The Art of Sitting on Your Hands

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By Lauren Costella

Last month, I wrote an article about my job as a Vice President for Customer Success, which is really, sitting on my hands. I need to do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. And while that may sound perfectly poetic, the challenge is very real. With regard to being hands on or off, it’s not always easy to know when too much is too much or whether you’re not doing enough as a leader. And walking this line is a constant struggle.

Personally, I don’t want to micromanage a team. I don’t find that interesting and quite frankly, it’s not something I’m good at doing. At the same time, when I hear about or see something not working, I want to jump in and fix it. And my passion around finding a fix is only heightened when there are customers or our business at risk. So the question is: how does one balance “sitting on your hands” but also take into consideration that a lack of action could lead to chaos?

I’ve pondered this a bit, and I realize there’s a very distinct “art” to walking this fine line, and I thought you may appreciate a few “artistic” tips as you navigate the line between sitting on your hands and jumping in to help.

The Art of Reframing an Issue

There are various ways to look at an issue or problem. Depending on the lens of how you present or approach an issue, the folks on the receiving side can either jump to the wrong conclusion or can become completely de-motivated to want to solve it. In some cases, they might not even want to recognize there’s even an issue. Reframing matters a lot when you’re walking that fine line of stepping back and jumping in.

I experienced a lack of reframing, literally, just the other day. My leadership team and I were all talking about technical training gaps with our CSMs. We agreed that there was an issue around CSMs needing to be more technical with our product. As we discussed the issue, my leaders said it had been a known problem for months, and then I said aloud, “Well, why haven’t we done anything then?” Immediately, the dynamic changed; the room had an air of defensiveness. Participants broke out in debate arguing points about the fact that we had done a lot of work around training, and then we proceeded to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing what things we had done.

When I take a step back, that one, simple, musing aloud question had more impact than the entire conversation. Of course, I knew we had done a lot around improving CSM training. We had so much more in place than when I had first joined, and I am tremendously proud of what we’ve achieved! What I was really trying to dissect was “efficacy” of training. In other words, I know we are doing a lot of stuff, but it seems like this “stuff” isn’t having the intended impact. Should we refine our focus to be on efficacy instead of simply building more things? But this is not what came out, and what’s worse, was my “frame” around “nothing being done” was the exact opposite of the tone I wanted to set.

Imagine that I recognized the great work that had been done around training first and recognized the time and energy we invested. Imagine if I had said this is not just an issue for our team, but for the rest of the organization and solving for this would be a huge company impact? And furthermore, imagine, I had reframed the discussion to get agreement around efficacy, and then our discussed focused on solving for success? I went in with the problem already defined and the conclusion around what is or isn’t happening, but that was just it, I needed to get the team to buy into what was really going on, and just one simple question set us down the exact wrong path. Consider reframing the discussion around joint buy-in first, and focus on being solution oriented and positive. Then solving for it doesn’t need to come from you, it can come from the team who’s charged with leading it.

The Art of Lowering your Voice

My voice is a bullhorn. No, not literally, though I can think of a few people who may have a differing view on that given my passion, excitement and rather loud voice, when I talk about anything Customer Success. But the context to which I’m referring is that as a leader everything I say and do is amplified 100X. Case and point was the example of reframing I shared above. Whatever I say, even if it’s just thinking out loud, can completely disrupt a team, how they own and solve issues and their view on whether you’re being too hands on. Why? As a leader, everyone takes your word with more weight, as a command, as an order. Even if that’s not the intention, most people view it that way, and it can be hard to separate a command vs. a simple musing.

I used to think that the more passionate I am in front of the team, the more they would pick up my passion and urgency and see it as important. What I’ve come to find is that I produce the exact opposite effect. Everyone is scrambling to the “command” versus really being bought in that it’s critically important!

I am trying to build a team where we can all talk to each other and challenge each other. That my team can push back peer-to-peer, and we can all hold each other accountable. However, it takes time to build the kind of vulnerability based trust for that kind of dialogue and beyond that, it’s just really hard to delineate for anyone who has a boss, what is command versus what is top of mind.

So as a leader, it’s important to keep my bullhorn self in check. It’s important for me to ask more questions. This goes back to reframing. If you’re not sure if your team is viewing a particular issue or initiative in the same way, check in with them! Maybe the story you have in your head is different from theirs. Maybe there’s an underlying issue that can’t be uncovered because your “bullhorn” voice is overpowering. You can’t know until you lower your voice, listen, and ask questions.

The Art of not Accepting the “Monkey”

One thing that I have done, but I’ve also seen my team leaders do is taking on their direct reports’ “monkeys” or problems. Monkeys are a funny way for me to visualize taking on problems. I can take on one or two, but if I have my own, plus some from my reports, and more from my colleagues, then monkeys will literally be overrunning my office and wreaking havoc everywhere.

Too often, as leaders, we find ourselves trying to take on problems and manage the actions of others. The intentions behind doing this are the purest you can find. We want to help. And in many ways, it would seem like that’s the right answer to the problem. For example, maybe I am more experienced in doing X,Y, Z or have done that before, so theoretically I could do it and maybe am the most qualified.

Well, not so fast. There are a few issues with that reasoning. 1) You don’t have the bandwidth, but that’s probably pretty obvious. 2) There’s an underlying assumption that you would know better than the person who has more context that you do, and that’s probably not the case. 3) Given the person with the problem has more context, it’s probably in their best interest to critically think about the issue and come up with a plan that may involve you, but not for you to take on the entire problem.

It’s your job to hand those monkeys back. Make your team, your colleagues or anyone else handing you monkeys keep those monkeys. They need to keep the monkey and figure out the plan and use your talents in a structured way (with boundaries set by you) to solve the issue. In this way, they are learning, growing, maintaining ownership, and typically, they figure it out better than you could have.

Navigating stepping in and stepping back is never black and white. It’s this grey area that makes it difficult. So, if you find yourself, like me, trying to successfully navigate the Art of Sitting on Your Hands, I hope you find these “artistic” tips helpful in your journey.

The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that works with leaders to drive positive team behavior and incredible results. Check out our leadership programs for more information on how you can build your customer success management skills.

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Lauren Costella - Lauren is a change agent, communicator, leader and passionate champion for Customer Success in business, since a great customer experience drives retention, growth and brand advocacy. Her expertise centers on building early signs for risk and growth, defining cross-department success plays, team enablement, operations and process, and selecting and implementing CS software. When she’s not working as the VP of Customer Success for Medrio, you can find her serving as an advisor and blogger for the Success League, an active board member for the Customer Success Network, and blogging generally about her CS experiences on the CS Playlist. Lauren has her MA and BA from Stanford University. She was a former USA National swim team member and enjoys staying active with running and surfing in the Bay Area.