Getting Ahead by Letting Go
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If you’ve ever watched toddlers playing in a room full of toys, you may notice them trying to pick up a new bauble without putting down the toy they’re already holding. They are curious about the new object, but reluctant to let another child grab what they’ve got. Eventually, they walk around holding a bundle of toys they can’t play with because their hands are too full.
Do you see this kind of behavior in your work place? There always seems to be that one person who is eager to grab a new position with new or increased responsibilities, yet refuses to let go of the old duties.
Some of that might just be a simple reluctance to give up what they know for the unknown, which is perfectly natural. But, more typically, what I see is that for some people, it’s not about balancing new opportunities while letting go of current responsibilities -- it’s about who’s got the “bigger pile of stuff” at the end of the day.
I’m thinking back several years ago when I promoted a high-achieving leader to a new position with a huge opportunity. He had a reputation as a fixer with the results to back it up, so he earned my confidence. I also knew I could backfill his current role with other talent to free him up for this chance to really define and grow this new piece of the business.
I was excited to create this opportunity for him, so you can imagine my dismay when, after explaining the promotion, he took issue with my insistence that we redistribute his current work. He actually became obsessed about what I was “taking away from him” instead of focusing on everything I was laying at his feet. Sadly, the result was one I’ve seen played out time and again. Because he acted like he’d been taken down a notch (even though he’d been promoted) it became his own self-fulfilling prophecy. His coworkers were happy to listen to his complaints and console him for his “loss” -- but they no longer saw him as the top dog.
Finding leaders instead of heroes.
In hindsight, maybe he thought I was looking for a hero; someone who could carry even more weight without complaining. Perhaps I should have spent more time explaining that I needed a leader to come up with a vision for success and inspire the team to win big in a new arena. Instead, he thought he could do it all and do it better. I wanted to give him the bandwidth and runway to do more than “better.” I wanted him to take our business to a whole new place.
Moving ahead by letting go.
Good leaders inspire their colleagues to look ahead, to try, to struggle and sometimes fail, and then to try new solutions. But, regardless, to keep moving. What we’re not good at is understanding and explaining what we’re leaving behind in terms of what’s ahead.
A repair person at a photocopier company who enjoys the independence of working one-on-one with customers is now asked to sit at a terminal managing the digital assets of hundreds of clients across an enterprise. Or that truck driver who used to make deliveries to 30 stores, now has the tools -- and the smarts -- to help hundreds of customers track thousands of packages “one at a time.” They won’t have the independence of being on the road, but they’re doing more, doing it better and helping more people -- and maybe they’ll get home for dinner on time more often.
Sometimes we’re so excited to explain a new vision, that we don’t explain the path to get there. And, that might include explaining why we’re leaving some things behind.
In today’s fast-change, high-growth environment, all our jobs and responsibilities will be continuously reshuffled and redefined. The best way to set ourselves up for success is to rise above our fears and design our next opportunity.
Think about that the next time your job is redefined because, sooner or later, it will be. Make the decision to jettison whatever narrative -- whatever baggage -- is holding you back. You may have to get out of your comfort zone, say farewell to favorite clients, go where there are fewer names beneath yours on the org chart, or even give up your illusions of playing the hero who can play every position at once.
You’ve got to let go of some of those favorite toys so you’ll be ready to grab the next opportunity with both hands.