Strategy & Operations » Governance » Power games – playing life and death in the sandpit

Power games - playing life and death in the sandpit

You might want to keep control of 'life or death' business decisions, but letting go is vital for leaders

LETTING GO of the power to make decisions is the hardest thing you have to do as a leader, and yet it’s the most important.

Not only is it vital if we, as leaders, are ever going to get away from the detail and focus on the most critical strategic questions, it’s also the only way that we will ever develop our future leaders.

Of course we already know all this. So how’s it going for you? Most CFO’s and leaders I speak with continue to struggle with it. Why? The most common answer I hear is “we have a talent gap – we just can’t find the talent quickly enough”.

Yes, this is part of the answer – there has to be some talent to work with. But there is another side to the equation which is often eclipsed by the “talent gap” argument. Let’s face it – most organisations do have some pretty decent talent. If there is a gap, it is because leaders are not creating the stepping stones to cross the divide; not creating a sandpit or playground where emerging talent can “play with power” to make decisions, and make mistakes.

In the medical profession, we don’t hear about a shortage of talent – every year there is a constant stream of doctors and surgeons moving from being students to taking responsibility for life and death situations – the ultimate power game. Similarly in the military, there are literally controlled explosions in their playground, and these power games are absolutely life and death on the front line and in the theatre of war. In business we rarely have to deal with life and death situations, and yet we seem to find it harder to create a path for leaders to grow and take power.

What’s stopping us? Ultimately our reputation as leaders is on the line and we are not tolerant of mistakes – even if it is not life and death, it feels like it to us. It’s difficult to have belief in people who have not yet proved themselves. It takes a lot of time, and energy, and patience to create power sandpits and playgrounds, freedom within defined boundaries, where power can be handed over, and where mistakes can be made without total disaster – where we can manage controlled explosions.

In reality what it means is defining work projects, putting boundaries around specific work areas, ring-fencing aspects of work, and breaking down work into bite size chunks. It’s about giving open briefs, but then making the time to review frequently, to ask questions and to coach the learnings and course correction – whilst avoiding the temptation to tell, to give the answers and make the decisions.

It is putting in place the building blocks of trust, one at a time like with a child playing with wooden bricks. These building blocks of trust are firm foundations and even if they are built in a sandpit, they are not built on sand. The payback and return on the investment is always there in the longer run – this is the solution to the talent gap. We just have to come out and play more.

Stuart Pickles is the former FD of Foster’s EMEA. He now runs and is blogging regularly for Financial Director

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