Working in the Wake: How Leaders Lose Their Focus

 

Dr. T.P. Hall was a part time teacher in my Executive MBA program. Retired from the Georgia State School of Business, T.P. (as he asked us to call him) was every inch the seasoned old man who clearly loved to share his accumulated wisdom. One afternoon, he abandoned his Power Point presentation and spoke to us directly.

And I will always remember his words of advice:

“Cultivate your ignorance”

What T.P. was telling us was that we did not have to understand every detail of our subordinate’s jobs.  As growing executives our jobs were not to replace them, it was to manage and lead them.

Having come up through the ranks of my organization, I needed to hear and to listen to this advice.  I was supervising staffers who were doing jobs I used to do. In most cases, I felt I was able to jump in and show them how to do their jobs “right”.

That afternoon, T.P. changed the way I now think about being a manager and leader. He taught me that being a leader is not constantly jumping in with the employees to work alongside them. I had trained them and they knew how to do the job. My job was to hold them accountable and to clear barriers, to create an environment in which they could do their best work.  Jumping in simply kept me from doing the job my boss needed from me.

I call this jumping back “Wake Work”. If the leader is driving the boat forward, leaping into the boat’s wake means no one is in the drivers’ seat. Forward progress is checked, and things will soon start to drift. The higher level the leader, the bigger the drift.

In start-up companies, the leader doing Wake Work can inhibit the growth of the company. The founder is used to doing every function of the business. As it grows, the founder is less and less able to “do it all”, but still often tries and is unable to concentrate on the job of growing the business.

An enterprise can only grow if the founder can delegate others to work in the Wake or find someone else to drive the boat. The owner of a restaurant can hire a business developer while she remains the head chef. The founder of an IT company can hire someone to manage the business while he builds the relationships that lead to new clients.

Wake Work is an easy trap for a new leader, especially for those who are used to doing all the jobs. That goes double for perfectionists. New managers and leaders must learn to let go of unnecessary details and concentrate on driving their boats. It is important for experienced leaders to coach others to stay in the boat, and not jump into the wake.

Cultivate your ignorance.” It is the only way to really lead.

Thanks, T.P.

Originally published at TalkForward.

Published in Culture
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  1. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    So true. Been there, done that. I went from just me to over 100 full time employees and could do every job probably twice as well as anyone. However because of my time in the military a understood leadership. It’s another business to learn managing people, much harder than knowing cheese. After a time I hired someone to do that as well.

    • #1
  2. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    @bryangstephens I love these series of posts. 

    • #2
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    @bryangstephens I love these series of posts.

    Thank you

    • #3
  4. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    So true. Been there, done that. I went from just me to over 100 full time employees and could do every job probably twice as well as anyone. However because of my time in the military a understood leadership. It’s another business to learn managing people, much harder than knowing cheese. After a time I hired someone to do that as well.

    So true. Hard lesson though. The Military has learned that lesson at a hard school.

    • #4
  5. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I’ve always thought that, when starting up a construction business, the hardest thing the owner has to do is hire that first superintendent.

    • #5
  6. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Very perceptive and very true.  I work in IT and I like to say “If I’m needed to solve X technical problem, I’m not doing my job.”

    It does help to know enough to ask good questions.  I find that is a good way to provide general direction indirectly.

    It also helps one’s credibility to know something about the work.  Not to direct it, but to have credibility in providing overall direction.  My having spent time coding years ago is still valuable in my job even if it’s been 25 years since I’ve been paid to code.

    • #6
  7. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Bryan G. Stephens: That goes double for perfectionists.

    Heh.  Good thing I’m not one myself.  But I am familiar with the problem you’re outlining – letting go and letting your employees do their thing.  Fun story – I did have an employee who was like this – so much a perfectionist that they were doing worse than “wake working” – they were meddling in departments not even their own.  They didn’t last long when they started into that.

    There is a flipside:  I have had to struggle with senior engineers who are too remote and detached from production, but still remember “the old ways”, and so design products that could only be built using old techniques.  Took some swallowing of pride for them to spend a bit of time out on the shop, and unlearn old habits.  Sometimes the boss still does have to don the waders and get back in the muck so that he can make the big decisions based on current conditions, and not what he remembers from his glory days.

    • #7
  8. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens: That goes double for perfectionists.

    Heh. Good thing I’m not one myself. But I am familiar with the problem you’re outlining – letting go and letting your employees do their thing. Fun story – I did have an employee who was like this – so much a perfectionist that they were doing worse than “wake working” – they were meddling in departments not even their own. They didn’t last long when they started into that.

    There is a flipside: I have had to struggle with senior engineers who are too remote and detached from production, but still remember “the old ways”, and so design products that could only be built using old techniques. Took some swallowing of pride for them to spend a bit of time out on the shop, and unlearn old habits. Sometimes the boss still does have to don the waders and get back in the muck so that he can make the big decisions based on current conditions, and not what he remembers from his glory days.

    Yes these are all traps. I know I was told more than once: Butt out!

    • #8
  9. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    Excellent post, Bryan.

    • #9
  10. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    I recall sitting in a meeting where I, as a junior engineer, heard my boss tell his boss “Henry, put your pencil back in the drawer!”  (No off the cuff designing.)

    • #10
  11. barbara lydick Inactive
    barbara lydick
    @barbaralydick

    Your post reminds me of the best man I ever worked for.  He had hired me as director of strategic planning and during that time we had many conversations – some about managing.  An internationally highly respected tall dog, when the Chunnel project ran into nearly insurmountable problems, he was one of 5 on the short list to take over managing the entire project. (He turned it down)

    One of my favorite stories he shared was when he was VP of engineering for a company.  He said he often thought he should give his engineering managers an exam in the latest techniques in engineering – and if they passed he said, half serious and half joking, he would fire them on the spot.  Managing, he said, was their responsibility, not engineering.  (Tho he would never have given an engineering management position to a non-engineer.)

    • #11
  12. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    barbara lydick (View Comment):

    Your post reminds me of the best man I ever worked for. He had hired me as director of strategic planning and during that time we had many conversations – some about managing. An internationally highly respected tall dog, when the Chunnel project ran into nearly insurmountable problems, he was one of 5 on the short list to take over managing the entire project. (He turned it down)

    One of my favorite stories he shared was when he was VP of engineering for a company. He said he often thought he should give his engineering managers an exam in the latest techniques in engineering – and if they passed he said, half serious and half joking, he would fire them on the spot. Managing, he said, was their responsibility, not engineering. (Tho he would never have given an engineering management position to a non-engineer.)

    Understand the basics, but don’t jump back and get in the way! 

    • #12
  13. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

     

    I run a company – and regularly find myself getting deeply involved in areas that are not within my expertise or experience when others in the company get stuck on a problem. Every time it happens I am surprised. But at least so far, my contributions are net positives, even necessary.

    There are no hard and fast rules for innovation, or anyone could do it.

    • #13
  14. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    iWe (View Comment):

     

    I run a company – and regularly find myself getting deeply involved in areas that are not within my expertise or experience when others in the company get stuck on a problem. Every time it happens I am surprised. But at least so far, my contributions are net positives, even necessary.

    There are no hard and fast rules for innovation, or anyone could do it.

    That is true. And I would argue that helping when people are stuck makes sense. I have done that too.  In the long run, if they are always stuck, they are the wrong people.

    • #14
  15. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):

     

    I run a company – and regularly find myself getting deeply involved in areas that are not within my expertise or experience when others in the company get stuck on a problem. Every time it happens I am surprised. But at least so far, my contributions are net positives, even necessary.

    There are no hard and fast rules for innovation, or anyone could do it.

    That is true. And I would argue that helping when people are stuck makes sense. I have done that too. In the long run, if they are always stuck, they are the wrong people.

    Not necessarily. Conceiving and then creating a part and converting it to machined drawings and maintaining quality in production are all different skills – but often are multiple hats for the same engineer. But the earliest steps are not done repeatedly, so someone who is not great at innovationg might be the right person – overall.

    • #15
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