Leaders as Competency Developers

You know the drill: you’ve got an endless to-do list, fifty new emails waiting to be answered, and some “deep strategy work” that sits on a corner of your desk begging for white space on your calendar. Your employee walks in with a problem they need your help with, and your instinct is to think through the situation with the little context you have and produce a suggested solution lightning fast. Your employee is relieved, you feel useful, and the problem is solved…rinse and repeat. Thank you, next.  

Our ability to problem-solve efficiently and confidently is what got us to this level in the first place, right? The problem is: we hoard this skill as we carry it up the ladder. Our teams know they can depend on us, and that feels good. In our minds, it even reinforces the need for our position. In many cases, the instinct to answer a question with advice is the path of least resistance, one which has been modeled to us in relationships with our own leaders.  

I would like to propose that this pattern of ask for help > give advice > repeat can oftentimes lead to a cycle of dependency. Either we feel good being needed, we feel pressure to know everything, we have a wealth of experience, so we know what worked historically, or we just don’t have time to coach someone to their own solution. Unknowingly, we reinforce to our employees that this cycle of dependency is simply how things work around here. We’re flexing our muscles while our employees’ competencies atrophy. What we think was advising might actually be impairing. Of course, there is a time and place to dole out sage wisdom and save those we lead from making mistakes, especially when the stakes are high. But if we want to lead a team of competent decision-makers, we have to stop telling them what to do all the time.  

So how do we flip the script?  

To start, let’s look at how we define our role as leaders in the first place.  Leadership expert and retired US Navy Captain David Marquet says,  

“Leadership is embedding the capacity for greatness in the people and practices of an organization and decoupling it from the personality of the leader.”  

In other words: become the guide, not the hero. We “embed capacity” by shifting our focus to competency development. Competency development can’t happen unless we foster a learning environment in our organizations, and HR can’t be the only one beating this drum. 

On his nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Sante Fe, Marquet discovered what happens when making this shift and shedding the leader-as-hero approach. In challenging his crew to think critically and own their decisions, their competency grew and dependency shrunk. Watch his video on the process of permission-based leadership to intent-based leadership. In short, Marquet stopped telling his team what to do. 

Marquet’s approach represents one of many small behavioral changes we can practice in the journey of embedding capacity and building competency.  

In this blog series, we’ll dive into exactly what developing competency looks like for employees and how YOU can drive it. We’ll look at the anatomy of the word “competency” so that it’s clear how to approach it as a boss, and then explore tactical steps to deploy with your team. In the meantime, start paying attention. Do you enable competency development in your conversations with employees? Or do you inhibit it by falling into the old habit of telling people what to do?  

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