Make Yourself Obsolete: Your Team Will Thank You

11 January 2022
Photo by Laura Davidson

I believe the key differentiator of great leaders is their ability to grow new leaders. To make space for these new leaders to grow, although it may seem counterintuitive—and even a bit scary and uncomfortable at first—you must start employing strategies to make yourself obsolete in your current role. If you find yourself solving the same problems over and over again, it’s an indication your team isn’t growing to solve these problems for themselves, something that will eventually stagnate your own growth and impede your attempts at succession planning. You may feel comfortable because you have mastered solving those problems, but will that really result in the best outcome for you and your team members? 

Fixed versus growth mindset

What was described above is reflective of managing with a fixed mindset; you know what you know, so you’ll stay where you know you can be most effective. Carol Dweck notes in her book Mindset:

“I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves—in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”

The idea of making yourself obsolete by empowering your team to problem-solve can be terrifying. You may ask yourself:

  • What will my team think of me if I stop being needed?

  • What will my management think of me?

  • What if I start to appear that I’m ineffective at new things I’m taking on?

  • What if my team begins solving these problems but the quality of the solutions doesn’t live up to the standard I’ve set?

The reality is, there are significant benefits to be had—for you and your team—when you manage with a growth mindset approach, teaching those in your charge how to solve those problems. When you provide team members with the right tools and skills and you fix the underlying conditions and organizational constructs that make it seem like the manager/leader is best suited to problem-solve, some amazing things can happen.

For starters, your team will be far more autonomous, which leaves you with more time to develop other skills and take on higher-leverage pursuits. In addition, your team members will blossom, gaining confidence as well as the opportunity to grow technically and increase their influence and impact across the organization. This mindset shift begins your transformation from someone who solves problems to someone who enables others to solve problems.

Making the mindset shift

Especially if you’re a new manager, the ability to solve problems is what got you to where you are today. However, you must realize that solving problems was a solo, individual activity that was comfortable, safe and rewarded. It also doesn’t scale.

Even if you’re an experienced manager, one of your self-proclaimed differentiating qualities may be the ability to be the “connective tissue” across different teams or departments. Perhaps your value comes from the extended visibility you have across what is going on in the organization. You solve problems by making sure the right people are talking to the right other people when it matters most, something that reinforces your extended visibility, but also doesn’t scale.

What you must do is ask a more fundamental question: “What conditions currently exist that make me the most uniquely qualified person to be involved?” Your work becomes challenging and changes in those conditions.

Overcoming the problem-solving compulsion

When you feel compelled to problem-solve, it can be for any number of reasons. Consider the following potential scenarios and take steps to eliminate those that are applicable to your situation. 

Was the team unable to come up with a solution on their own? What did they try? What stood in their way?

As the leader of the team, what makes your perspective unique? Do you, for some reason, have more context? Perhaps you have more experience or different skills? How can you make sure your team members have all the tools they need to solve this sort of problem in the future and break their dependence on you?

Was the team deadlocked or in analysis paralysis?

When your team is stuck or unable to make a decision to move their work forward, you may find they will lean on you to decide for them. When this happens, you should ask yourself: What about your unique position gives you the ability to resolve the deadlock? Do you have some real or perceived authority? Or perhaps you are just more confident in the decision than the team was? What can you do to instill a sense of autonomy and agency within the team while giving them the tools to make the most informed decisions possible and mitigate risk? 

Was the team missing information or perspectives? 

If you find you have context or insight that serves as the missing piece of the puzzle for the team, you must question and challenge why you found yourself as the gatekeeper of that knowledge. One thing to examine is whether you find yourself in meetings where your team is absent. Now, some managers may view this as “taking one for the team”—sitting in meetings so the team can keep working. However, the flip side of this coin is that you are now the bottleneck of information. As you reflect on this, consider if there are systems that can be put in place to share this information more widely while not inundating your team in excess, duplicative meetings. Or alternatively, are there certain team members who should start attending these sorts of meetings? How will the team members’ responsibilities and exposure change as a result of attending these meetings in your stead? How will your exposure within the organization change?

Did the team feel disempowered to engage everyone who should have been part of the conversation?

Many times, teams will find themselves operating within a silo, not including a broader audience to keep informed or to help solve problems. You, as a leader, may recognize this and bring the right people together. As you do, though, consider why the right people weren’t involved from the start? Did the team try to widen the audience early on? Did they experience pushback? What is unique about your position where you won’t face that same resistance? What did team members lack (or felt they lacked) that prevented pushing this forward? What organizational constructs stood in their way—and what can you do to change them in the future?

Choosing when to problem-solve

All this being said, managers do need to solve problems. Solving the larger, systemic issues takes time, and if something does escalate to your level, there is likely time sensitivity involved. Reconsider problem-solving to be a three-step process::

  1. Help resolve the matter at hand—always in a way that helps others see “under the hood” so they can learn.

  2. Pattern match and recognize where systemic or foundational issues exist in the organization.

  3. Fix the underlying constructs that would cause similar issues to be escalated in the future.

The takeaway

As a leader, when you change your managing mindset from fixed to growth—making it a point to teach your team members the skills they need to solve problems that have historically been tasked to you—you and your team will benefit. Your ability to recognize and seize these everyday opportunities allows them to grow rather than stagnate and you to pursue other issues that require your expertise.  

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