Blog

Sometimes Leadership is Letting Go

By Phil Charron on March 13, 2014

At several points in my career, people stopped being worried about whether I could get my work done. It happened incrementally—first I built trust in my work as a multimedia developer, then a designer, and eventually as a manager and business leader. Along the way, every time I started working with a new client, a new team or a new employer, I had to take a few steps back and rebuild that trust. As I take on new responsibilities or explore new skills, that cycle starts all over again.

I’m not a mogul or nationally-recognized name in our industry, but I have confidence that I can hold my own against the best of them with every business challenge I take on. Everyone I’ve worked with throughout my career who trusted me enough to let go of the reins has my gratitude for that confidence.

Among the challenges of becoming a good leader, letting go and trusting your team to get the work done is one of the hardest. It’s a give-and-take relationship—people gave me the freedom to work independently only after I demonstrated that I was ready. I showed that I could estimate my work, do it right, and keep the right people informed while the work was getting done. I messed up a few times along the way, so I took a few steps back, learned a lesson, and recovered. Everyone in a leadership position has been through that. We owe it to others to give them the same opportunity. There would be no way to scale a business if we didn’t.

Trust is a two-way street

Many years ago, I was on a team tasked with invigorating a once-lucrative product that had started to show its age. Our CEO gave us six months and a small budget to breathe new life into the product. After a few weeks of analysis and brainstorming, we came back and asked for nine months and tripled the budget. We had put together a convincing business plan with market analysis, realistic sales projections and a marketing plan. The CEO patiently listened to the first few minutes of our presentation, then interrupted, “How much?” We told him. “You realize your jobs depend on this.” We didn’t flinch. He gave us what we asked for and we developed the new product with practical autonomy.

The product was successful and started a line of products based on our new approach. The new approach also fed our custom multimedia group with a whole new line of work. Our CEO later confirmed with me that the deciding factor was our resolve when he mentioned our jobs were on the line. It wasn’t a threat, he was simply stating the reality of business. Trust is a two-way street.

Backing off is hard to do

As I walk around the Think Space in Conshohocken, the micromanagement fairy whispers in my ear. I see teams working on some very cool projects with great clients. I want to dive into every Think Session and impromptu meeting, throw my ideas in the ring, and get elbow-deep in their work. Alas, I have my own clients and projects I get to do that with, but I want to be a part of everything. It’s not that I think those teams can’t do the work, it’s that I’m interested in what they’re doing. I have to keep telling myself that they deserve the same breathing room my mentors gave me.

I’ve written about this before, but when I start planning Cheese Day each year (woah, I have to get started on that) and Carl’s only guideline is “do it right,” I know what he’s saying. He knows I’m (probably) not going to buy $500/lb Moose Cheese and I know I don’t have to ask for approval for every minor detail. Carl loves a good party; I’m sure he’d love to be getting his hands dirty, but he knows this is my thing. I look at the work we do for our clients the same way. It’s a leap of faith to sign a contract the first time with any consultancy. It’s a sign of trust when the next contracts are signed. The fact that so many of our clients are long-term relationships with multiple ongoing projects says volumes.

We have grown so much since I joined in 2008. Among a few other things, I am probably most proud of the teams we’ve put together. Those teams are independently putting out great work, which allows the management of Think Brownstone to focus on strategy, leadership and replicating our work across a growing roster of clients. We are all designers with a passion for this industry, so we can’t resist getting our hands dirty—but we have to back off in order to grow.

There are plenty of new leaders at Think Brownstone with lots of room for them to spread their wings. We wouldn’t have been able to grow over 100% last year if we weren’t able to find natural leaders and give them the freedom to do their thing. The best part for me is that I’m learning a lot from them.

Recently, my mantra has been “continue to let go, let our new leaders grow.” I’m sure I’ll slip, and I know someone (Russ?) will let me know I have. In the meantime, I’ll focus on my own challenges while learning from everyone around me.