With a 24-7 corporate culture, the constant chirp of our inboxes, and the pressure to keep up an active social media presence, we’re endlessly barraged with the “urgent.” Unfortunately, says San Francisco-based executive coach Rebecca Zucker, that’s led to an epidemic of “senior executives who need to get out of the weeds and operate at a more strategic level.” Since the ability to be strategic is viewed as a hallmark of leadership, any professional who wants to advance must master the skill.
It’s not so much about learning the techniques, however. “We all know what we’re supposed to do here,” says Zucker, whom I interviewed for my recent book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. Most executives are perfectly aware they should be delegating in order to free up strategy time – and yet it doesn’t get done. Part of the issue, she says, may be “underlying beliefs and assumptions…which, at one time, allowed them to cope, protected them, or even allowed them to succeed. As an example, someone who grew up not being able to rely on the adults in his life might feel, ‘I have to do everything myself.’ That may have been true at an early point in their life, but as a working adult, that assumption or belief is likely no longer valid” and may hinder their ability to let go of the details and take on the big picture work that’s appropriate to their role as a leader.
There may be other concerns at play, as well. Some executives fear that in delegating, “‘I’m going to be cut out of the loop and become irrelevant,’ or ‘I won’t know what’s going on and I’ll look stupid,’” says Zucker. “It requires facing our deep insecurities about the dire consequences we fear will ensue if we do what we know we’re supposed to do (i.e., delegate).”
The first step, she says, is identifying which underlying fears and assumptions may be holding you back from delegating and taking on a more strategic role. This requires thoughtful reflection (an executive coach can help) and brutal honesty. These are not usually things you’d be proud to admit to other people, much like the examples above. One practice that can be beneficial for many aspects of your career is to “continuously ask for feedback,” says Zucker. “Most people won’t give you feedback unless you directly ask for it or give them permission to do so…it’s a powerful tool to continuously inform you of your strengths that you should be leveraging and development areas to focus on.”
You can also learn more about yourself and your behavioral style by taking personality assessments. “For example, a person with a preference for ‘Sensing’ [in the Myers Briggs assessment] may have a harder time getting out of the weeds than someone with a preference for intuition, since the former feels that ‘details are important’ and the latter is more naturally inclined to fly at the 40,000 foot level and is more than happy to let go of the details.”
Finally, once you understand more about why you may feel hesitant to delegate, you’ll want to create “safe experiments so you can see where this assumption holds true and where it doesn’t,” says Zucker. For instance, if you allow your employee to make one presentation when the stakes are low, and it goes well, you’ll likely feel more confident in letting him do it a second or third time in front of more important audiences.
Delegation can be difficult to master. But it’s essential if you plan to ascend the corporate hierarchy; you simply won’t have time for high-level strategic work if you’re consumed with day-to-day details. Understanding what’s holding you back – and embracing the ‘safe experiments’ that will enable you to move past it – is the first step on your path to the C-suite.
This post first appeared at Forbes.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.