Lead by Letting Go – by Professor Terri L. Griffith, Ph.D.

Could your sales team do more if you did less?

“Selling Fearlessly” is at the top of this webpage. You may be fearless about approaching your clients, but how do you feel about letting your team set their own agenda, identify their own milestones, or innovate around their methods? Many of us are afraid to let our teammates loose to meet their challenges and that may limit their, and your, success.

Nilofer Merchant wrote a book called The New How: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy. In the introduction to the book she tells a common story: Executives state a stretch goal, the sales team nods, the engineers nod, and months later it all falls apart. The engineers don’t express their concerns about the features on the list. The sales team doesn’t push back about the expected quotas. Everyone keeps quiet until it’s too late to do anything about it.

Leaders back in the time of her story, and even more so today given all the information that all of us have at our disposal, have the opportunity to learn from their teams. The limiting factor is that leaders may take such an active role in leading that everyone else assumes they don’t have to pay attention or participate.

Kids learn to ride when the adults let go. Teams challenge themselves and take ownership when leaders let go.

The message of The New How is that the decisions we take are better the more people who are engaged in the decisions — and the execution is better the more people who are committed to the action we decide on. Engagement and commitment come from true participation.

We’re moving from a time where information was only available to top leadership. Before Google, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn put lead and market data in everyone’s hands, it made some sense that decisions would be made by the people at the top. Leaders had the information.

Yet there were flaws with that thinking then and now: Leaders have often overestimated the accuracy of the information they have, underestimated the value of the information from the field, and overlooked the importance of everyone being committed to the goals. (A 2010 McKinsey Quarterly study of over 1000 major businesses found that those that worked to get better information had an return of around 7% for the effort.)

We may lead better by letting go

We have “substitutes for leadership” to leverage in place of our personal attention. Leadership is about guidance and motivation. Guidance and motivation can come from setting up a super sales strategy and letting it run. Guidance can come from technology tools that highlight opportunities. Motivation can come from well thought out incentive systems and communication across team members. Texting and fancier feedback systems like Work.com can provide internal motivation.

Michael Grove of Collabworks made this point in a recent conversation: When you let go of the day to day supervision, you free yourself to take on tasks that really need your skills. Cultivating new customers, finding new ways to provide value to old customers and other higher order tasks made the list.

Try this: Pick one team leadership activity. Work with your team to make sure the activity still happens, but it happens through their efforts, the addition of some new practice, or a new tool. Let go of that activity and pick one new activity that is up the chain. Let us know what you’re trying. We’ll be here to cheer you on. Also let us know if you’ve had a success or a challenge with things you’ve already let go of.


Terri Griffith is a professor of management at Santa Clara University and the author of The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive. She shares her passion for innovative work via via her blogTwitter, and Facebook. She’s honored to be one of the 2012 Silicon Valley Women of Influence.


Get your free preview of Chapter 1 from Selling Fearlessly.

Check out the 66 reviews for Selling Fearlessly at Amazon.com.