leader to practice servant leadership, and offer to “take the hit” for any organisational backlash that occurs as a result of cutting out requirements, and changing processes.

Don’t Waste their Time

Once leaders free their leadership capacity and use it to foster the necessary team circumstances, they need to stay mindful of their involvement with the team to make sure they don’t waste it’s time. Similar to how cats, eager to impress their owners, often present them with unwanted prey, leaders must ensure tasks are clearly outlined, preventing teams from embarking on unnecessary, time-consuming hunts. Not everything is a project, so every task should be distinctly defined, with clear indications of the time it should consume and its urgency, distinguishing between tasks that are simply informative (FYI) and those requiring immediate action (ASAP).

  • TIP: To get started, you can motivate your teams to paraphrase requests back to you. This practice helps verify if they understand these tasks in the same manner you intended. Additionally, as a leader, strive to work in the open as much as possible. By doing so, your team gains more insight and context about your activities, enabling them to align their efforts more closely with your objectives

In summary, leaders cannot lead teams if they are swarmed with tasks, nor can they lead if they spend too much time actively managing or getting in the way with imprecise asks. Leaders need to find the time to lead, and focus on creating the right circumstances for team success, and there are some useful new techniques and ways of working that can help them do that, especially if they fully embrace the digital workplace to make communication and work coordination more efficient.

Cover photo generated with DALL-E