Addicted to Details: Getting Leaders and Executives to Just Let Go

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Feb 21, 2014

Last week I wrote about the sometimes hidden costs of a leader asking a question, and the danger of not recognizing the risk and expense it can cause.

Another lurking cost I see is what happens when they are unwilling to let go of detail.

Leaders who not only personally require a deep level of detail, but also require that everyone in the management chain understands and processes a deep level of detail, are paralyzing and de-motivating their organization.

And in reality, they are introducing more risk than they are “catching” by being personally savvy in the detail – and demanding that of all their managers are too.

Never move detail up

A useful rule of thumb is that you should never move detail up in the organization.

As a manager, you are responsible for turning detail into useful insights and action plans — these are the things you should be moving up. That’s how you build value and make progress.

But some leaders just won’t accept that. This frankly drives me crazy.

The cost of detail

The idea that one’s value as a leader is only highly regarded if you understand a deep level of detail, so you make all of your managers stay versed in all the detail — this is just bad leadership.

By keeping everyone drowning in detail you are damaging your organization’s effectiveness.

And most importantly, insisting on reviewing detail at every level, wastes a huge amount of time — time that is then not invested on moving important discussions and work forward.

I see this a lot. Progress grinds to a halt because it takes hours and hours to review all the detail.

By the time it gets to the top, dozens of people at multiple have reviewed the detail, but no one has had any time to do anything about it!

Deal with your addiction

As a leader, if you are addicted to detail, the best thing you can do is admit to yourself that your need for detail is for your own entertainment.

If you think you are creating business value by staying in the details, you are not.

Sure you may catch someone out or add something in the detail every now and then, but what you are really doing is ensuring that your organization never increases its capability.

You are competing with your managers, and you are constraining the value of your whole organization.

You are ensuring that your organization can never get any smarter than you are.

And that is a real shame. And that is not the job of an executive leader.

Don’t forget to do your real leadership job

The job of an executive leader is to build a highly capable team that can deliver, but that can also learn and evolve and get more capable over time. If you keep everyone reviewing detail because that makes you feel comfortable, you are failing to do the job of an executive leader.

A much better way to deal with your addiction is to allow your managers to do their jobs, question them on strategies and outcomes (not score them on details), and then go right to the individuals doing the work to get your fix.

If you want to talk about details, talk with the people who should be responsible for details – the people doing the work. Learn everything you want.

This frees up your managers to do their job. You get your details, but you don’t slow business progress by having everyone slog through all the details.

When you are talking to individuals, ask questions and listen. But be careful not to overly judge them or assign work.

If you discover something you’d like to see changed, make sure the work assignment gets passed down through the management chain.

Never do a skip level assignment of work – the manager feels disempowered, other priorities are put at risk, and the employee feels tortured not knowing what they should do or who their boss really is.

If your boss is tormenting you with detail

I frequently hear this issue from mid-level managers:

What do I do when my boss requires even more detail than I do? and knows more detail than I do? I’m afraid of losing credibility if I don’t stay deep in the content.

If your boss is the one addicted to detail, (and they are not moved into better behavior by this blog!), what can you do?

The answer has three (3) parts to it:

1. Connect your boss with your team

This is a good idea anyway, but it also allows you to act as the broker of the detail not the owner.

Never be the one to personally carry detail upward.

Remember even though you are getting pressure, insight and action add value – moving detail upward degrades value.

Give them their detail by encouraging them talk to the people who work in the details directly.

2. Distract your boss from the details

Change the conversation to expose and discuss the kinds of measures your executive should be worried about.

A few ideas:

  • Organizational fitness for purpose (getting the right roles defined and filled);
  • Developing processes and frameworks to measure and track what you need to know about the work getting done;
  • A talent management/development plan;
  • Process maturity around customer knowledge;
  • Strategic alignment around priorities and values;
  • Better communication and employee engagement;
  • Process improvements which drive cost reductions;
  • Effective relationships with partner organizations.

3. Focus on the desired outcome

If you can drive more conversations around key desired outcomes, the discussions and resulting actions will naturally gravitate to a less detailed, more strategic level.

“I think what you are getting at with that [detail question] is whether or not we will create [this specific] outcome. Can we take a minute to talk about the importance of this outcome and the things I see that might put that at risk. I’d like to review my risk management plan with you.”

If you have a detail-addicted executive, conversations will always be challenging and uncomfortable, but the three ideas above can actually go a long way to make this better.

Deliver instead

I have used these techniques to build my credibility with my boss when I refused to become versed in the details because I knew it was not adding value, and it was putting the key outcomes I was on the hook for at risk.

I was never going to care about the details as much as my boss did, and frankly, I wasn’t even capable of the deep dive. So I needed to use these techniques.

It did not remove all the uncomfortable conversations, but by opting for disappointing my boss in some conversations but still delivering consistently on important outcomes, I was able to build my credibility and get away with fewer detailed conversations as time went on.

Time to let go

Detail is crucial if you are the one doing the work.

But if you are the one managing the people or managing the managers, you need to value the leadership and managerial work and be really good at that, more than be the expert in the details.

That’s what the business and your team needs from you.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

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