I’ve been thinking about scaling a lot lately. My teams have been growing, demand for our work increasing, and our practices maturing. These are all good things. But as a leader, these good things translate to load. To continue being there for my teams and our partners, I need to change. I need to scale.
“Scaling” is the kind of term that crops up a lot in business. We talk about scaling systems, teams, and practices. We talk about “scaling to meet demand.” Scaling our teams means changing their size or structure in response to new needs. Scaling our practices means adapting systems and processes to support new demands. Scaling means change in response to something.
Scaling applies to leadership too.
If you lead a team and it grows, sooner or later you will reach the limit on how much you can support. Or you will reach a point when the type of support you deliver needs to change. Sometimes the old way of doing things will no longer be viable. You’ll need to scale as a leader.
First you need to decide what you actually need to do.
As leaders, we have access to people, systems, budgets, and other things that others do not. We also have abilities (and responsibilities) that others do not. As a leader you may be able to sign off on vendor contracts, manage budgets, approve hires. This means there are some things that only you can do for your team. Odds are that you’re also senior and so there may be things that only you have experience in. So when it comes to scaling as a leader, a great starting point is to consider these questions:
- What can only you do?
- What resources are only available to you?
- What experience do only you have?
There’s a fourth question that may help, but let’s work through these first.
Only I can…
What rights and privileges sit with you and no-one else on your team? Or to treat this Mad Lib style, how would you complete this phrase? “Only I can / am allowed to _____.”
- Only I can approve new hires
- Only I can approve budget spending
- Only I can submit performance reviews
Think through the whole year and the various milestones that come up throughout it. Weekly activities. Monthly activities. Quarterly activities. End of year activities. Also consider those once-in-a-while milestones like hiring, onboarding, letting people go. What can only you do?
Only I have access to…
Now think resources. Who do you have access to? What conversations and activities are only you included in? What systems can only you use?
- Only I have weekly time with our VP, SVP, CEO, etc.
- Only I am included in strategic planning or roadmap planning
- Only I have access to the HR system
While you’re at it, have a peek back at your “Only I can ____” list. Some of those items will hint at resources that are only available to you.
Only I have the experience to…
Now let’s look at your personal experience. As a leader you’ve probably built up a lot of it. Your team may have some of that experience too, but you may find you’re the sole expert in some areas. Try answering “Only I know how to _____.“
- Only I know how to negotiate a new contract
- Only I know how to estimate next year’s budget
- Only I know how to analyze this type of data
- Only I have experience resolving conflicts between teams
- Only I have experience onboarding a new vendor
- Only I have experience dealing with performance issues
As with the first Mad Lib, think about the different roles you play throughout the year. Think about the once-in-a-while situations where your experience helps. When do your teams come to you for guidance?
Now we talk about scaling as a leader.
Maybe the demands on you have shifted and you need to do more. Maybe your team has grown and you need to support more people. Maybe your responsibilities have changed and you need to show up in different ways while maintaining all the old.
How do you support these new demands while still showing up with the same level of engagement every day? Without burning out? Chances are you need more time, or more focus, or both. Probably both.
The good news: Anything not on your “Only I” lists is something you can let your team own. Right now. Today.
Let scaling your own leadership translate to career growth for your teams. You can create space for yourself — space to do the new things — by letting others contribute. And the amazing thing is that doing this helps them grow towards becoming leaders themselves. So consider what you can hand off because it doesn’t fall under “Only I.”
Hopefully that buys you some mental and calendar space for the new needful things. There’s still more you can do though. Let’s look at the things that do fall under “Only I.” Anything on these lists is, for now, something you can’t drop. This means that right away you have a list of essentials to maintain while shifting or expanding your focus. But which of these could change, with a little time or effort?
Anything on your “Only I” experience list is a potential area for upskilling your team. For example on one of my research teams I was the only person who knew how to use a specific research method. But that’s very, very teachable. I could change that with some training.
On another note, having all your team’s expertise on a topic sit with just one person — even you — creates risk. We’ve all heard the expression “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” and it definitely applies here. What would it take to decentralize that expertise? To train others, and in doing so create broader expertise? That would take work up front, but pay off in the longer term. It would reduce risk. It would create career progression for your team. It would free you from being the perpetual point of contact for certain types of work.
Which touches on something you may be thinking: “Yes, but it’s faster if I do it myself.” Sure, but that means you always have to do it. And if you do it 5, 10, or 100 times yourself, is that still faster than if you had taken the time to train others? Plus if you’re doing that yourself, you’re either not doing some of those new needful things, or you’re burning yourself out. That’s a high cost for “faster.”
So for anything on your “Only I” lists consider what you could let others take on, either now or soon. Let your team take on more responsibility. Offer them that career growth even as yours grows. And in doing this, create the space you need to scale and take on more (or different) responsibilities.
“Scaling” applies to us as individuals as much as it does to systems and teams. Sometimes we need to change what we do and how we do things in order to keep thriving. But that’s a challenge. This “Only I” exercise may seem like it’s about creating space on calendars, space for new demands. It is, but it’s also about reimagining who you are and what you deliver as a leader. It’s about clarifying the essence of your role.
It is also a lens that you can apply to new work, new demands, and new responsibilities. Is this a new demand for me (“Only I”), or is this a new demand for the team (distributed leadership)? If you’re scaling in response to new needs, this could be a powerful tool. It can help identify which new demands you take on yourself, and which your team could own.
If you try it, I’d love to hear how it works for you.