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Ok, I admit it. I’m a control freak.
Not only am I a control freak, but this trait has served me royally in my career as it helped to rapidly propel me up the management ladder, which made me become even more of a control freak. A control super freak, if truth be told. I was a sought-after program manager, brought in to turn around failing projects and underperforming departments. I was considered an expert and was highly paid for that skill and expertise.
But then my career growth stopped. I had topped out.
Don’t become a victim of the Peter Principle
What had helped me grow quickly was now a limitation. There is a limit to what we can control, and as soon as a job exceeds that limit, it makes it hard for us to have that same level of impact. I found this out the hard way, like most people that struggle with the transition. I kept getting bigger and bigger projects with a wider span of control until it got to the point where I was leading teams to where I had no expertise in what they were doing. I now had to trust them, give up control and have faith in their abilities.
But I didn’t want to do that. It went against everything I believed in about myself and what made me successful. So I tried to focus on becoming an expert in these new areas so I could have the same level of control and the same level of success as before.
The result was failure, disastrous failure.
Project overruns, budget overruns, disappointed clients, all of which tarnished the reputation that I had built. I had become a victim of the Peter Principle, promoted to a level beyond my competence, and set up to fail. While it wasn’t that much comfort to me, I realized it wasn’t just me who struggled with this transition; according to Gallup, companies promote people with the wrong talents 82 percent of the time, which can have a devastating effect on your projects and business success.
The five levels of leadership
the challenge is that there are five levels of leadership. Level one is the informal leader, someone who, although not having the position, looks to step up and take control of the situation, providing direction and some guidance. Level two is the hands-on leader, a leader that directly contributes to the success and is heavily involved and hands-on in producing the results, often carrying the team on their backs. Level three is the expert leader. This leader is still hands-on to some extent, helping to shape the project, leading from the front, and guiding the team with their subject manager expertise and knowledge. Level four is the engaging and enabling leader. At this stage, leadership changes. It’s not about your contribution to the results; it’s about your ability to engage teams, build teams, and set them up for success even if they work in a field outside your expertise. Level five is the aspirational leader. This is the highest level of leadership. The focus here is on creating the culture and building an environment and organization for sustainable success.
Each level has its own challenges and difficulties, but the biggest and most difficult transition is from expert leader to engaging leader. In all the other transitions, it’s just about doing more of the same but on a bigger scale, but the jump from level three to level four requires a change of skillset. In fact, you almost need to forget the skill that got you level three and now trade It for a new set of skills. You also need to realize that control is an illusion and that you need to focus on building influence.
Develop the people skills that you will need to engage, empower and motivate people working in an area where you have limited knowledge and expertise. You have to hand the control to your teams and have faith in them and faith in your ability to lead them. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you need to let go of your ego, forget your IQ and focus on your EQ to get the most out of your teams.
It’s no longer about your contribution. It’s about engaging your teams, setting them up for success, and giving them the space to achieve it. The sad reality is that too many either don’t have the skills or the confidence in their skills, and they double down on trying to have control. This is where we see the emergence of micro-managers. They want to know everything about every aspect. It’s their way of trying to keep control and shape the outcome.
Don’t be the hero. Make the heroes.
Even if it worked, which it doesn’t, it’s not a scalable approach. There is a limit to how many people you can micro-manage, and your career is now directly restricted to your span of control. You have set your career ceiling at the level three expert leader level.
There is a solution, and that is you need to understand what your new role is. It’s no longer about being the hero. It’s about creating more heroes, teams of heroes. It’s about sharing control and allowing others to thrive. If you can do that, you can transition from the role of expert leader to become an engaging, inspiring leader and continue the climb up the leadership ladder.