The Sandpit Strategy for Leaders
I used to be an amazing sandcastle builder, in fact, I built a career on it.
Then they said you are great at building sandcastles so we are going to make you the manager of other sandcastle builders. I was excited but a little anxious would they listen to me? How would I look after all those other sandcastles as well as my own? I wasn’t even sure the others were happy about the decision, I had been one of them, sitting beside them happily building sandcastles together, and now I was going to be responsible for them.
My sandcastles were HR policies, systems, and challenges, this was my first leadership opportunity and I quickly realised that it was going to be more difficult than I thought, and I made some mistakes including:
Trying to make my mark by acting too fast, my fellow sandcastle builders were not impressed when they perceived me to take over or hog the limelight
I tried too hard to be friendly, this came from me wanting to be liked and accepted but others just saw it as inauthentic, they were unsure of the relationship and also it resulted in people not respecting my new responsibilities.
I underestimated, I mean I really underestimated, the value of trust. Just because I had a new fancy title did not mean that all of a sudden people would trust me. I should have spent more time getting to know people from the new perspective of their direct line manager because their needs from that perspective were entirely different from sitting beside them building our sandcastles.
I became totally overwhelmed because I did not create the space to take on the different responsibilities and tasks. I tried to keep doing what I was doing before plus manage the team. I now needed to let go of some of my sandcastle building so I could look after the whole sandpit.
I knew I needed to do things differently if I were to be successful. I needed to make the transition from managing myself and being a producer of work to leading people and getting work done through others. I have now led small teams of 1 up to teams of 450 people across multiple states and territories and I know that letting go of my need to be recognised for my individual efforts and supporting others to be at their best can create much greater impact and be the difference between overwhelm and success.
In order to make the successful transition from master sandcastle builder to effective sandpit manager, my experience proved that these five key things are crucial.
Get reacquainted with yourself – Why did you take on a people leadership role, what experience will assist you, what is going to be challenging for you and what strengths do you need to develop? Being clear about who you are, what you stand for, what you have to offer and your hot buttons will really help you to build trusting and effective relationships with your team. Get to know yourself, your strengths, weaknesses and how you land on people.
1. Look up
When you are building sandcastles your focus tends to be down on the work you are doing. Now you need to expand your perspective and have a broader understanding of the business you are in.
Understand what is happening around you, what are the goals and objectives of the business and how can your team add maximum value? Understanding your operating environment both internally and externally will set you and your team up for success.
2. Commit to people and relationships
While in the past your focus may have been largely on tasks, now you need to shift that focus to people. Leadership is about relationships, influencing others to create a greater impact. To be able to do that you need to get clear on who you need strong connections with. Get comfortable sharing some of yourself (yes and your vulnerabilities) because it gives others permission to do the same. The strength lies in the collective strengths of the team.
3. Focus on mindset
Ensuring that you are mentally set to look for opportunities and be resilient is key to your success. Check out Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset. Growth mindsets see failure as an opportunity and focus on learning and growing. People with growth mindsets embrace challenges, persist through setbacks, learn from feedback (even criticism) and find lessons and inspiration in others.
4. Prepare to give things up
You are going to need to create time and space for people by giving up some of the tasks. Learn to delegate. There is no doubt that delegation is difficult, it requires us to give up control and trust another person, and while we no longer have responsibility for the task we do maintain accountability. Delegation also gives people an opportunity to shine and as Steve Jobs once said ‘Great things in business are never done by one person, they are done by a team of people”.
One of the most difficult and important transitions a leader makes is from doing to leading. When leading small teams you can get away with holding onto work, retaining your technical expertise through your output but as you grow, your team grows, and things become more complex maintaining your superhuman individual contribution status will become almost impossible, even painful. Promotion can turn into exhaustion, stress, and burnout.
Based on my experience and through coaching early managers, middle managers, and executives, a critical factor in making a successful transition and avoiding burnout and overwhelm is to develop your own sandpit strategy. Wherever you are on your people leadership journey it is never too late to master the art of maintaining sandpits – creating an environment where your team can be at their best.
Want support in making the transition? Check out my Leadership Lift program. Leadership Lift helps managers lead without micro-management or burnout, unlock the hidden superpowers of their team and transform from a producer of work to leading a team of collaborative and accountable high performers with strength, kindness, and trust. Or to learn more about the author, Justine Maree Cox, and her Leaders Change Room programs head to the website.