What's Your Highest Contribution?

What's Your Highest Contribution?

19 Jun 17 3mins Jon Midmer


Scarcely a month goes by without hearing from or about a leader who’s operating a level down from their job description. The most common reasons for this are a perceived lack of resources or talent, and/or the need to be more hands-on for a limited period, for example during a crisis or turnaround situation. What’s worrying, however, is for a leader to act down a level when they’ve hand-picked their team and business is good. 

To my mind, this points to an inability to let go, trust their team and focus on their highest contribution – what they bring to the party that no-one else in the organisation can. 

Operating at a lower level than you should is an easy trap to fall into as it keeps you in your comfort zone. While you can convince yourself that rolling up your sleeves is good for team morale because it demonstrates a low-ego, down-to-earth attitude, I’d actually argue the opposite is true.  
When a leader does what their team should be doing, it prevents talented (if sometimes less experienced) team members from spreading their wings, making the odd mistake and learning. 

What You Alone Bring to the Party 

Some years ago, at a dinner I hosted for aspiring CEOs, at the end of the evening we went around the room asking for thoughts on what makes CEOs they’ve worked for successful. Some cited smarts, others charisma, others focus. One attendee, at the time the youngest serving executive director of a FTSE 100 consumer business, said that the most valuable thing he’d learned about leadership from his former CEO was to differentiate the value that your team, you and your boss add. A few years later, I asked him to re-articulate what he had said that night. Here’s what he said: 

“Let's imagine that what we do at work is an exam out of 100. As a team leader, you need to work out which exam we’re taking. You then need to assemble a team that’s going to score 90% in the exam without your help. Your job is to move their score from 90% to 95%. You're not going to do that by getting the 90% they can get without you, so you focus on how you can earn the team the extra five percent – whether it’s by being a sounding board, using your helicopter view of the pitch or removing roadblocks. Then it’s your boss’s job to help you and the team achieve the final few percent.” 

Stepping Up 

To me, this encourages everyone to focus on giving their highest contribution and help your – hopefully skilled and motivated – team to do the same by trusting and coaching them. This approach requires you to be highly disciplined about what you don’t get dragged into on a daily basis. 
One successful CEO-turned non-executive director told me that in his last executive role he’d receive 200 emails a day, of which only 10 were usually important. Getting sucked into matters team members are more than capable of handling by themselves can not only drain energy and divert focus from more important matters, it deprives direct reports of the autonomy and growth they deserve. 

Stepping up can be challenging and can require coaching to perform really well. If you’ve been promoted internally, it can be hard to let go of a job you were doing excellently – maybe even the very reason why you were promoted! 

A regional President of a global retailer once confided to me that it took him almost a year to stop also being the Chief Commercial Officer he had been before he was promoted. He eventually realised, though, that “what got him here wouldn’t get him there”. 

If you’ve been given your job, it’s because your boss believes you can add value in a way that others cannot. So, if your team and wider organisation need you to focus on giving your highest contribution, do you know what that is and how you can best provide it?