We’re all familiar with the idea that part of a leader’s job is to build up the confidence of employees in the organization — particularly those just starting out in their careers. A recent experience reminded me, however, that sometimes we also need to build up the confidence of those who we assume are already very confident: executives and other accomplished professionals.
When Things Get Overwhelming
I had the privilege of facilitating a two-day planning meeting for a group of executives contemplating a rather ambitious project: developing a training academy and certification program that would become the standard in their industry. Working diligently in a very pleasant conference facility in the Arizona desert, the team soon had several whiteboard’s full of potential curriculum designs and course outlines spread around the boardroom. As we did a brief re-cap before dinner, I was quite struck by the group’s reaction. As each person took in the array of courses and materials noted on the boards, they vocalized a reaction I wasn’t expecting: they felt a bit overwhelmed.
I was quite startled by this. The participants were all very accomplished in their field and prominent leaders in their respective organizations. And yet, even for this group, the size of the task before them — laid out in visual form on the whiteboards — was somewhat daunting. “I’m not sure I’m qualified to teach even one of these courses,” one remarked quietly, spurring “me, too’s” from the others (all CFO’s or the equivalent).
Remedies: Breaking Tasks into Pieces
After I recovered from my surprise, I quickly moved forward with the first two tactics that came to mind:
- Breaking the larger tasks down into more manageable pieces
- “Giving them permission” not to have to accomplish it all in one fell swoop
Instead of looking at a 50-item list of topics, we grouped the topics into more manageable segments—leaving the group breathing easier at the thought of designing 10 courses, rather than 50. At the same time, I went back to the maxim that “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and encouraged them not to feel they needed to teach everything they knew all at one time, as it would be equally as overwhelming for the students as it would be the instructors. In other words, they could start small and build from there.
It may sound funny to say that I “gave them permission” to take it one step at a time, as I had no authority over the group in any way, other than as facilitator. What I mean, though, is that we often need to take the pressure off people to free them up to perform well –and our bosses sometimes need us to do this for them as much as we need them to do it for us.
These few days in the desert reminded me that we can build confidence – from the entry level, to the board room — by reducing unnecessary pressure that might otherwise paralyze and overwhelm, and by helping to break down tasks so that people can chip away, piece by piece, gaining strength one step at a time. It turns out this can be a healthy — and necessary — approach … even with executives!