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Responsibility and Authority

2010 September 22
by John

It’s frustrating to be given responsibility for something an then not have any authority to carry it out. You can be put in charge of a team, or a project, and then be given no decision-making power for instance. Or given an opportunity to change your company from within, but have to check in with your manager or CEO before actually moving on any idea or change. I makes it hard to get anything done, and your team members will pick up on it real fast, and will start checking with your boss before doing what you say needs to be done. It makes sense doesn’t it? I mean that is where the decision is made, right?

The place where I work used to have real problems with that. As we grew from a startup to a viable company, our leadership didn’t find it easy to relinquish control of their baby. I can’t say I blame them, they had a lot riding on the company’s success. However, it just isn’t a sustainable model. You need to invest in your team such that you slowly grant them the power to change the way you do your work day to day.

I’m happy to say that in the past two years a lot has changed in that regard, and our company is growing like mad as a result. But a lot of small companies make that mistake. Like I said, the toughest decision is the one you allow your team to make.

I’ve been trying to build that kind of empowerment into my team, and the people my team works with. It’s a fine line to walk trying to maintain my leadership and “manager” status both within the team and outside it, but it seems to be working well enough. As always, there’s obviously room for improvement. But that’s a blog for another day.

One thing I learned recently when I left for an extended vacation was that it isn’t enough to extend responsibility and the corresponding authority to your team. The people they work with need to acknowledge that authority as well. The person I left in charge (we called him Proxy-John or Mini-Hass) did a fantastic job representing our team externally. He made good decisions, and even had to have some tough conversation with stakeholders on a couple projects that fell behind schedule. In those cases he did everything right.

The catch was that those stakeholders didn’t treat him as though he were me. They didn’t expect him to have the same authority as I have within the company. When he said things like “No we can’t get that new feature wedged in before our deadline, so we can schedule it as part of phase two” and “In order to make the release we’ll need to trim down what we do this month as opposed to next” they just continued to send their enhancements and change requests and expect them to be completed. I had given him authority to make that decisions. The issue here was that they had not.

So “phase two” of my mentoring is to find ways to validate my team’s authority in front of the company. I can’t just let them make decisions and support them. Somehow, while maintaining my involvement in each project and ultimate responsibility for our timelines, I need to more publicly support my team’s good decisions and allow them to make more of them.

I may even need to brush up on my cheerleading. Gooooo Team! We’ve got features yes we do, we’ve got features how ’bout YOU?

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Krista permalink
    September 25, 2010

    I love reading your stuff… good insight!

    • John permalink*
      September 25, 2010

      Hey thanks! We started this whole blog for blogging backpacking trips, vacations, etc. for people back home that always want to know the latest and greatest. But I enjoyed doing it, and I think I’ve got a writer’s bug. I have a lot of thoughts rolling around in my head that never actually take form. I just think about them from time to time, but never give them any meat or muscle, just the bare bones concept.

      I thought this might be a good way for me to flesh those things out and make sure they’re consistent, you know? I don’t really care who reads the ones between our trips, it’s just useful for me you know (although I have to admit I like watching the stats spike on a day I post something 😉 )?

      Anyway, I have a post or two coming that Dave and I have talked a little bit about but I haven’t had time to work on it yet. Should be interesting.

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