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Overcoming Your Biggest Leadership Challenges: Firefighting

By March 1, 2022 April 28th, 2022 No Comments

We are living in a world that is changing fast and getting more complex. In this environment, leadership is difficult—no one ever said or thought it is easy. People are an organization’s greatest asset, many say, but it is not followed up with action, and many employees are disappointed at the lack of caring, development, or career paths. This is a business risk and needs to be addressed along with a much larger focus. The talent in our organization is key to our success in the workplace. If our best talent is going out the door, we will have shortages of critical roles, and our leadership pipelines will be scarce in the future. How do you know where to focus your efforts to be the most effective leader? Let’s go into more detail now on how to challenge yourself in new ways to meet this demand.

The first thing you need to do is stop firefighting. What do I mean by that? You get distracted and pulled into the immediate needs or tasks in front of you. The question is, does reacting in this way bring the most long-term value for you, your team, and the organization? It is easy to jump into a tactical problem because it feels good to find resolution and it gives you a sense of accomplishment. I challenge you to step back and evaluate the situation before jumping feet first into these types of situations. Sure, you will have problems arise that you must tackle right away, but I would say 70% of these situations are not critical and do not need your attention right in that moment. By allowing ourselves to focus our efforts on the constant demands for your attention, we are distracted from the more important goal of building our teams.

Obviously, you cannot spend all your time in developing your team. That is not realistic. However, I would highly recommend you spend at least 20% of your time coaching and mentoring others for their benefit and the benefit of your organization. Schedule this time like you would any other meeting. Plan for these conversations and understand that you are guiding and not telling them how to be better. You will need to ask powerful questions to get your team members involved with their own development and to own the outcomes. Where you are guiding them will determine the types of questions you will ask. It is better to ask open-ended questions (i.e., ones that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no”) so you can gain perspective about how they think and approach challenges, understand where they are coming from, and begin to understand their perspective. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
  • What is the opportunity here?
  • What is the challenge?
  • What is the part that is not yet clear?
  • How do you want it to be?

I will give you an example of when I was caught in firefighting mode, and it hurt me professionally. I stepped up to a director role in another country, where I was asked to build the capacity of my newly formed department in this region. As you can imagine, it was a daunting task, but I was up for the challenge. I fully expected to build this amazing team and have time to develop and coach them. Unfortunately, I quickly jumped into the multitude of actions and tasks that needed my attention, which did not include developing my team.

Like most organizations, we wanted to drive sales and revenue, especially through new clients. But because we never set the foundation for how to get things done between departments—that is, who was responsible, what the tradeoffs and guardrails were—we struggled to handle the current capacity of work. The processes and workflow were haphazard and not well understood. I was so busy trying to keep up with our client demand that I really had no time, or so I thought, to develop my team. Once we finished one project, the next one was lined up to start. There was no room to breathe, step back, and evaluate what was working and what was not, and we had a lot that was not working. I felt exhausted and constantly stressed. I never had the sense of accomplishment because it was always more, more, more! I felt it taking a toll on my health and, to be frank, I thought I could easily suffer a heart attack or stroke at any moment. This is not a good place to be as a leader. Does any of this resonate with you?

The big question to ask yourself is whether you would like to be seen as a leader or a manager. What is the difference? Generally speaking, a leader uses influence and inspires teams to get things done. People follow leaders. A manager tends to be more directive, as in a command and control style, telling employees what to do. People work for the manager, but this role is viewed as controlling an outcome. From this perspective, managers can get stuck by managing tasks that are right in front of them rather than delegating them. They can feel as if they will never get out from behind the huge pile of demands and tasks requiring their attention outside of their team. Does this sound like an inspirational leader that you would want to work for? I am thinking not, and this is why you need to be aware that if you get stuck in this cycle, it will suck all the life out of you and eventually your team.

I finally realized the toll my firefighting was taking on my team and made a choice to stop focusing on what was right in front of me or who was shouting the loudest. To take back control, I needed a strategy that helped regain my sanity and gave me ownership. What did I do? I actually started working less and scheduled focused times for all of my key responsibilities. This allowed me to bring balance back into my life.

From that point on, I decided to start my day at the same time everyday regardless of what I had going on. I made sure to incorporate a break in the middle of the day, even if it was just a 15-minute walk around the block outside. It was important to get away from my desk and computer to get fresh air. Surprisingly, the break boosted my productivity, I was much more efficient in my tasks in the afternoon, and I could wrap up work at a decent hour. I also made efforts to spend more development time with my direct reports. In doing that, I realized I could delegate more and give some developmental opportunities to those on my team. It felt great to lift some of the burden off my plate and also to see my team grow their skills. By shifting my viewpoint about my team, I was able to think about them as future leaders within the organization. I was giving them opportunities to show their strengths and was building up their experience and confidence. It was a win-win situation.

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” – Buddha

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