The best piece of advice I received when I started managing people? That my job was to make my team successful. Over time, I built on this advice, realizing that I also had to make the teams around me successful. This approach was key to unlocking more leadership responsibility. Let me explain…
At one point in my career, I was the only program manager at my software company, responsible for scheduling and organizing the work needed to create a successful product. Given that I hate reinventing the wheel, I was careful to keep track of what I did, improving how I got the job done with each project we released. When other teams started hiring program managers, I put together a kit of my best practices to help them learn the ropes and be successful. I wasn’t expecting anything in return, but, in hindsight, creating this kit was critical to my career. My personal brand became linked with strong program management, driving consistency across business units, and “dotted line” leadership of people outside my direct team. As a result of helping others, my leadership reputation and responsibilities grew.
While I like to think of myself as a generally helpful person, I’m a novice when compared to Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton. I heard about him from my friend Lise, who pointed me to a NY Times article “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” The reporter followed Grant during a typical day, where students sought his advice as he walked across campus, stood in lines outside of his office hours waiting to get a chance to talk to him, and sent him hundreds of emails asking for help or thanking him for something he had done for them.
Adam Grant practices “extreme helpfulness,” giving his time and advice to everyone who asks for it, regardless of how busy he is. He’s truly generous with his time, without expecting anything in return. Does helpfulness pay off for Grant? According to the article, yes.
“For Grant, helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity.”
Creating the kit for program managers was my mother lode. After that experience, I wanted to help my co-workers even more. I started mentoring individuals and built teams to help other groups across the company create their software products. Like Grant, helping others increased my productivity and creativity, along the way making me a better leader.
As I think about being a parent and being extremely helpful to my kids, I’m realizing there is an important distinction to make. I never want to do things that prevent my kids from learning the skills they need to move into adulthood. Instead, I want to be extremely helpful in every way that leads to learning, maturing, and “helping them help themselves.” With my teens, I won’t write an email about an internship for them, but I’m happy to review theirs before they press “Send.” As they learn to cook full dinners, I’m in the kitchen to answer their questions, but leaning back from the hands-on work. You get the picture.
This distinction also holds true for helping people at work. As first time managers or more seasoned leaders, we don’t want to do work for our team. We want to help them by setting them up for success.
What do you think of extreme helpfulness, as a leader or as a parent? Please leave a comment; I’d like to hear from you!
© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.