Asking your leaders to do more with less? Make sure they have these 3 things
Natasha joined her last company with the aspiration to take on more leadership opportunities and make a difference in her area of expertise. The CEO shared an inspiring vision, and her direct manager offered an exciting future for her to lead the department to success. Sure, there were going to be tough decisions ahead and the team was lean, but she felt confident she had the skills and experience to achieve the goals described to her based on the environment.
One year into her leadership role, Natasha is stressed, panicked, and her confidence is shot. She is not operating at her best; she feels confused about her role and how to focus on the priorities of the team, and now the burnout is impacting her family life. Her situation is drastically different from what she hoped for, and she's struggling to determine how to turn things around. She's starting to wonder if she should call it quits, but is gutted to give up what felt like an amazing opportunity she invested so much in.
Natasha may not be real, but from my own conversations with leaders across companies and industries, many can relate to her from their own experience. It's no secret that most leaders throughout their career are asked to do more with less, and frankly, leaders should expect this reality as one of the core challenges to solve in any company. Some leaders succeed in this scenario, leading to new forms of innovation, efficiencies, and disruption. However, others seem to crash and — something we've heard about a lot these days — burn out. Why is that?
It might just depend on how leaders are asked to do more with less. The organizational practices associated with this could potentially box a leader into a no-win situation, leading even the most talented leader to fail. Using Natasha's cautionary tale, here are a few common examples of the institutional pressures put on leaders:
1. Shortly into her role, Natasha is informed she will have 30% fewer staff than she thought. She develops a proposal on how the team could operate differently, but it is not approved and no other solution is offered, other than a longer-term promise to revisit the situation. Natasha fills the gap herself by operating at a strategic level while also being in the daily weeds of execution to ensure the team can still deliver.
2. Natasha has a critical position open for hire and decides to seek out very experienced talent because she finds her team is less experienced than expected. But when she moves her final candidate forward to the executive team, they do not approve it. She eventually gets another resource approved, but it's clear the hiring decisions are out of her control.
3. Natasha proposes a strategic plan that she feels best serves the needs of her customers, but can't get decisive action from the C-level team to move it forward. With different feedback coming from all angles, she's no longer sure how to prioritize and starts hopping from one emergency to the next.
4. When Natasha tries to discuss her concerns with her manager, they seem very far removed from connecting to her daily challenges. While they say they want to support her, she feels like they are annoyed she is raising problems. Her manager wants solutions, but her solutions don't seem to get approved or go anywhere. And yet, she remains just as accountable as she was on day one to deliver against the same expectations. She feels powerless to solve her situation.
Doing more with less comes with the expectation of working harder, but it must also come with the ability to work smarter. Senior leaders should ask themselves: have I only given my managers and their teams the option to work harder? Or have I also provided sufficient levers in place for them to work smarter? Here are a few key ingredients required for leaders to successfully do more with less:
1. Authority (to match accountability): Where leaders remain accountable to deliver the same (or more!) with less, they require decision-making power to achieve that goal in an amended way. For example, are they trusted to make budget and hiring decisions? If resources are fixed, are timelines or deliverables up for negotiation? Of course leaders will need to work within boundaries, but within those boundaries they must be empowered with the authority to make the decisions they feel are necessary in order to deliver on what they remain accountable for. Think of it this way: If there are no real decisions for them to make, then what is their role as leader?
2. Clear Strategic Direction: Teams need a vision for the future, but they also need it to connect to the reality of their daily pressures in order to move ahead to achieve that vision. If a team is told by their management to focus on one thing — while their customer or environmental factors demand another — there is no ability to focus and execute. This risks serious disengagement, as the team no longer feels understood by senior leadership, gets lost in the weeds of their daily pressures, and becomes stuck on how to move forward.
3. Curiosity and Psychological Safety: When managers identify and surface their challenges, there is a critical opportunity for senior leadership to employ genuine curiosity to understand the complexity of problems in order to achieve pragmatic solutions. It's not enough to signal superficial support that doesn't enact change. Leaders doing more with less need to act on real options to move the team into a clear set of priorities. This includes providing the backup necessary when escalations in other areas outside that established priority list happen, so everyone on the team knows they maintain their focus without fear of reprisal.
For Natasha, if her management team had empowered her to make hiring decisions, established clearer direction on her priorities, and supported her alternate plan to deliver with less resources, the outcomes could have been drastically different. Leaders need to be part of driving the solution of any business challenge, not just stuck living with the problems created from it. While there will always be trade-offs and tough decisions, even the best leaders are at risk to fail when they're asked to work without authority, clear strategic direction, and psychological safety.