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How to Manage: Getting Out of the Weeds


AMY BERNSTEIN: You’re listening to Women at Work from Harvard Business Review. I’m Amy Bernstein. Welcome to season two of our How to Manage series. This season is for mid-level managers, and for those of you who hope to become mid-level managers, and for those of you who manage mid-level managers and who want to be in tune with their concerns and frustrations and their aspirations. Being a mid-level manager myself, and having been one for years at different companies, I understand the stress of people on all sides expecting you to coach individual employee performance, make teams successful, and lead in fluid environments.

It’s a lot of pressure. I understand feeling some days as if you have all the responsibility and none of the authority, and I also understand how great it can be when your team is just clicking. Over the next four episodes, I’ll speak with women about executing strategy, about selling ideas, about rising up. We’re starting with a skill that you’ll need to master before any of that: letting go of work that’s holding you back. It took me many years to appreciate the importance of this skill, – of relinquishing my grip on the details and engaging at the right level.

It wasn’t until about 13 years ago when I joined HBR as editor and I came in determined to approach editing the way I had for 20 years before that, which was to analyze and polish each article sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. I tried that when I got here and it became apparent immediately that it was unsustainable. It was too time-consuming and it was exhausting. But more to the point, what I realized was that the editors at HBR were terrific. They did that work and they did it really, really well. They didn’t need me to do it on top of them, behind them. They didn’t need that. So, that’s when I pulled myself away from that level of work and kind of freed myself up to think a little bit more long term about where we were going to take the magazine.

Before you became a manager, you were probably an individual contributor who was great at her job. In fact, you were probably promoted to manager because you were great at your job. And now you manage a team that designs or produces or sells the stuff you used to create. Now you’re responsible for setting a vision for that team and guiding them toward it.

JENNIFER LONG: Do you ever have this feeling like if you’re not doing the work and you’re holding the vision – so maybe it’s just me – but what value am I adding? I wake up every morning and like, am I adding enough value in my role if I’m not doing anything, if I’m not doing the work?

AMY BERNSTEIN: That’s my colleague Jennifer Long. Articulating an anxiety I felt, and maybe you have too. I’m going to talk to her and another mid-level manager at HBP, Gabriella Spatolisano, about how over the years they’ve learned to let go. But first I’m going to talk to Lia Garvin. She founded the organizational strategy firm, The Workplace Reframe, and she wrote the book, The Unstoppable Team. She’s here with ideas that’ll position you and the people you manage to do more of the highest level of work you’re each capable of. To start, this is how she understands the problem of holding on.

LIA GARVIN: So, I think it’s twofold. I think one, it’s common, and second, there’s a big fear of being a micromanager, being too far in the weeds. And so, you get these two issues where either too many people are micromanaging or folks are fearing it, so they’re kind of avoiding managing altogether. And that’s what I’m seeing, is these two different extremes showing up in the workplace.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, what does the happy medium look like?

LIA GARVIN: Well, I think the happy medium is building relationship with your team so you really understand their strengths and weaknesses and superpowers – their interests for their careers so that you can line up opportunities for them to take on stretch projects. You really understand delegating. In the absence of this, I think we do either, like I said, holding on too tight because we’re worried our team members aren’t going to be able to cut it or we enjoyed doing that task before we were good at it, and so we just kind of keep doing it. Or we’re worried about being too much in the weeds, too overbearing. So, we tell our team members, “Hey, go ahead, run with it. You got this,” and they’re actually not set up for success, and they kind of feel like we just threw them into the deep end unprepared.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So much of that is not just trusting your team members, it’s trusting yourself.

LIA GARVIN: Exactly. It requires trusting ourselves to be able to explain to someone else how to do something, to trust that our own managers are going to support us. And I think that’s another piece of the trust. I’ve found one of the biggest challenges for myself when I was delegating as a middle manager was that I was getting pressure from my own manager to be fully looped in. And so, I was really wanting to set this person up and let them run with it, but when I’m getting emailed from my manager every day, “What’s going with this?” Then I start holding on a little bit tighter and it kind of snowballs from there.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, can you tell us about a specific time when you realized, Ugh, I’m in this too deep, I’ve got to let go?

LIA GARVIN: Years ago, when I was working in big tech, I was managing a program manager that was responsible for running a big event for our team. So, first of all, running events give me the worst anxiety. It’s like, are people going to show up? Is it going to go well? Is it going to be this? And I think because of that, it had me holding on really tight to what my team member’s working on. Now my team member, mind you, she loved planning events and was really good at it, but still it was my own anxiety. And so, I would check in like, “Hey, did you think about this? Did you do this? Did you try this?”

And after checking in a bunch of times she said to me, “Hey, listen, I know that this stresses you out, but I actually really like doing this and here’s how I wanted to approach it.” And so, I said, “Okay, this is a wake-up call.” So, I asked her, “Okay, show me your project plan instead of just using my checklist and things.” And her plan was so much better than what I had thought of and it showed me right away like, okay, when you have someone that’s really in their zone of genius running with something, you don’t need to be too far in the weeds and you don’t need to be checking on every detail.

Now, what made it even more complicated though was this was a very high stakes event for our team. And so, then I had my manager, like I was just saying, checking with me constantly and saying, “Hey, did she figure this out? Did she do this? Have we informed our leadership about this?” And so, then I had to do the managing both directions, letting go a little bit on the managing down, but on the managing up side saying, “Hey, I realize this is really high stakes. I’ve met with my team member. Here’s her plan. Here’s what I’m going to check in with her.

Here’s where I’m going to let her really run with stuff, and are you good with that plan?” And here’s when the three of us can come together to talk about updates. And so, I noticed in that moment that delegating not only requires letting go from your managing your own team member, but some managing up is really important to do as well.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, let me just take a step back for a sec and ask you, part of the reason that you need to get out of the weeds as a mid-level manager is because being in the weeds is unsustainable. There’s a mixed metaphor there somewhere, but there are other reasons, aren’t there?

LIA GARVIN: I mean I think first and foremost… Well you just called it, you can’t do everything. And so, I think one of the things just to recognize is either we can intentionally define the cut line or that cut line will happen when we run out of time. And I think one of the challenges that folks, again that I work with through consulting and workshops is this refusing to let go of things only to find, actually they didn’t finish anything anyway. And so, what happens when we’re holding on too tight?

Though I’ve had managers in the past that they were in every single meeting and their to-do list for a week was six months long. And every week I would watch them and they would be in every meeting and in every conversation, and I was thinking, “Hey, I’ve got this.” They don’t have to be here. And I saw them get more stressed and I had to say, “Is it a trust thing? Do you think I can’t do this? Or what level of information can I loop you in on so that you feel okay about it?” And in this situation, my manager said to me, “Oh, wait a second. You’re right. I’m too far in the weeds.”

It’s almost like she needed a little bit of a wake-up call that yes, someone’s noticing when you’re double-checking copy, editing and email that’s going to internal team members. That’s a little bit too much.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Really the challenge is figuring out what altitude to come in at. How do you know when you’re flying too low to the ground when you’re too close to the details?

LIA GARVIN: One tell is, am I in a lot of meetings that my team members are also in? Then you can set up a conversation with your team member around, “Hey, here’s the way I need you to cascade information out of the meeting.” If you’re showing up because there are different levels of detail being asked about maybe something that’s more in your purview versus your team members, then it’s a real opportunity to have your team members step up and say, “Hey, I’d like for you to represent our whole team in this larger capacity.”

So, I think go through your calendar, do an audit on a quarterly basis, go through and see who’s attending these meetings. Are there ones I can step away from? And I suggest in the situation that folks look across work in three different buckets. So, it could be meetings, it could be tasks you’re working on, it could be emails you’re sending really, whatever you’re spending your time on. And the first bucket is stuff that you absolutely have to be doing. And spoiler, it’s not a lot. This is probably two or three things that you’re doing the whole week actually, you could narrow it down to that.

Then the second bucket is what are things that you’re doing that could immediately be offloaded or delegated, whatever it looks like, that’s very, very low hanging fruit to offload. And then the middle piece is what are things that you’re doing because there’s a bit of a skill gap on your team or there’s a role gap. So, maybe you have a team member that you’d love to hand this thing off to, but they’re not quite ready for that. Or maybe you’ve lost a team member and so you’re covering for some responsibilities and so that’s why you’re in the details.

But the second bucket becomes either a plan of how you can develop and train some team members, or it’s the job description for a role that you can hire for. So, when you do this time audit, you not only figure out, well, what is your real highest and best use, but how do you get your team members to the place they need to be or what is exactly the gap there that you could fill with a new team member if you can have the headcount or you’re able to budget to hire somebody?

AMY BERNSTEIN: For meetings, I think the redundancy question is so smart. I have another thing I do, which is I ask myself, Did I add any value here? Because I can always look at the meeting transcript, I can look at the deck – not that I do that as frequently as I should. But if I was really not adding anything, if I wasn’t nudging the team in one direction or another or helping to make an important decision, then why was I there? But what about when you’re not in meetings, the heads down work or the management of people? How do you know you’re just too deep in the weeds?

LIA GARVIN: I think another tell is when everyone’s coming to you for every decision or checking in with you constantly. And that I think means one of two things. Either folks don’t feel comfortable to make decisions on their own because you’ve already set the tone that you are involved in that capacity or people think you want to be involved in that capacity, and they both result in the same thing – that your team members aren’t operating independently. And so, I think when we find ourselves saying things like, “Gosh, I’ve explained this 10 times already,” or “I’m always involved in these conversations,” or “Why don’t people just get it,” this is a real signal that we could set some clearer expectations, talk about where’s their confusion, where am I maybe too involved? And then start to let go a little bit. It may feel like our team members are wanting us to be involved, but sometimes I think it’s because of the situation we’ve set up.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I want to talk about the emotional trauma, for some of us, of letting go. When you decide it hits you that you just can’t operate at the same level of detail that you’re used to – that that’s not going to get you where you need to go, it’s not going to get your team where you need to go – how do you make peace with giving up control?

LIA GARVIN: I remember back at Google in one of my roles, I built our diversity inclusion program for the team I was on. I built it from the ground up and it was really, really successful. I had gotten a lot of notary around the company for me on this, and I got promoted. And I was able to hire a team member to backfill this role, and I was able to do something a little bit bigger and more cross company. And it was so terrifying because I loved what I was doing. I built it from the ground up. I knew exactly how to run it. I knew exactly what worked and what didn’t.

And I had to do a number of things to let go. I think first was, really be extremely thoughtful with the interviewing and hiring process – which we should be in any situation always, but to really make sure that I was not hiring someone on the pretense that they had to run with the plan that I established already. And then as I built trust with this person and started to see the way they worked, I would check myself whenever I had feedback. So, when they would send me a document to read a proposal and I noticed a little tinge of, I don’t know, I would say, Okay, what are the objectives of the project that this person’s sharing? Is this feedback more about me in my way or is it actually something that’s going to help the project accomplish that goal in a better way? But like you say, it was an emotional rollercoaster for sure, and I think a lot of us struggle with not wanting this thing that we built or really good at to go off the rails or to not go well. And, of course, that’s the case because we really care.

And the problem is if we… Like you said, we can never scale ourselves and really our team if we think we’re going to just hold onto control forever. We have to let folks run with it. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause a lot of stress internally.

AMY BERNSTEIN: That’s for sure. But I just have to reassure our listeners who are kind of new to this or who are dealing with it, that you kind of get used to it and it’s also kind of a relief.

LIA GARVIN: Exactly. Well, that’s what’s so funny. So, I gave that example with the event, events that keep me awake at night, I am all stressed. And when I said, Hey, I don’t have to worry about this, I could sleep better, I was happier, I was able to take on more projects. And so, the moment we do let that click in of, Hey, my role here is to help this person be successful, but I don’t have to do everything, I don’t have to check every corner because we’ve already talked about the parameters in which we’ll raise risks and talk about those things, it became the biggest relief. And that’s actually when my career started to accelerate when I let go of that.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Of course. But now I’m wondering, so when you’re setting these expectations and you’re delegating to someone, how does a middle manager set clear enough expectations without being – I’ll just use your phrase – “micromanage-y.” A great word.

LIA GARVIN: Exactly. So, I think the biggest is to make it into a conversation. And so, to talk about, well, here’s the goals of this project, and then inviting your team member in, so how would you solve this? Or what ideas do you have? And using some of these open-ended questions to enlist them into the plan because when we have a team member and they’ve been hired because they’re great and they have awesome experience. And then we give them a recipe for how to do their job well, that’s where it feels micromanaging.

And so, I think enlisting them in the conversation and asking how they’d approach it and folks listening that are scared they’re going to get it wrong, well, we can give feedback then. We can say, “Well, yeah, I really like the kickoff part. I think in the middle, let’s try this. In the end, that’s really strong.” But by enlisting them the conversation, now you’re getting them bought in and feeling accountable to the plan.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, when you have delegated a project, a task, management of a team, how do you keep tabs without being, again, micromanage-y?

LIA GARVIN: So, I think there’s a couple ways. First is we always want to have some kind of work tracking system. And I think the two things that we always want to have in some sort of shared view that we can see at any time without asking people is what is the status of this project and what is the capacity this person has for more work? With many teams that I consult with, I suggest doing a weekly recap where team members send you an email at the end of the week saying, “Hey, here were my goals. Here’s what I accomplish. Here’s any bumps in the road I ran into where I need help.”

And sometimes you respond, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you just look at it, sometimes it’s something to talk about. But to get in a rhythm where you have folks regularly reporting is something I strongly encourage folks have. Now with delegating specifically, I think it’s really important as part of the expectation setting to have a conversation on what do check-ins and reviews look like? So, if it’s a high stakes thing with stakeholders that are wanting to understand the status, we might say, “We’re going to check in end of day Wednesday and Friday every week for the first month, really to get in this rhythm.”

But you don’t check in Tuesday and Thursday, like, “I want a second and a third look at this thing.” Unless you could say, “Hey, our VP sent me a note, that’s why I’m checking in. I know we have our regular meeting set up Wednesday.” So, I like to acknowledge the preset times, even if sometimes we have to go outside that and by acknowledging, “Hey, I know we’ve decided this expectation,” then you don’t break that trust where it looks like you kind of threw the plan out the window. Then I like to talk about, well, which decisions am I making versus you making?

And we want to always be pushing decisions down as far as we can in an organization so folks feel like they have autonomy to do their jobs. And as the manager, there’s likely things that you really still should be the decider on. And so, really differentiating those with your team and saying, “Hey, here’s the moments when I need to make the call, make the approval. I need to see it before it goes out the door.” So, you’ve talked about reviews and check-ins, you’ve talked about when to make decisions, and then last talking about, well, what does done look like and how do we know that we’ve done a good job?

Any metrics or KPI’s, key performance indicators, any outcomes we want to be hitting so that we know, Okay, this thing is done to completion, it’s done a good job, it hit the goals that we had and we can move on to the next thing.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I think it’s really important as a mid-level manager, where you are responsible for the work of a team, a project, but you’re also responsible to someone who’s got a broader purview, to figure out what you really do need to know and check in on. And it’s probably something along the lines of making sure that the project, the task, the team is on strategy, and we often lose sight of that. But the bigger picture and just always helping the team connect their work to the organization’s bigger goals I think becomes, as your purview grows, something you really have to own.

LIA GARVIN: Absolutely. I love that you called that out because connecting to the bigger goals’ organization, that does a number of things. It helps people make decisions better because they understand, Hey, if I’m stuck here, I don’t know how to move forward… well, what are the goals of the organization? We should never have no idea what to work on next. We should have some clarity or some north star that we’re operating against.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I think that’s absolutely right, and we figured that out together as a team. Let’s talk about in this process of empowering your team, you yourself have to become comfortable and you have to get into the practice of giving up the kind of control you once had. At the same time, you have to help your team to take responsibility and accountability. What are your best ideas for helping your team members become more autonomous?

LIA GARVIN: I think it all comes down to fueling this ownership mindset across your team. And so, how do we create that? Well, I think a number of things. Like I mentioned, we ask our team members for how they would solve things. We ask them for their inputs. We show them that your ideas matter here. We also want to have really clear roles and responsibilities, want to talk about how to collaborate, but make sure folks really see, “Here is what I’m really an expert for and accountable for.” So, that people feel committed to that work.

And then we talk about, well, how does escalations work? How do we talk about learnings? Because I think one way we sort of pass the buck or start pointing fingers is when we’re afraid if we fail, it’s all coming down to us. We start to not take more on. And so, making it safe to fail, which is part of psychological safety. Where we have a culture where we talk about mistakes openly, we talk, we learn, we share examples of wins and losses as a team. I think that helps people step up as well. And then another big one is having a culture of recognition.

And it’s not about giving participation awards. It’s about genuinely appreciating the work your team members are doing so that they see, Okay, it’s not all bad, I’m not just hearing feedback when something goes poorly, but I know in general I’m moving in the right direction, this is going well. I feel empowered to take more on to keep moving forward and we feel more resilient.

AMY BERNSTEIN: And I love all those. Another one that I use is that if I want people to take ownership, I give them ownership publicly. I want them to present the report so they can also be the owners in other people’s eyes as well. It is so important, I think, to put your ego aside, get out of the way and let your team shine when they have taken ownership and that the accountability is theirs.

LIA GARVIN: Yes, I love that point. And I think that is something that happened to me in the past of when I was delegating pieces before I hired that team member to take on my DEI program. I had a team of volunteers I was managing, and I had handed off a couple projects, and there was one in particular that right after I handed off, I was like, “Oh man, that was such a good one. Why did I do that? That was the best one.” And I was beating myself up over it.

And then I thought to myself that I am operating in this scarcity mindset that I wouldn’t be able to think of another great project. I mean, I had a list of 10 things and I handed off eight because I could do two or however many. And when we believe there’s not enough good work to go around, I think that’s one of the things that starts breaking up all this trust and it’s an infinite.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I mean when you realize you’re operating from a place of insecurity, you’re probably not being your best self, right?

LIA GARVIN: Exactly. Exactly.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Hey, Lia, I’d love to get your thoughts on an email we got from a listener. Let me share it with you. So, she feels that she’s in a double bind because she’s expected to hold people accountable, but is often seen as being – and this is in quotes – “bossy and controlling.” This speaks to how it can be such a delicate balance, what we’ve been talking about between accountability and micromanaging and letting go. So, how can we know if we’re micromanagers or we’re just being perceived that way? How do we separate, as middle level managers, perception from reality?

LIA GARVIN: That’s such a good question. And I think when we’ve done a lot of the exercises and asked ourselves the questions that we’ve talked about in this conversation today, I think the next thing to do is to look at, well, what is the language that we’re using when we’re asking for things from our team? And I have an example in my first book Unstuck, when I talk about reframing accountability, which is a trap I fell into when I was managing projects. And I would ask a team member, “Hey, I need this by two o’clock,” or “I need you to finish this.”

And I was like, “Wait a second. I’m using, ‘I need this.’ I don’t need it. This is a person’s job.” And I was falling into a trap of using language that was making it about that person and me when it should be about that person and their job. And so, I started to reframe and I said, “Okay, this is due to the stakeholder by two o’clock or the engineering review is at two o’clock. Please share your work with them by then.” And I started to really become very, very tuned into the language I was using. And that made a huge shift, where it wasn’t like I’m acting like this person’s job is a favor to me. And I think the same plays out when we’re managing our teams as we say, “I need you to get this done,” or “I did –“ And it’s like, “I, I, I…” It’s not about you. The accountability ball stays in your team member’s courts, and I think that actually has so much more power than we realize then we can get to the next level, which is like you said, there’s a bias around when a woman is more direct, it being called bossy as opposed to a leader.

One of the tools that I use both myself as a manager and also share with teams that I work with is, as a manager, talk about your management and communication style with your teams. Have a conversation. Say, “Hey, here’s how I love to give feedback,” or “I’m really direct in these situations,” or “Here’s a way that when you need to come to me and share some feedback, please, in these situations.” And you have this level setting conversation with your teams and you’re honoring that so that you don’t show up differently one way when something happens versus another.

And you can say, “Hey, I am very busy at the end of the day, I’m wrapping up. I need to leave. So, if I write you a one letter email, ‘K,’ it doesn’t mean I hate you. It means I’m just acknowledging the receipt.” Then you ask them, what is your communication style so that you’re creating, again, a conversation around it instead of people making assumptions and then peppering in bias. And so, getting it out there, and I think being somewhat unapologetic about it. I think so many times we’re direct and then we’re apologizing and then we’re this, and then we’re that. And so that also creates some thrash.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Right. And it’s confusing.

LIA GARVIN: It’s confusing.

AMY BERNSTEIN: It’s a mixed message.

LIA GARVIN: Exactly.

AMY BERNSTEIN: And then finally, I think it’s helpful to remind yourself that you’ve been put in this role because people trusted you to do it well, and people also trusted you to find your way into it. And ultimately you have to trust yourself to show up the way you think you ought to show up, which isn’t going to make everyone happy. So don’t confuse other people’s response to you with your own self-respect. People aren’t always going to like everything you do, but you want them to respect what you do, right?

LIA GARVIN: Absolutely. How people receive us is not always going to align for everyone. There’s going to be differences based on culture and language and where you’re from in the world that always will be a part of the conversation. So, the more you’ve invested in building up that currency with your team member, and then having the clear expectations. And I would say I think of everything we’ve talked about, if you’re listening thinking, Gosh, it seems like I’ve got to do a lot of stuff. Oh my God, how do I even wrestle with all this? I want to remind you, I think micromanaging is less about “what” – it’s more about “when.”

So, when we’re correcting later and we’re fixing all little things and we’re in the details as things progress, that’s when it really feels more like that. And so, I wouldn’t avoid the setting expectations or bringing clarity around success. When we do that up front, now we’re building the trust, we’re making sure everyone feels like they can be successful. And so, I think we started our conversation talking about these two extremes. Sometimes people are too in the weeds and sometimes people are so avoidant. But if we don’t give any expectations, our team members are just as unhappy as if we are way too far in the weeds.

AMY BERNSTEIN: We all want to know the expectations, we want to know the guardrails, we want to know this so that we can operate better. Lia, this has been so good. Thank you so much for this great conversation. Really appreciate all your insights.

LIA GARVIN: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it as well.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I’m here with Gabriella Spatolisano and Jennifer Long, two mid-level leaders here at Harvard Business Publishing. Gabriella is our Director of Quality Assurance and Release Manager, and Jen is our Director of Learning Design. They’ve learned a lot about how to let go over the years, but they both still grapple with it day to day.

I know Jen well and Gabriella less well, but I know they’re both really thoughtful and effective managers. So, I was curious to get their takes on what Lia and I discussed and to learn how they manage making space for higher level work. Gabriella, Jen, thanks so much for being here.

JENNIFER LONG: Thanks Amy.

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, Jen, describe moment recently when you had to restrain yourself from getting into the weeds because you knew it wasn’t your job anymore.

JENNIFER LONG: Just one moment? There are quite a few. So, I am working on a matrixed team and we are designing a learning program and there’s lots of stages of design and development: designing the experience and then adding the content and then editing the content. And I’m on the hook to review all of it. And so, I found myself this week editing a video script, editing the actual words. And I realized I’m out of my lane here and I’m spending time on this, and we’ve got other really brilliant people who are actually better at this than I am who could be doing it – and I should be doing other things. It happens, I sort of fall into it and then I realize I’m doing it and have to pull myself out.

AMY BERNSTEIN: What about you, Gabriella?

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: Actually, I don’t have the problem of fear to lose the control or want it to do in my way. I’m a technical manager. I’ve done testing a long time, and when I look at… sometimes I check the code of what my people are doing. I’m tending to do it in my own way, but then you realize that they know now all the new tools. The fear that I have is wanting the best and I tend to think that the best is my best.

AMY BERNSTEIN: That’s it.

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: That’s the problem. And because we are wired differently, I think what I find in the experience over the year is try to understand the train of thought of this person. One important lesson of one person who reported to me a few years ago gave me is that she did it completely different, completely different. And I was so stressed out because I was sure that at the end they would be wrong. And what I did at that point, I just say, “Forget it. It’s going to be wrong, going to be wrong. I’m going to tell her I have other things to do.”

So, I actually stepped back thinking that it was hopeless. And then when I see that actually it worked and I asked her to explain what was her strategy, and then I realized, Yeah, it works fine. We are done. So, that’s the moment that you think maybe you had to give us some space.

AMY BERNSTEIN: But there’s something that happens. There’s a kind of an emotional tug to get involved, right? Jen, you’re nodding your head. You know what I mean.

JENNIFER LONG: Well, what you were saying was resonating with me because I’ve had to come to terms with this realization that maybe my ideas aren’t always the best. And there’s this-

AMY BERNSTEIN: No Jen, they’re always the best.

JENNIFER LONG: They’re always the best. But there’s this interesting dynamic I find where in my role, I’m a keeper of the vision. I have the vision. And Gabriella, you were saying of the very best it can be. I have the vision of what I think it should be at a high level, and I know how I would do it.

But the challenge is not telling people how to do it, but getting them locked in on the vision and the emotional piece is when you’re not sure they’re going to get there, or I feel like the vision is here and we’re kind of going over to the left, or we’re kind of not hitting it. And that’s hard. It’s hard to hold this sort of abstract vision and turn it into something concrete that people can execute in their own way.

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: But you touch a very good point, always concentrate on the “what” and not the “how.” What needs to be the final outcome. What are the requirements, what are the criteria or success? The “how” doesn’t matter at that point.

AMY BERNSTEIN: That sort of takes us into another question, which is how you keep tabs on your team’s progress. Gabriella, how do you do it without getting too deep in?

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: Well, I use a lot of demoing. I found that this is very effective. So, we have an intermediate milestone where we want to check where we are at towards the final outcome. And instead of intimidated on making me checking on you, let me know what you’re done so far. I do okay. Why don’t you demo to the group what you done so far and you have a peer making comment or giving feedback? And this is not only less intimidated, less controlling on my part, but it’s also very effective because we get more ideas and we learn all together. And I try to step back. I leave the floor to the other to ask question. I do, too. But demoing I think is a very, very… At least for a technical work, you can do this in intermediate milestone and you ask for feedback.

AMY BERNSTEIN: And Jen, your work is a little less technical. So, how do you keep tabs?

JENNIFER LONG: It’s very much less technical, but there’s some similarities in how we keep tabs. So, I have a team of learning designers and editors working on training materials, and we have a schedule and we have a review cycle. So, there’s sort of an automatic review where I get called into review deliverables that’s almost automated, but it doesn’t get underneath what’s really happening on the team. So, we have two ways of doing it.

One is we have weekly team meetings where, much like Gabriella, folks talk about where they are and what’s going on, and also what challenges they may be running into where they can help each other. And then I meet with each person individually one-on-one, every week, to just check in. Are there barriers? Are they behind what’s going on?

AMY BERNSTEIN: And you use that language?

JENNIFER LONG: I absolutely use that language.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, people come in knowing that they do have to report to you on their progress?

JENNIFER LONG: And I have a sense of where we need to be.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, have you ever gotten feedback, Jen, that you were micromanaging?

JENNIFER LONG: I’m not sure anyone said it to my face. I have gotten feedback from peers that I might be stepping on toes in other functions like my editor friends. And so, I’ve learned, if I put a comment, I’m like, “This is what I think, defer to editor.” So, I have gotten that-

AMY BERNSTEIN: You should always defer to the editor.

JENNIFER LONG: Always.

AMY BERNSTEIN: What about you, Gabriella? Have you ever been accused?

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: Jennifer is right, that people don’t tend to tell you explicitly what you’re doing, so you need to read behind the line. And one of the sign that tells me that I’m maybe stepping too much is when people started to be disengaged and they want me to spoon-feed them. When I know that the people are capable to do it, but just look at me. And for me, it’s a sign that they expect because they see me stepping in. They say, “Okay, Gabriella, step in.” So, I let them step in and it’s a kind of a passive. And when I see this, I realize, no, I shouldn’t because I know that these people are capable.

JENNIFER LONG: Your point about disengaging too… I hadn’t thought about this until you said that, but there was a point in our most recent project where my peers and I were trying to help our developers get a jump on these activities. And so, what we did is we did the legwork and we outlined the topics and we researched all the sources for them, and we even gave them draft learning objectives. And in our mind, in my mind, we were giving them a headstart, but to them they didn’t feel ownership.

And so that was a learning. That probably was micromanagement. And the way it came back wasn’t, “You’re micromanaging.” It was, “We don’t feel like we have creative ownership.” And so, that’s perhaps another word for micromanaging. We thought we were helping, but we were spoon-feeding. That does cause people to disengage.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, Lia had this interesting tip about doing an audit of your calendar to make sure you’re not in too many overlapping meetings. This is a check on getting too deep into the details. Has either of you ever done that calendar audit, Jen?

JENNIFER LONG: I have tried. And when I heard that, when I listened to that, it gave me of this moment of angst about, “Ooh, once again, am I adding value?” And then I think Amy, you made the comment of, “did I add value in that meeting?” And now I’m asking myself that question, but I have to confess to a little fear of FOMO. If I’m not there, I’m not going to know everything. And if I don’t know everything, I mean, this gets to also… I think Lia told a story about letting go a little bit, but also having pressure from her boss to be on top of the details.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Hello, mid-level management.

JENNIFER LONG: And so, there’s that like, Well, okay, I probably don’t have to go to this meeting and I’m probably going to be multitasking when I’m there, but if I’m not there and my boss asks me about something and I don’t know it.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Well, you can always say, “I’ll find out and get back to you.”

JENNIFER LONG: This is true.

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: I found it very interesting about the auditing, and I realized that subconsciously I did do this. And now I’m at the point that sometimes my people ask me, “Can you be pleased in this meeting because I need your help?” Otherwise, I say, “Okay, if you don’t invite me, I don’t come. Don’t worry. You do it.” When you are in the meeting, obviously the team attend to pull back and wait for you to talk. And I say, “If you want me to solve some disagreement, I come. Otherwise, by default I don’t come.”

AMY BERNSTEIN: I think your point about understanding how your presence affects the candor of a meeting is so important because we all think…

JENNIFER LONG: It’s just us.

AMY BERNSTEIN: It’s just us. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Well, you know what? You do have an effect on a meeting and you got to recognize it and own it. Just the way you said, Gabriella, right? So, the other thing that Lia said that I found so interesting was auditing your team’s skills to make sure that they are… that the individuals on your team are equipped to take on the work that you are asking them to do independently. Have you ever done that?

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: Absolutely. All the time. Because when you let go the control, it’s not always all or nothing or all the same. It depends on the skill and the maturity of the person. And some people need more guidance than others. So, absolutely you have to know who you can trust up to certain point and what kind of guidance this person needs. Not tell them how to do it, but guidance of when they’re stuck.

JENNIFER LONG: And on my team, I have people with really different skill sets. So, there’s this opportunity also pair people. I have somebody who’s very technically gifted, very interested in AI, very interested in pushing the envelope in that area. So, pairing that person with someone who may be more gifted in traditional design really helps them learn from each other. And actually, I learned from them too. There are people on my team that have better skills than I do in certain areas, more experience in certain areas. And so, knowing that as well where I can lean on them.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Have you started feeling that sense of relief that Lia mentioned?

JENNIFER LONG: Sometimes, some days. And then sometimes I feel guilty because I’m not in the details.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Oh, my gosh. Mid-level management.

JENNIFER LONG:  Relief and guilt.

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: Actually, you’re not doing anything.

JENNIFER LONG: I know, I know.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Do you feel any relief?

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: Oh absolutely. When my team takes ownership, it helps also the relationship – my relationship with them. And it’s more rewarding to me than to be just the controller.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I mean, it’s humbling in the best possible way I think.

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: It teaches humility. The humility of understanding that you don’t know everything.

AMY BERNSTEIN: See, that, to me, is where the sense of relief comes from.

JENNIFER LONG: It’s a relief not to have to know everything, isn’t it?

AMY BERNSTEIN: It sure is. Amen. Thank you both. You’ve been great, and I really learned. And I’m so happy to get to know you better, Gabriella.

GABRIELLA SPATOLISANO: Thank you.

AMY BERNSTEIN: And I love being in a room with you, Jen.

JENNIFER LONG: Thank you.

AMY BERNSTEIN: This has been fun. For more advice on getting your most important work done, check out HBR’s 10 Must Reads for Mid-Level Managers. The book’s a collection of the best articles we’ve published on winning buy-in, forming partnerships and developing talent. Women at Work’s editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Tina Tobey Mack, Rob Eckhardt, Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates, who’s producing this season. Robin Moore composed our theme music. Next week, Andrea Belk Olson explains how as a mid-level manager executing strategy is an opportunity to stretch and shine.

ANDREA BELK OLSON: And that’s not just focusing on execution solely and the tactics and initiatives thereof, but taking more of a business decision mindset and thinking strategically yourself on how to drive key choices.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Andrea and I will talk about what questions to ask before taking any action. We’ll also talk about how to move forward when you or your team are skeptical about the new master plan. I’m Amy Bernstein. Get in touch with me and the rest of the show team by emailing womenatwork@hbr.org.



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