As we begin our coaching session, Nick is fired up. His eyes are beaming with determination and he never really comes to a full rest. He speaks passionately about a new initiative he is spearheading to take on the looming threats from Silicon Valley and rethink his company’s business model completely.
I recognise this behaviour in Nick, having seen it many times over the years as he has risen through the ranks. But this time I notice something new. Beneath the usual can-do attitude there is an inkling of something else: mild disorientation and even signs of exhaustion.
“It’s like sprinting all you can, and then you turn a corner and find that you are actually setting out on a marathon,” he remarks at one point. And as we speak, this feeling of not being able to keep pace turns out to be Nick’s true concern: Is he about to burn out?
Nick is not alone.
Right now I see a surge of concern about getting ahead and staying ahead among clients. More people use similar metaphors about feeling “caught on a track”. Invariably, their first response is to speed up and run faster.
But the impulse to run faster is deadly for long-term careers: it just leads to burnout.
To add insult to injury, the way many leaders wrestle with the challenge of achieving sustainable speed is somewhat counterintuitive, and for high-performing leaders who have successfully relied on their personal drive to get results, it’s even disconcerting.
The key to speeding up without burning out is a concept I call “co-drive”. Sustainable speed does not come from your own personal performance or energy level but rather from a different approach to engaging with people around you.
Rather than running faster, Nick needs to make different moves altogether. First, he must let go of his obsession with his own development and pace. Second, he must start obsessing about other people.
It may seem illogical but the leap to a new growth curve begins by realising that the solution is not to take on more responsibility but to let go of some of it.
The talent phase in our careers tends to be profoundly self-centred, even narcissistic. If you want to move on from the first growth curve in your career, you need to exchange ego drive for co-drive.
Co-drive requires that you momentarily forget yourself and instead focus on others. The shift involves an understanding that you have already proven yourself. At this stage, the point is to help those around you perform.
So rather than striving to be energetic, Nick should aim to be energising. Instead of delegating tasks, he should learn to lead by congregating.
BE ENERGISING, NOT ENERGETIC: You can actually speed things up by slowing down. There is no doubt that being energetic is contagious and therefore a short-term source of momentum. For example, conveying a sense of urgency is useful, but an excess of urgency suffocates team development.
Nick has always had a weak spot for people who, like himself, are full of energy. These “Energizer Bunnies” are his star players. However, with the co-drive mindset, Nick needs to widen his sights and recognise and reward people who are good at energising others.
SEEK SELF-PROPULSION, NOT PACE-SETTING: If you lead by setting tight deadlines and staying to work late, your team becomes overly dependent on your presence. Sustainable speed is achievable only if the team propels itself without your presence. Self-propulsion comes from letting go of control, resisting the urge to make detailed corrections and allowing for informal leadership to flourish.
In Nick’s case, leading from the sideline will change his perspective. He’ll see what happens when he sets his staff free and asks them to take charge instead of looking to him for deadlines and decisions.
CONGREGATE, DON’T DELEGATE: From very early on in our careers we learn that in order to solve big, complex issues quickly, we have to break the problem into smaller parts and delegate these to specialists. However, true masterpieces only come alive when the orchestra plays together.
One example is the so-called trauma centre approach. When a trauma patient arrives, all medical specialists in the room assess the patient at the same time, but they also allow the most skilled specialist — who is not always the designated leader — to take the lead when necessary.
The most well-run trauma teams I’ve observed know when to jump in and when to step back. They rely on trust and patience.
To Nick, this may sound like plain old teamwork. But there is more to co-drive than just teamwork. It’s about reworking the collaborative process itself. Sustainable speed requires a shift towards collective creation: gathering people together often, engaging issues openly and inviting others to improve on your own thoughts and decisions.
Co-drive requires a different mindset. Try, for instance, looking at your own behaviour and gauging the balance between giving and taking. Givers offer assistance, share knowledge and focus on helping others. Takers get other people to perform tasks that will ultimately benefit them, and they act as gatekeepers of information.
Headhunters call this change of perspective from ego drive to co-drive “executive maturity”. How do leaders show maturity and help others perform? By progressing from seeing the world on the basis of their own needs and motives to seeing themselves from an external position as parts of an organism.
Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg is an executive coach and the author of Battle Mind.
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