Adding value – by keeping out of the way!

I must confess to being bemused. I have just been reading an article about a new leadership approach in this month’s Harvard Business Review. The article’s authors advocate that their research suggests that managers’ operate at levels below them, asking for constant updates, decisions to be referred to them etc – all demonstrating a lack of trust (or an over zealous caution) and doing a wonderful job of disengaging people. Hardly new data, but very valid in my experience. The bit that bemuses me once again is why managers don’t focus on adding value? How would they behave if they focused on adding value, rather than making their presence felt – the two are not the same!

 presence-add-value-to-life I have had a client liaising with me regarding some team development. We’ve had a few conversations and time has been taken to work out an effective process for this European team of senior folk. My contact client, as the internal specialist, has conferred with the leader of the team and done a fair bit of initial research to come up with a suggestion for a purposeful event and all is agreed. Everything is now ready to go and has been agreed. Except they have to refer this to the next boss up who is based in the USA.


He does not sign this off – because he does not like one of the tools we are using. Really! Its not because the event is too costly, going to cause reputational damage, is inappropriate etc – he doesn’t like one of the tools. What value has that added? It has merely begun a game of ‘guess what the boss wants us to do’ – a familiar organisational game. Although we were committed to this we are obviously supposed to use something that pleases the boss? Why not check the menu too – in case one of the dishes doesn’t appeal to him – he is not even attending! How on earth does he think he has added value here? Bright people have spent time working this through and then on a whim a senior figure does not sign this off because of in effect a piece of minutiae. They now have to begin again, with their enthusiasm dampened and the task has become tedious, guessing somebody else’s agenda, who let’s remember is a non-participant.

I would almost bet that one of three things has happened. At some time in the past he has taken the tool and the results have not appealed to him, or he has half listened to an explanation of what it does and not agreed without fully understanding the depths of the well researched and validated tool, or he has another favourite.  As a side note to all my participants who manage their teams from overseas whichever country they are in  – do you realise how arrogant you come across as when you tell people from your office in another country they have got it wrong! That despite their conversations and thoughts you know best – even in a topic area you have little knowledge or expertise!


Now I understand the lure and temptation to make your presence felt and look central to the process. I was facilitating an event with a team I really like last week and at times was tempted to dive in and show I was there – but the question I kept coming back to was – Who am I doing this for, me or them and will it add value? It was often my need to be seen that was driving me to want to intervene – so I kept out. I even received flak that evening, in a very friendly way, about my lack of contributions – and I could feel the temptation to take over the next morning to prove my worth. However that would have met my own needs, added nothing to the group and stopped others from making things happen. When I deemed it best for the group I came to the fore – when there was value to add that others could not bring.

value-added-business-startup Returning to the findings, managers at all levels get too wrapped up in checking, reporting, are perceived as playing politics and thereby not serving customers or growing their people’s capabilities. They have no time left for these vital activities. Our tip – focus on adding value – and recognise that adding value means allowing others to do what they require sometimes without always putting your mark on things or getting it done the way you prefer. What you perceive to be a useful footprint may often be the heavy boot that crushes ingenuity, creativity and engagement. Worse still it sends the message that you need to be asked about everything.

We hear many senior managers talk about people needing to be accountable – please model the same by focusing your efforts on adding value and not making your presence felt unnecessarily. Try considering ‘How can I best add value to this person and how they work’ in your next one to one. Is it by telling them what I want them to do, is it by coaching them, is it gaining their ideas on something?

In your next team meeting think about ‘How can I best add value to this team in this meeting today’ and make a conscious choice during the meeting depending on how things go. If others are taking the lead and achieving what you want, albeit in a different order or manner, why not let them? Like me at times you will decide that you and are best served by allowing others to come to the fore and do their thing. Whilst you may make some noise – it may not add value. Add value – that is what make a difference.

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