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Allen Huffman

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Quality Insider

Be a Leader

You can do it.

Published: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 - 05:23

To be a good leader, you must develop people who can function without you looking over their shoulder. There’s no greater satisfaction than mentoring someone who turns out to be a great leader. In war, a leader must develop capable people to carry out orders, and to succeed in business you must as a leader develop strong independent lieutenants. The question is how? The answer is to develop the ability of your people to make decisions without fear, and this is a very scary proposition to some managers.

I once worked for a manager who wouldn’t let me send a memo to our corporate offices unless he revised it first. I’ve sat in lengthy staff meetings with college-educated men and women arguing over sentence structure in a procedure. One boss became so frustrated that he declared himself the word master, the final authority in what words were to be used.

Why do so many managers have such trouble delegating responsibility? If you can’t trust your people to make decisions, then you’ve failed as a leader. It’s your job to help your people grow and learn, and they cannot do that without some freedom and authority.

How do you learn to let go?
Use the following examples to figure out where your organization stands. Once you know your organization’s level, you can use the techniques I’ve developed to improve the leadership potential of your people.

Level 1 In a level-1 organization, the manager solves all the problems. The only job the staff has is to carry out the wishes of the master. These managers don’t lead, they dictate and then micromanage every detail. If this sounds familiar, here’s something you can try. Tell your people that you are so busy, you need a volunteer to take some minute task away from you. The task really doesn’t matter. You’re trying to build some level of trust. You must make your staff begin to feel some freedom; so even if they make a mistake, (which they very well may, since they’ve had no freedom to make decisions of any kind) you can use the mistake as a teaching tool. I caution you that at this point your people will be very skittish, so you must be tactful. Your people must begin to believe that you trust them.

Level 2
In the level-2 organization, the manager tells you how to solve the problem and looks over your shoulder as you do it. This may not be quite as bad as level 1, but it’s close. Have you ever worked for a manager who told you to have someone perform a task, and before you could communicate to your employee, your manager had already beaten you to it? If you’re going to develop your staff, resist the urge to look over their shoulders. Give them a task, and always give them a time frame. Make sure you set clear expectations of what you expect to happen by the deadline. As hard as it may be to resist, don’t check up on them. Give them until the deadline to complete the task, and only then should you expect results. If they meet the deadline, you’re on your way. If they were deficient, you must explain that you trusted them to complete their assignment without any interference from you and they let you down. Sometimes guilt is a great motivator and works much better than beating them up. As soon as possible, give them another chance to meet your expectations, and this time I bet they will. If the task is a project, ask them to give you regular updates, so you can help keep them on track. This way, they will be coming to you and giving you information, instead of you looking over their shoulder.

Level 3
Now you’re nearing where you want to be. To get to the level-3 organization, you have to have built some trust. At this stage, you’re allowed to propose some solutions to problems. You must have more than one solution, and you must be able to put the solution in terms your manager will understand. The terms may be financial, quality, or technically related, depending our your manager’s leanings. As a leader, you want your people to be thinking on their own and anticipating what you want. If your staff comes to you with several alternative solutions for a problem, you know they have given the difficulty serious thought. If your organization is at level 3, you and your staff can start to have some very productive discussions and will often come up with a better idea than you would have by yourself. To get to this level, you must again set clear expectations. Your staff must know that if they present a problem, they must also present some solutions, or you will send them away until they do. Do not say, “Here’s what I would do.”

Level 4
Level 4 is like Nirvana for a leader. Your staff is solving problems on their own, and telling you after the fact what they did. You have complete trust in their decision-making capabilities, and you know that even if they make a mistake, the decision was made with the best information available at the time. As the leader of this organization, you allow your staff to make mistakes, your ego is in check and you can actually feel comfortable being away from the plant knowing it’s in good hands. You will be tested as a leader many times before you get to this place. No micromanaging allowed. No calling the plant 20 times a day when you’re on vacation. No temper tantrums because someone did something different than you would have. The best part is the sense of accomplishment you will feel knowing that you’re developing future leaders. Believe me, the world needs all the leaders it can get.

About the author
Allen Huffman has worked most of his career in the automotive industry as a supplier to U.S. automakers. He has a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s degree in quality. Trained as a lead ISO assessor and in lean, Six Sigma, and all automotive disciplines, Huffman is plant manager for Ridgid Products.

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Allen Huffman