Boost your success and team growth by … not deciding!
Product Managers do not have authority over the product team members. The same can be said for almost any member of an organization. This is even truer in a post-pandemic world where, suddenly, every organization and human being has to change, learn and lead others.
When I joined Shopify in 2018, my formal authority was zero: I was an individual contributor, and I could only rely on influence to achieve my goals.
I did have some domain expertise (shipping & fulfillment) but in another context and country (hint: 🍷 & 🦘). Most of my team members had much more context on our customers’ real problems as well as more tenure, experience and official authority. I was providing a different point of view but was not a subject-matter expert: I had 0 informal authority,
I would not say that this transition was easy, but it was (and still is!) a great source of retroaction that is continuously helping me become a better human. It may well be the subject of another article!
In this article, I want to share, based on these two very contrasting experiences, what I have now defined as “the dark side of authority,” whether this authority is formal (like attached to an organizational structure) or informal (because of experience or domain knowledge).
Disclaimer: Authority and formal organizational structure are great and super-useful in times of crisis or during any emergency. You don’t want firefighters or ER practitioners to debate and start an alignment process during a fire or while you are on the operation table!
Life with authority
I started my professional career with lots of intrinsic and extrinsic authority. During my last year of university (Ph. D. in physics, Postdoc in distributed computing), I founded a tech company and was its CEO for nine years. The company was quite successful, and I was both an expert on the technology we were developing and the company’s ultimate formal authority holder.
Being a convinced humanist and Buddhist, I did my best to treat everyone’s voice and concerns inside the company equally. From the support-line specialist, the cleaning crew to some of the most brilliant open-source talent, engineers and sales professionals, I have had the privilege to lead.
Fast forward in 2018, 6 years after I sold my company and worked for three years as CTO/Chief of sales and then failed to launch and fund a startup, I was able to join Shopify in a product management role.
The Dark Side of Authority
It does not convince anyone
As C.E.O, co-founder and in general as an executive, you often have pleasant and unpleasant surprises. While expressing an idea or a recommendation, you realize that these suggestions have a life of their own!
These suggestions were not debated and are now on top of the backlog. Your suggestions are used during meetings to prioritize this feature … because you said so! Sometimes, the team did not bother to create an issue and went straight into implementation mode and the code is live in production!
None of the owners of this area were part of these discussions, and they are not convinced!
Such events are a net negative for these leaders and for the team they lead. It even has a name: a HIPPO (Highest Income Person‘s Personal Opinion)! It is often called a “XXX-Tornado” where XXX is the exec or HIPPO’s calling this particular shot. In my case a so-called “Ben-Tornado”.
The TL;DR is don’t call the shots unless it is a business-threatening (or life-threatening!) situation (for an employee, a team, a business unit, a customer, etc.). Be aware that when you “call the shot,” you destroy the shared view of the world and mental models that your team(s) have been patiently putting together.
It promotes a culture of secrets, shadows and gives a prominent role to politics
The organization rarely, if ever, evaluates the impact of the HIPPO shots. They are like “black ops” with private channels, low visibility, hidden emails, screenshots and videos with restricted permissions, low transparency and … low impact.
Everyone’s goal on these black-ops team is to rapidly do what has been asked without even bothering with understanding the success metrics and how it fits within the team roadmap and priorities. I have been on such teams and the prioritization method is: what is the minimal amount of work we can do to get this behind us and come back to our team’s work?
As a consequence, these HIPPO processes, features launches and improvements are encouraging any team member to actually promote their own ideas/problems and simply voice them to the HIPPO with the secret hope that a HIPPO will mention it at the next leadership meeting.
Everyone understanding the power dynamic suddenly stop making sound plans and simply wait for the next HIPPO tornado. Influencing and nudging everyone between them and the HIPPO to bring this subject to the HIPPO’s attention.
TL;DR: As a leader with formal or informal authority, do not encourage office politics. If you are in such a “chain of command,” voice your concerns and do your best to make sure this HIPPO tornado follows the normal approval process and is shared transparently to your team and reports. Become transparent and do not hold-on information from your team and reports.
You are, slowly but surely, becoming the weak link
The more a leader uses authority (formal or informal), the more s/he becomes indispensable for his team’s success.
As the need of the team grow, the authoritarian leader has now to scale and grow at an unprecedented rate. The more distance from the frontline exists, the less context such authoritarian leaders have. Slowly but surely, the team’s needs will surpass the leader’s capacity to gather context and make significant decisions.
This chain of events has been the root-cause for the demise of great teams, organizations and companies.
TL;DR: I sincerely believe that authority usage should be restricted to value-preservation decisions. Do not use authority with the false hope that you will create long-lasting value.
Said differently, the organization’s authority given to a human being should help her/him ensure that the organization continues to exist by managing risk appropriately. Your main responsibility is to provide the teams you lead with the maximum autonomy level possible while articulating very clearly the value-preserving boundaries imposed of your organization.
It prevents growth in your team
If you are “calling the shots”, you will have a hard time to help the team grow. As team members gather more context and gain informal and formal authority, they will continue to look at you very much like the classic paternal family structures.
Your reluctance to share the authority given to you by the organization to preserve value, end-up blocking the growth of your team. You are taking away each and every opportunity the team and individuals have to learn. A manager that has completed his journey to the dark side is even called a micro-manager.
As people mature and graduate, they will simply leave your team and find a proper team where they will be able to thrive and grow as leaders.
TL;DR: Each time you “call a shot”, make sure that this is your role and consider who are you depriving of a crucial learning opportunity? Decide whether or not you need to be involved. If this is about value-creation, refuse to decide and make sure the decision owner knows that you are here to support her/him but that it is not your call to make.
For new managers and newly appointed (formal) or revealed (informal) leaders, using authority is often perceived as the primary benefit of their new position. It may even be a stated goal in your career plan.
Their role models may have been imaginaries heroes with lots of formal and informal authority (princesses, awesome warrior-kings, elves, wizards or master Jedi, action-heroes, etc.) routinely “calling the shots”.
In reality, life is much messier than these mythical stories. As a leader, your success is your team’s success. The sooner you will relinquish calling the shots for trivial and key decisions that could not destroy value for your organization, the better for you and your team.
Using authority only to preserve value for your organization will help everyone interact with you and understand why you ask questions and want to be more involved in specific initiatives.
It will ensure that you will develop meaningful relationships and create learning opportunities for each human being on your team.
It will also and protect you and your team from our current millennium’s professional disease: burn-out.