March/April 2015


Stop doing, start leading

By Rosie Steeves

There comes a time in many peoples’ careers when their job is no longer to do the work themselves but instead to direct others. This transition from doer to leader is a challenging and critical evolution. This is particularly true for technically oriented experts who are promoted to leadership positions because of their professional knowledge.

Few make this transition seamlessly, and some never fully step into it. They continue to hold onto the work, despite having a fundamentally different role. The consequences can be serious: those in charge are swamped with work, and those who report to them are left feeling as though they are not trusted. The results are an overworked and overstressed management, which hinders their professional development, and an epidemic of disengagement.

But what is at the core of this poor leadership behaviour, particularly in mining? People often act in ways that reflect their sense of identity. Those in technical professions sometimes define themselves by their occupations; their sense of self is closely tied to being an engineer or a geologist, for example. They see themselves as experts, something that has served them well for much of their careers.

However, as they transition into leadership positions, this sense of identity can become a liability rather than a strength. When they try to let go and empower others, they worry that things may not be done perfectly. Their whole sense of self could be threatened if this were to happen. Unwilling to risk this, they keep a tight control over tasks, regardless of the cost to themselves or others.

If managers develop their identities to be able to see themselves achieving goals through the actions of others, they make the transition from doer to leader. Their new identity becomes closely tied to the collective, rather than the individual achievement. While this developmental stage has its own set of unique challenges, it does nevertheless permit a manager to lead and avoid micromanaging others.

It is imperative that we help leaders in this industry grow beyond seeing themselves as technical experts. Only then will they be able to lead in a way that is empowering, physically and emotionally sustainable, and effective.

To do this, we have to stop investing in training programs that fail to delve below the surface of an individual’s behaviour and that disregard the manner in which they make sense of their world. Training, or the development of a specific skill set, is fundamentally different from permanent personal development, which helps leaders grow as individuals and professionals. It is unrealistic and unproductive to expect the outcomes of personal development while merely providing leadership training.

We also cannot assume that the problem stems from a lack of knowledge. While the distribution of relevant articles – from the latest blog or Harvard Business Review – is done with the best intentions, simply sharing information will not result in long-lasting changes.

Instead, individuals need to go on a developmental journey and learn to integrate deep self-reflection, peer support and developmental challenges into their daily practice of leadership. The most effective programs help a person evolve their identity. But sustainable rewards from these programs only come after at least a year of commitment, challenges and a willingness to change.

In the shorter term, there are a number of strategies everyone can employ to avoid the “expert trap.” Try reflecting on your leadership style at the end of each day. Ask yourself: “How did others experience me as a leader today?” Next, reflect on what you get paid to do. Do your behaviours reflect that? You could also initiate conversations with your team to determine what they could take off your plate. If they do not have the necessary skills, develop a plan to transition them into more appropriate responsibilities. Remember that it is not all or nothing.

Consider using the metaphor of a ship when delegating decisions. Decide whether the decision is an “above waterline” or “below waterline” decision. Above-waterline decisions are those that will blow a hole in the side of the ship if things go wrong, but will not metaphorically “sink the ship.” For example, the decision to change the maintenance schedule of some critical piece of equipment might result in a loss of production. While this is a setback, it is not catastrophic. Anyone can and should make above waterline decisions. Below waterline decisions, meanwhile, are those things that could cause the ship to go down if the wrong decision is made. Examples include losing a major client, having a significant safety incident or sending the company out of business. Such decisions demand more oversight and involvement from everyone. Hold onto these as a leader, but make sure your waterline is not too high. On a personal level you must be willing to accept and embrace the learning curve that comes with failed above-waterline decisions.

Our industry is one that prides itself on technical innovation and excellence. Yet there is much work to do before such pride exists in the field of leadership. It is imperative that we stop assuming that technical expertise can simply translate into expertise in leading. Until those in charge commit to real leadership development for technical experts and view such development as a critical strategic initiative, our industry will continue to be defined by those who do, rather than lead.

Rosie Steeves is the founder and president of Executive Works, a company dedicated to helping leaders transform their organizations through effective leadership. She has more than 35 years of experience in the leadership development field and a PhD focused on leadership. Previously she was the co-founder and principal of The Refinery Leadership Partners, Inc., a Vancouver-based leadership development company. She is the author of the book, Breaking the Leadership Mold: An Executive’s Guide to Achieving Organizational Excellence. Rosie is currently spearheading the CIM leadership development program, Leading in Mining.

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