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Mary, the chief executive officer for a small, successful software startup, poked her head into the office of her head of engineering, Wade. She didn’t see him. Puzzled, she checked the time. Yes, it was time for their one-on-one. Weird. Wade was always on time for meetings. Maybe he had fallen and couldn’t get up? She knocked on the door and called out, “Wade?”

Wade popped up from behind his desk. Double weird. Wade was always prim and proper, definitely not the sort to lounge on the floor. “Everything okay?” Mary asked.

“Yes, yes, everything’s fine,” Wade replied.

“If you say so,” Mary replied doubtfully. “Ready to get started, then?”

Wade suddenly crumpled, falling into his chair with a sigh. “I’m so glad you’re here, Mary. I’m at my wit’s end. Everything’s urgent and immediate and top priority. I can’t handle it all myself, yet I don’t know what is safe to delegate and what I’m best off dropping entirely. I really need some time away. But where am I going to find the time for that?” He pulled at his hair despairingly.

Wade messing his always-perfect coiffure? Things must be really bad.

“That sounds rough,” Mary said. “Tell me more.”

Show them you are ready to help

“You know how many new customers we are onboarding,” Wade said. “Which means a corresponding increase in customer support tickets. Some of which escalate to my engineers. We already have our hands full with building all the new features that are delivering all these new customers, not to mention all the issues our existing customers are having. Whatever we do, someone is going to be unhappy. Unhappy customers are not going to stick around. We have to take care of them all.”

“We might like to take care of them all, but we don’t need to,” Mary gently corrected. “We have more than enough in the bank to weather losing a few customers. Even a few big ones. If we cannot handle the load, losing a few might not be horrible.”

Wade looked at her, horror-stricken. “I am not going to be the reason we lose customers,” he declared.

“How do you plan to solve this conundrum, then?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said miserably.

“Would you like a suggestion?”

Wade straightened, regaining a bit of his usual composure in response to the hope Mary’s question offered. “Yes, please!”

Show them you have their back

“I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that your people are kicking everything up to you because they don’t feel confident making these decisions themselves. After all, if a key customer gets mad because of a prioritization tradeoff your people make, your people will be the ones to blame.”

“That matches what I hear in my meetings with my staff, yes.”

“So, what if you tell them you back their decisions on these matters one hundred percent? That if a customer complains, they can send the customer to you, and you’ll say the decision was yours?”

Wade stared at Mary with horrified thoughtfulness.

“And,” Mary smiled, “I’m telling you the same: if you can’t calm the customer down, you can send them to me, and I’ll tell them the decision was mine.”

The expression on Wade’s face now had surprise mixed in. Such a fascinating combination, Mary thought.

“That…is an excellent idea,” Wade said slowly. “If some of these decisions should have come to me after all, I can work with my people to refine that decision tree. Thank you, Mary. I appreciate your support.”

“You haven’t had many good managers, have you?” Mary chuckled.

“The longer I work with you, the more I realize I have not,” Wade agreed.

Show them you have room to grow

“And,” Wade continued, “the more I realize I’m not a very good manager myself.”

Mary shook her head. “You’re a fine manager, Wade. You just have a few things to learn. That’s normal. I still have a few things to learn. I always will. So will you.”

“I’m not certain I believe that, that you still have things to learn,” Wade stated.

“Well, here’s one example: if I was a perfect manager, I would have noticed that you were struggling with this far earlier. I’m apparently not as in tune with you as I thought.”

“That makes sense. We all always have room to grow.”

“That we do. Internalizing that will open up worlds of possibilities for you.”

Show them you care

“How are you feeling now?” Mary asked Wade.

“Much calmer,” Wade replied. “Now that I have a plan for returning all this responsibility to my team, where it belongs, and for doing so in a way that demonstrates I trust them and have their back in their decision-making, I feel lighter. More relaxed. Especially knowing I have your support to do this. I can even imagine taking time off now.”

“I’m happy to hear it. We all deserve time off. It’s critical to being a good leader. I have your back on that, too.”

“I appreciate that. Thank you, Mary.”

“You are most welcome.”

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