The Role of a Manager: Balancing Leadership and Delegation

In her book The Making of a Manager, Julie Zhuo discusses the role of a manager:

Your role as a manager is not to do the work yourself, even if you are the best at it, because that will only take you so far. Your role is to improve the purpose, people, and process of your team to get as high a multiplier effect on your collective outcome as you can.

If you’re a manager, these statements may resonate with you. However, you might still be tempted to take on the work yourself. Firstly, getting directly involved can expedite task completion. Secondly, it allows you to focus less on communicating your vision of “great work” and more on delivering the expected results. Finally, there’s a notion that a manager should “lead by example.” Assuming tasks can bring benefits such as saving time, maintaining quality, and fostering a sense of security.

Have you observed Elon Musk’s recent efforts to transform Twitter from top-down? He’s involved in everything, from shaping the product vision to challenging office canteen offerings, tracking technical performance, and even responding to tweets from customers and employees. No aspect of the company remains hidden from him. Is there something to learn from his approach? After all, this manager is launching rockets into space. There are undoubtedly valuable insights to be gained here.

Hold on. Whenever I ponder this topic, a story from management training comes to mind. It may revolve around a ship’s captain or an aircraft’s pilot. Let’s choose the latter. This story provides great insights, so allow me to share it.

Imagine boarding an 800-passenger Airbus A380 for a Paris to New York flight. It’s a substantial journey. As you wait at the airport, you notice the pilot conversing with passengers. Eventually, the pilot approaches you and introduces himself as the one in command of the aircraft. He chats, gets to know you better, and then moves on to another traveler. While you appreciate the interaction, you may wonder if he should be preparing for takeoff instead.

Eventually, it’s time to enter the plane. While waiting in line, you observe the pilot personally welcoming each passenger by name and checking their passports. “Good to see you onboard, Ali. Hello Laura, enjoy your flight. Welcome, Lina.” The pilot values customer care, which is commendable. However, you can’t help but question whether this allocation of resources, with the highest-paid crew member serving as a steward, is appropriate. The pilot checks your passport, smiles, and allows you to proceed.

As you reach your seat, you notice a small card placed there. It contains a handwritten message: “Dear Edmond, I personally prepared your seat because I care about quality. I hope you enjoy the Netflix series we discussed earlier. Your dedicated pilot.” It’s both surprising and eerie. How did the pilot find the time to do this? Glancing around, you realize they did the same for every other passenger. Is this the extent of his responsibilities? You begin to question whether he is a competent pilot. While his attentiveness to passenger comfort is evident, does it overshadow his ability to perform his job proficiently?

The plane takes off with a few jerks. A little later, the flight attendants begin serving lunch. Wait a minute. You spot a familiar face among them: it’s the pilot! He’s serving passengers because he enjoys being in touch with his staff. Curiosity takes hold as you ponder who is flying the plane while the pilot attends to your lunch. Determined to find out, you seize an opportunity when he passes by, pretending to head to the restroom but instead making your way toward the cockpit. To your surprise, the door is slightly ajar, and you discover that the aircraft is on autopilot. No one is in control. Just then, a voice on the radio warns of approaching turbulence.

Concerned, you alert the pilot, who rushes back and takes the necessary safety measures. Afterward, he shares with you, “You know, Edmond, I really enjoy this job. Every flight is a unique story. Even though flights can last for hours, time flies by for me. I love wearing multiple hats.” Now, you have a clear understanding of his approach as a pilot. While he genuinely cares about quality, customer satisfaction, team interaction, and getting involved in various tasks, he falls short as a pilot. You expect a pilot to fly the plane and assume control, not someone everywhere.

As a team pilot, your strength lies in defining a purpose and establishing the right people and processes to fulfill it. Your role is to create and manage the system, not execute every aspect.

You might assume that setting up the system is quick and straightforward, but the reality is quite the opposite: it’s even more challenging. While you can delegate specific outcomes to your team members, you remain responsible for the overall quality. Thus, you must ensure the entire system functions smoothly and implement quality control, traceability, and tracking measures. You can’t blame a flight attendant for serving a cold lunch; the fault lies with you as the one who hired and trained them.

Therefore, your focus should be refining the system rather than immersing yourself in hands-on tasks. A robust system allows you to step away from your role for weeks while your team continues to operate efficiently. Your absence goes unnoticed until significant changes occur, such as new competitors, shifts in company strategy, or product updates. During such times, the team relies on you to build new systems.

This is why, as paradoxical as it may seem, my top priority when joining a new team is establishing the ability to step away without causing disruptions in the medium term. I set the necessary systems. Unlike Elon Musk, I don’t excel at multitasking or diving deep into technical aspects of the job. However, I consider myself a facilitator seeking the ideal balance that enables the team to be autonomous. This approach saves me time to contemplate the team’s future and engage in more writing activities.

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