The Advantages of Stepping Back to Let Others Step Up

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-07-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 7

Give your team members opportunities to lead for greater growth.

Many of us equate leading with being out in front. But according to Merriam-Webster, additional definitions highlight directing, guiding, and channeling rather than being foremost. By focusing on those alternate aspects, leaders can tap into a powerful tool that can have great impact for themselves, their team, and their organization.

When leaders achieve a certain level of seniority, there is a tendency to step in and try to do too much. That can be due to the expectation that they are supposed to have all the answers and must be the ones to deliver solutions. But when that happens, the opportunity for others to come up with their own solutions gets lost.

“That essentially denies the value of the whole team,” says Paulo Fontoura, senior vice president and global head of neuroscience, ophthalmology, immunology, rare and infectious diseases clinical development at Roche/Genentech. “If you use a team of senior leaders purely as an execution team rather than a collection of people who have different ways of seeing a problem and different ways of leading, that may be useful in the short term, but in the long term, you’re missing out on a lot of potential value.”

Striking a balance

Knowing when to step up and when to step back requires instinct, a mindset of wanting to empower others, good judgment, and maturity as a leader. Of course, there will always be occasions where leaders need to take charge, but as soon as the visionary work is done and they have coached their team on how to proceed, they should almost immediately step back and trust that their team will pick up.

“If you are the only one pushing for a certain agenda, all the energy comes from you, whereas if you get others to understand where you want to go and why it is important, then you can use their energy to multiply that vision,” says Fontoura.

This can lead to a triple impact. First, the entire organization benefits from having a more empowered and mature group of leaders, which can cause a cascade of empowerment throughout the organization. Second, it accelerates leaders’ development, giving them the autonomy and then the responsibility of having to deliver on something. Finally, objectives can be accomplished better and faster than they would without any help.

Empowering others also builds trust among teams. When leaders step in all the time, employees can feel micromanaged. When they reserve it for specific instances, employees assume leaders are getting involved only because it is necessary. That trust goes both ways. It also allows leaders to have the acceptance they need when they do step in because the team acknowledges that it is a unique situation.

Learning to let go

Handing over responsibility can be difficult for some people. To do it successfully, the first step is building confidence by assembling a top-notch team. Leaders should be able to trust their teams implicitly and turn to them without hesitation. “Without a really high-functioning team of leaders and collaborators around you, it’s never going to work,” says Fontoura. “Spend as much time as you need to hire the best people, coach them in the right way, and support them so that when you want to step back, you are fully relaxed in doing that.”

It’s also essential for leaders to conduct a self-assessment. There are many reasons why they might find it difficult to temporarily hand over the reins, including:

  • A sense that it is part of their job and therefore if they’re not doing it themselves, they’re not doing their jobs.
  • An expectation that as leaders they have to be the ones always at the forefront; if they’re not in front, then they’re not good leaders.
  • Unconscious biases, such as they can perform the task better than anyone else.
  • Insecurity that if they don’t do it themselves, it won’t get done.
  • Fear of failure that someone else might mess it up.
  • Protection of their status or position; if it’s a success, people might think they are no longer needed.

“When you have such high standards and work ethic, the first instinct is that you want to do it yourself,” says Fontoura. “But the secret to leadership is sometimes when you step back, you create the space and multiply your impact.”

Elaine Quilici is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com.

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