Don’t Be A Hero

This crisis and upheaval has demanded a lot of managers. But those hero managers who jumped in headfirst, kept their teams afloat, and made sure nothing was dropped, are now burning out. Turns out, even heroes need a break. Instead, conductor managers and their teams are thriving. Here’s how to make the change.

Levi Goertz
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September 30, 2020

In challenging and tumultuous times like these, we’re expected to rise to the occasion and be the leader our teams need. Trouble is, far too many managers interpret that to mean they need to be everything to everyone. 

They try to keep their team happy. Their days are stacked with 1:1s, they are empathetic to their team’s fluctuating needs, and accept when performance slides. Yet, they’ll be the first to pick up their team’s slack to keep leadership satisfied, give the appearance that their team is thriving, and ensure all deliverables are met. 

During the early stages of the crisis, many could keep all these balls in the air. They worked long hours fueled by adrenaline and didn’t let up. But few can sustain this elevated steady state. Adrenaline sputters, burnout creeps in and effectiveness dwindles. Some become disappointed their team isn’t stepping up or learning, while others simply see themselves as failing as leaders. 

Does this sound familiar?

If you think you may have fallen into the hero manager trap, I get it. Your intentions are noble and good. But here’s the thing: you’re only one person. And when you play that hero role, you’re inadvertently inflating the importance of your role while diminishing that of your team. As you keep compensating for your team by taking on more decision making and execution, you reinforce a cycle in which you take on more and more, while your team learns and contributes less and less.   

Stop trying to be a hero

In recent months, I’ve seen far too many hero managers fizzle and burnout. In contrast, the ones who are thriving half a year into the pandemic have taken a very different approach. 

Rather than being the nexus of their team’s success, they instead act as conductors. They outline clear priorities, goals and roles. They help their team members access the resources they need and they connect them to others who can help them be successful.

If that sounds vague, think of it as moving from a hub and spoke model to a networked team. 

In practical terms, here’s how you can make the switch from hero to conductor:

  1. Stop giving advice, start making introductions. Every time you have the urge to provide an answer consider whether another member of the team could provide advice or guidance instead. If so, encourage your team member to connect with that other person. You’ll empower both people in the process and reinforce that not everything needs to come to you.
  1. Push leadership down. Shine a light on your team members’ individual strengths and give them responsibility to role model or share their expertise with their colleagues. Whether they are technical experts who can advise others, are process oriented and can start to lead team meetings or projects, or have interpersonal curiosity that can help them coach peers through tough times, I bet there is a wealth of untapped skills on your team. 
  1. Cut the 1:1s. Don’t get me wrong, 1:1 time is important to stay connected with each individual on your team. But if you’re like most managers, you have upped your 1:1 time since going remote. Cut 1:1s by half and in their place add team problem solving sessions. Team members bring problems and questions to a small group of peers and work through them together. Not only will issues get solved in these forums, but they’ll also serve to build camaraderie, shared knowledge, and confidence. You’ll move your team from having one teacher (you) to many.
  1. Bring the outside in. If we set aside our egos, I think we can all agree: our teams will benefit from knowledge and skills that go beyond our own. Bring in colleagues in adjacent departments, counterparts from other companies, or your own advisors to team meetings or workshops. Your team will be motivated by fresh ideas and alternative outlooks, and likely, you’ll all learn something new.

So go on, let the glory (and burden) of being a hero go.

To go from hero to conductor requires a new mental model. Measure your success not by how hard you’re working and how many balls you keep in the air, but rather by the outcomes your team achieves. Consider those achievements that required little to no time or input from you as wins and a sign that you’ve given your team the tools and space to thrive.

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