My best mentor

In many of my talks over the years, I’ve mentioned my best and favorite mentor, Phil. We work together doing volunteer work for the Association for Manufacturing Excellence. I often ask him for help with work situations and challenges in my various volunteer efforts. 

It never seemed to fail that Phil’s advice for tricky situations was for me to take a step back and leave room for my team to get there on their own. I eventually realized that leaders are almost always ahead of their teams, preventing members from contributing their gifts and talents. Phil’s mentorship made me understand that the leader’s role is to put a concept in front of the team and allow the team to decide what it thinks about that concept and what should be done. 

After a decade of this practice, it became more second nature to ask, “how is my initial proposed approach to a situation ahead of the team?”

Solving problems with those who have to live with the solution

In lean organizations, we generally accept the idea that people closest to the work know best how to improve it. We are also aware that traditional hierarchical approaches have a tremendous amount of wasted talent and ability. Meaning that if only leaders solve the problems, that leaves approximately ninety percent living with the situation. 

Wouldn’t it be better to have 90 percent working on the solutions to the problems?

While these ideas are not unique or new, most leaders I encounter unconsciously are more hierarchical than they mean to be. 

Just in the last several days, I recall leaders saying they did something their team could do because it seemed easier to do it themselves. 

Another example is running every meeting because most leaders never consider having anyone else do it. 

A third example is leaders finding solutions to problems because they assume their team can’t figure it out. 

I don’t think these examples make poor leaders. The issue is that they find it difficult to see the opportunities to encourage their team to operate more independently and increase their strategic impact. 

So, how do you turn it around?

  1. Regularly review your to-do list and identify anything on the list you can delegate or teach someone to do.
  2. Find alternatives to leading meetings and problem-solving efforts. This is not the same as walking away but guiding someone into the leadership role while supporting them from a distance. 
  3. Be aware during a given day or workweek where you question your team’s ability to address issues. Be intentional in developing the mindset that they can do more if given a chance. 

What would this look like?

One way to turn it around is to ask team members to run a meeting rather than the senior leaders. This would require the senior leader currently running the sessions to put time and energy into coaching and mentoring others on how to structure meetings and build the necessary leadership skills. 

Although it would require some effort, meetings would be better if the team members become adept at running them, and team members would have opportunities to optimize their contributions. 

The path to developing your team in new ways is based on small steps taken on a day-to-day basis. Building habits to regularly shift your behaviors and expectations is where you’ll see improvement over months, if not years. 

Identify opportunities to develop your team every day. Ask yourself what new habits can you create to make their development a priority? The benefits of doing this will likely show in your work and personal life, as you’ll have more free time to spend on things you enjoy and value. 

If you’d like to learn more about what types of habits leaders can develop to create independent teams, email me at

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