I’m a firm believer in letting your leaders lead — in hiring capable, experienced, whip-smart people and then stepping back and allowing them to do their jobs. This level of independence and self-sufficiency can mean the difference between a truly effective, high-performing team and the shadow of one.
The goal of this leadership style is to avoid micromanagement and empower leaders — but it can be taken to the extreme. I’ve seen CIOs drop a problem on the doorstep of their direct reports, offering little to no guidance before walking away. Although the intention was to instill confidence and reinforce autonomy and trust, it can also be perceived as an abdication of responsibility. An opportunity for the CIO to provide leadership has been wasted, and the direct report is set up to fail.
It’s easy to see why this happens. Hands-off leadership may be the norm, but as CIO you are far removed from the crux of the problem and the challenges inherent in solving it. I’m not suggesting a return to micromanagement or top-down decision-making, but "letting your leaders lead" still requires strong follow-up. It sounds obvious, but many executives are guilty of sloppy delegating, at least some of the time, and critical results are at stake.
Key indicators you've delgated too much too soon
How do you know if your team’s shortcomings are a problem you created by "getting out of their way" too soon? If the pendulum has swung too far, these key indicators are sure to surface.
1. The stakeholders involved can’t ‘pass the test’
I love the saying, “What’s obvious to you is obvious to you.” CIOs can be guilty of passing off a problem that’s clear to them but in reality isn’t very well defined. This can cause delays down the line if the vision, goal, or targets weren’t outlined properly right out of the gate. Before you leave your key stakeholders to it, take an extra few minutes to make sure they understand not only the problem, but how it fits into the big picture. Can they clearly and coherently articulate it in a few sentences? They should be able to prioritize the stakeholders, identify expected outcomes, agree to a timeframe, and recognize the risks. This clarity of purpose is the test, and if they can pass it, your team will be equipped to drive the project through to completion.
2. There’s not ‘one throat to choke’
You’ve identified a major issue and briefed a key senior leader on it. You might think you’ve given it to them to solve, but in reality there are very few large problems that can be managed in one organizational "tower." Cross-group collaboration is routinely required, which inevitably results in decision-making by committee — an endless dance of passing the buck. If there’s no one person responsible for an answer, chances are you won’t get one. CIOs often have hundreds of people on their team, making it nearly impossible to track who is responsible for which decision once a process has begun.
Ask the simple question of ownership at the outset. If necessary, define standards of accountability, establish a leadership framework, and clarify roles. If all of this is clear, your senior team should have no trouble laying it out. If they stumble, the solution may have been doomed from the start.
3. It’s been (days, weeks, months, years), and there’s still no definitive outcome
You’ve given your team the opportunity to take ownership, but they are stuck in a cycle of best efforts going nowhere. You’ve lost track of how long it’s taken to find a solution, and you can’t decide how long is too long. What’s a CIO to do? Setting a firm deadline when you assign ownership will not only ensure a solution is reached in a reasonable timeframe, but it will motivate your team to settle the problem. If there is nothing firm on the table when the deadline arrives, offer to facilitate a process, provide outside help or propose your own solutions. If you didn’t set a deadline in the first place, there’s no time like the present to establish one.
I recently met with the president of a biotech company who has been facing an internal problem since last summer. He knows what he wants to do, but handed it off to his top leaders to give them the opportunity to solve it. It’s February, and there’s no solution in sight. Their company’s competitive advantage is now at risk. Will he be OK with, “We’re working on it,” six months from now?
4. Unclear and conflicting budget priorities
In a recent conversation with a CIO, he told me the budget for a major project wasn’t his, rather it was owned a level down. He was proud of that because he felt he’d empowered the leader by giving her control over large sums of money. “I’m a pauper compared to her,” he said. When I circled back with the leader in question, she confirmed she had the money in her budget but didn’t feel she had the "political authority" to spend it on this "global" problem. Doing so would mean she’d have to give up something else that was core to her team’s plans for the year. The CIO assumed that this leader had the skills and political chops required to make the necessary trade-offs. Giving her the budget without addressing this critical piece meant she was stuck, and so was the solution to the problem.
For CIOs, decision-making is routinely dispersed and distant from the day-to-day. Staying attuned to the guidance and structure your team needs to successfully deliver will help you know when to step in and provide support. While it’s important to empowers leaders, it shouldn’t be at the expense of decisive action that drives results. Trust your team, but don’t abdicate your responsibility to guide.
This column originally appeared on CIO.com in March, 2019.