D RRoll Up Your Sleeves

January 16th, 2021 12:37 noon

New job. Two weeks notice. Last day. Tears. Goodbyes. Exit interviews. Telling the same stories over again.

“What advice do you have for me?”

It’s nerve-wracking to chat with your boss’s boss, even if you only report to them for a few more hours. But to be asked for your advice? That’s awkward. My advice covered several things, but the last thing was the biggest: roll up your sleeves and do the work your team does.

The title big cheese means something different in an organization ostensibly helmed by a five foot tall mouse. But Lee Cockerell, former Executive Vice President of Walt Disney World Resorts, didn’t let his title or ego get in the way of doing the front-line work he asked of his team:

Cockerell, who oversaw 40,000 cast members, spent time cleaning tables, cooking french fries, organizing strollers, and renting out wheelchairs. “It’s very enlightening,” he said. “You find out you don’t know anything. You think you know everything, but you don’t. As an executive, you’re trying to make the best decisions. If you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t make them.” Of mouse and men: Disney veteran talks leadership

It builds empathy for your team and their work.

By engaging in the kind of work they perform, using the same tools, and following the same processes they do, you’ll get to see what their daily work experience is like. Ask yourself: “is this really what I want for people who report to me?”

It’s one thing to observe their work or ask for opinions, it’s another to live their experiences first-hand. Use the insights you gain working alongside them to foster a working environment you can be proud of, and one which will attract and retain top talent.

It builds trust.

In my last engineering management role, I made a point of taking time every couple Fridays to write code. Sometimes I would take on an SEO related task. Usually I’d be adding unit tests to ensure our systems worked the way we intended.

I used the same tools as my team and their peers. I used the same processes. I presented my work for the same scrutiny they did. I crossed my fingers for luck as we rolled my code out to the web site just like they did.

People told me they had never seen a manager do that before. I hope it sent some clear messages:

When you establish trust with your team, your feedback is more meaningful and changes are more welcome because they know they aren’t arbitrary.

It’s a chance to lead by example.

Individual contributors focus on their daily tasks. But as a leader, it’s your responsibility to focus on the bigger picture. You may want to make changes you know will improve things, but people resist change. There’s no better way to show a change isn’t scary than to model it yourself. If you want to introduce new tools, processes, or best practices, be ready to demonstrate them yourself.

It can make your job more fun too!

Just because you’re a leader doesn’t mean your job doesn’t get boring too. It’s important to step away from the meetings and paperwork for a little bit, be around other people, and do different things. Don’t forget to keep your job varied and interesting, so you can inspire that same excitement in the people who report to you!

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