I had the pleasure of attending the Lyric production of “Newsies” Saturday night. Loosely based on the New York City Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, Newsies tells the story of young newspaper sellers who are exploited beyond reason by their bosses and set out to enact change. After forming a “union” and calling a strike, the newsies suffer a significant loss and their leader, Jack, quits. In a particularly poignant scene Katherine, the daughter of Jack’s nemesis and his developing love interest, has an idea. As she encourages Jack to reengage and lead, she says, “Being the boss doesn’t mean you have all the ideas, it means you know a good idea when you hear it.”
When I heard that line, I was reminded of something that has been very encouraging to me in the more recent years of my career. As I reflect on the last few years, it is exciting to see how much is happening at Kimray that I don’t know about it until it is already well under way or even completed. Maybe that doesn’t arouse any particular emotion in you, but for me it does. I grew up in the family business. I can’t remember a family birthday, holiday or gathering that didn’t include a conversation about Kimray. As part of management, I spent the majority of my career making sure I was involved, and at some level in control of, every major initiative.
There is nothing wrong with being involved. There is nothing wrong with generating ideas. There IS something wrong with creating a monopoly on ideas. Put another way, it is dangerous to create an environment where yours are the only ideas being used. Think about what it would be like if the only thing you had to eat was McDonalds cheeseburgers. It would suck. Even if you could select from the entire menu, you would still become sick of McDonalds in a relatively short time. Lack of variety and diversity is stifling, both to individuals and to organizations.
Why then do so many leaders struggle to let go of micro control and let other’s ideas be brought to completion? What keeps us from releasing our team members to use their creativity and capitalize on the opportunities that are always before us? Why do we refuse to acknowledge that many times other people have better ideas and better solutions than we do?
Part of it is a fear of irrelevance. Leaders sometimes believe (wrongly) that their job is to come up with all the ideas, solutions and answers. Like Jack, we think being the “boss” means that everyone is looking to us to tell them what to do. Leaders often fear that if other people solve the problems or recognize the next opportunity, we will be unnecessary. This couldn’t be more wrong.
Even more prevalent is the fear that if we give people the freedom to create and build without our constant oversight, they will run in the wrong direction and mess things up. We have plenty of evidence that this is true. We have all experienced this in our lives. Maybe we have too much to do and give someone else the authority to complete something. We don’t have time to check on them and monitor them, and eventually we find that the project is horribly off track. Most of us have experienced going on vacation to rest and recuperate, only to come back to a disaster that saps all the renewed energy we gained from being away. So, we have learned that our organizations or communities will not function without our constant and detailed involvement. Right?
Imagine that you own a newspaper. You have all the necessary equipment to print papers. You have fantastic sales teams and delivery systems. You are connected to the national and international wire services which bring the latest news and information right to your door. In short, you have everything necessary to gather, print and deliver a word class paper. However, for some reason, you do not actually put any of that info in the paper. I imagine you would struggle to sell a single paper. The problem isn’t that newspapers don’t work, the problem is what your newspaper is missing.
Often, what is missing in our leadership is the framework necessary for people to act independently yet in concert with the community. This framework can take many forms but is most often seen as mission and core values. As leaders, our most significant responsibility is to communicate why the organization exists and what our unchangeable distinctives are. At Kimray, our mission is to make a difference in the lives of those we serve. To support and illuminate that mission we have core values which serve as a “first filter” for the decisions we make. Undergirding all of this is our foundational belief that all people are equally valuable and should be equally respected.
When leaders fulfill their responsibility to clearly and consistently communicate why the organization exists and what the non-negotiables are, team members can be released to use their creativity and pursue their ideas and solutions for the available opportunities. In practice, this results in exactly what I have been seeing at Kimray: hundreds of initiatives that are generated and completed without my prior knowledge or ongoing involvement. Are they all perfect and successful? Of course not. However, if we are honest, not all of my ideas and projects were perfect or successful. Personally, I don’t make less mistakes than our team members do. By contrast though, having everyone at Kimray generating and executing on ideas creates several orders of magnitude more results.
Make no mistake. It is easier in the short run to just micro-manage everyone. Having and communicating a clear mission and core values is difficult work. Anyone can be a boss. Being a leader takes the humility to acknowledge that other people often have better ideas than we do. Being a leader means providing the framework and walls for other people to display their art. Being a leader means doing the difficult work to educate your team and then TRUSTING them to do great work—even EXPECTING them to do great work.
At Kimray we are blessed with a culture and a team of leaders who understand why we exist and give their people the freedom to create great things, because that’s the Kimray Way.