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An Amazing Leader Falters

When I met Scott, he was managing more than five thousand people.1 He started in his organization in a technical role and for four or five years led projects with a handful of direct reports. His rise through the ranks was swift from there, culminating with being put in charge of a new-product development effort that became the company’s blockbuster product.

If I could mention the name of the company and the product, you would immediately recognize both. The product was huge. It transformed how its customers operated, and it spawned derivative products that became big earners themselves. Over a fourteen- to fifteen-year period, because of the initial product win and the derivative solutions, Scott flew up the hierarchy. When I came in contact with him, many presumed he was in a final grooming role, and they believed he was the leading contender for the CEO spot.

My team and I had come to the company to help reduce time to market for new products, and when I observed Scott, I saw what his admirers were talking about. He was clearly a strategic thinker. As soon as he had gotten into a position of real authority, he had prioritized actions aimed at increasing agility within the three 1,800-person units he managed, all of which were part of a division that facilitated credit-card payments to merchants. He broke down functional walls by merging smaller groups into larger groups. He took layers out of the hierarchy to speed decision-making. He expanded the number of people who reported directly to him from six to sixteen.

This expansion in the number of his reports was a form of de-layering: some of the sixteen people now reporting to him had formerly reported to some of the six who used to constitute his smaller corps of reports. Now, he said proudly, “we are less hierarchical.”

As a consequence, there was quite a range in responsibilities among the individuals directly below him. Some, as before, were managers of managers, but now a few of the people who reported to him were in charge of smaller teams with specialized areas. For example, Scott’s direct reports now included the editor of a quarterly newsletter on industry trends. This individual was not a high-level executive like Scott’s other reports, but that was OK with Scott. “I’m trying to send a signal that rank doesn’t matter to me,” he said.

Scott also made it his declared mission to liberate information. “Originally, the teams here were set up to be somewhat competitive with each other and not share information and resources,” he said. “My predecessor really focused on individual accountabilities and to a degree created a culture of fear that resulted in excessive internal competition.” In trying to mitigate that culture, Scott created numerous dotted-line relationships and internal working groups so that everyone knew what everyone else was doing.

He also pushed employees to interact with one another. He created cross-functional teams and held skip-level meetings. “I brought together people who would never have worked side by side on their own,” he said. “By forcing proximity, I got them to see ways they should be working together—and in many cases, people were doing fun things.”

All these behaviors were textbook forms of servant leadership, and “servant” aptly describes how he saw himself. “A leader needs to do what it takes to support his people,” Scott told me. Not surprisingly, many people loved Scott and loved working for him.

So, it was a shock when the CEO pulled me aside as we were heading into a conference room and said, “I’d like you to look specifically at Scott—because we’re about to fire him.”

Strung Out, Wrung Out

The comment was such a stunner that I had trouble concentrating during the meeting. Afterward I followed up with the CEO and dug deeper into Scott’s story to try to understand what was going on.

HR showed me that despite the glowing comments from a few of Scott’s outspoken direct reports, engagement scores among his employees were generally quite low—and trending lower. Worse, people who worked under Scott were leaving the company for competitors at an alarmingly high rate.

Scott’s peers were grumbling about him too. A few times he had inadvertently become a bottleneck, such as when a potential project for a huge retail group in India fizzled because people couldn’t get to him quickly enough. And then there was the initiative that he jumped into when the leader had to go out on extended sick leave; six months later, he was still project-managing it while waiting for her return.

When I looked closer, I could see that physically, Scott was wrung out. His eyes were puffy. He seemed distracted. Although he was engaged and energetic, his energy had a frenetic quality to it.

The CEO suspected that his faith in Scott had been misplaced. “Why is Scott failing?” he asked me. I didn’t have an immediate answer, but my gut reaction was to be skeptical of the implication that Scott was at fault. Too often in situations like this, companies blame the individual, when the real culprit is a breakdown in collaboration strategy. As managers rise in big organizations, they are unprepared for the intense collaborative demands they face and are rarely taught how to manage these collaborations from a network standpoint.

Part of the reason for the lack of clarity in Scott’s case was an absence of meaningful data. The company’s engagement scores and departure numbers were detailed, but they reflected symptoms, not cause. So we took a close look at the information flow and the decision-making interactions within one of the three big units Scott managed.

As part of our time-to-market research, we were already partnering with HR to survey the top 10,000 leaders in the company and then zoom in on the 1,800 people in one of Scott’s groups, asking managers and employees questions like “Who do you turn to for information to get work done?” and “Who do you turn to for decision approvals?” We were able to use that data to find out how many people came to Scott for information, and how often, and whether they were able to get what they needed from him.

Obscene Numbers

Our analysis showed that within just this unit, an average of 118 people came to Scott daily for information. Their requests ranged from big questions involving multimillion-dollar expenses to minor issues involving hiring for low-level positions or small capital-expenditure approvals.

This number may not seem to mean much on the surface, but to my eye it was obscene—that’s the only word for it. For context, in an ideal situation, Scott should have had no more than fifty people coming to him every day for information—across all three of the units he ran. If our numbers held across the three units, he had seven times that number coming to him every day.

We also asked the always-revealing question, “Who do you need greater contact with in order to be successful?” We found that 78 people—more than 50 percent—of the 118 people frequently coming to Scott in that one unit felt they couldn’t hit their business goals unless they got more of Scott’s time.

This was another obscene number. When we see that figure edge up past 25 percent of a leader’s immediate network, we know we’ve got trouble. Although the leader doesn’t feel it while racing from meeting to meeting, he or she is slowing things down significantly. The leader starts to burn out, engagement scores drop because people can’t get their work done, and attrition begins an often-irreversible climb.

We were seeing two distinct aspects of Scott’s reality. On the one hand, he made a point of saying that he didn’t hoard information. But on the other, hundreds of people were dependent on him for information, and many of them told us they couldn’t get enough access to him.

How could we reconcile what we were seeing?

A Desire to Be Helpful

First of all, if you look at the overall evolution in management thinking, Scott was very much a product of his time. Although his company had started in the 1970s as a division of a bank, it had come into its own in the digital era, and like many internet-age firms, its organizational design was matrix-like, with many groups reporting both to functional and geographic leaders.

He also was an avid reader and espoused the current management teaching about the virtues of being transparent and inclusive. Scott was by nature a people person, so these virtues rang true to him. He waged continuous war against the tech-nerd culture that valued closed doors and devalued social interaction.

“In the past, when new leaders came in, they often didn’t even take time to meet folks and learn about them,” Scott said. This, he believed, led to intimidation—employees were afraid to bring their ideas and concerns to the leaders. “You can never build a real following as a leader by behaving that way, even if you’re super talented,” Scott said. “You have to talk to people.”

So, he established an open-door policy and told employees not to hesitate to bring him problems and concerns or to include him in discussions. “I wanted to encourage a flow of information to me,” he said. “I wanted to be seen as operating differently than we had in the past.”

He tried to socialize every issue and use diplomacy and persuasion to influence outcomes. He was involved in nonstop meetings and conversations, throughout his workday and deep into each evening, as interactions moved from meetings to email.

He told me that once, lying in bed, he had tried to count the number of people he had interacted with in the past sixteen hours, a particularly event-filled day. When he got to a hundred, he stopped. He was impressed with his ability to talk to anyone at any level, and he felt sure that he was a paradigm of the servant leader. Though he was tired, and though he had gotten into an argument with his wife that evening, he still felt satisfied with what he was doing—at least in the work sphere of his life.

I want to emphasize that all of this came from a good place. Scott wasn’t a micromanager, a control freak, or an egomaniac—not in the least. Nor did he refuse to delegate. He truly enjoyed being relational, partly because he derived a sense of purpose from supporting people. His desire to help was powerful and core to his identity as a leader. He felt he needed to show he was listening and was present so that he could demonstrate his worth and engagement.

In authentic moments, he would also say he loved to feel needed. This was, in a sense, a strength. Yet, in speaking to him, we came to see that this strength was also a significant weakness in that it pushed him to respond to every request, no matter how small or offhand. He was constantly coming to others’ aid. And as people came to see him as the path of least resistance, these interactions mushroomed.

The sheer volume of the demands for his help was enormous, as was the number of distractions that fractured his days. Research shows that after an interruption consisting of simply looking down at a text, it takes us sixty-four seconds, on average, to reorient cognitively to the task at hand. After just a slightly bigger interruption, it can take us twenty-three minutes or more to fully get back to a task. And Scott was constantly interrupted, which meant he spent most of his day just reorienting cognitively to what he was supposed to be doing.

Making People Want Him

We soon identified an additional issue: in many instances, Scott seemed to generate a need for his expertise. He was extremely adept at this. Because he felt that he was only really doing his job when he was helping, he found many ways—some of them beyond his conscious awareness—of making people feel that they needed his input at every step of every process. He encouraged people to cc him on email discussions, which he would monitor and join when he noticed that problems or disagreements were arising. He believed he was being supportive by doing this.

At one point, he was paging through his emails when he spotted a discussion about a project to improve software for processing payments made through prepaid cards. He wasn’t directly responsible for the prepaid-card side of the business, but the topic interested him and he knew something about it, having worked on prepaid cards at an early stage of his career.

At first, he didn’t comment on the specifics. “Very interesting discussion,” he wrote. “Keep me in the loop!” But when he saw people talking about outsourcing software solutions, he could feel his blood pressure begin to rise. Outsourcing, he thought, seemed totally unnecessary here. “A model-driven architecture with a really good template library is all you need,” he wrote. “That way you create a highly customizable processing platform.” His interjection changed the course of the discussion. Several people on the thread thanked him for the guidance.

As a consequence of this kind of behavior, people had become conditioned to rely on Scott’s help. Whether they asked or not, they knew he would always become part of every important discussion.

Scott’s “escalating citizenship,” to use a term from researchers Mark C. Bolino and William H. Turnley, fed on itself: the more he jumped into projects, the more essential he seemed, and the more discussions he became involved in. He took on greater and greater responsibility for increasingly routine decisions. Meetings would pop up on his calendar as employees sought alignment, and emails would come to him checking on smaller and smaller issues.

But did he actually always know what he was talking about? Did he really have a superior understanding?

I discovered by talking to his team that a lot of Scott’s ideas were ill-formed and half-baked. Yet because he was Scott, he couldn’t be ignored. The team ended up with a double burden: managing the outsourcing issue and managing Scott. As a consequence of situations like this, Scott constantly added to his team’s and his own overload at the same time.

But Scott never made the connection between his behavior at point A and the trebling or quadrupling of his collaborative work at point B.

The Tragic Consequences

What was happening to Scott was something you’ve heard about many times, but probably in a very different context. It comes from an 1833 lecture by an Oxford professor, William Forster Lloyd, about overpopulation, a pressing issue at a time when the number of people in England was growing by leaps and bounds.

In a discussion about resources, Lloyd pointed out that while “no prudent man” would ever put more cattle into his own private enclosure than his meadow could feed, the calculation changes if he uses a shared grazing area, such as the public common. The farmer might be tempted to put more animals on the common than he should, because he knows they wouldn’t go hungry—they’d simply eat up more of the shared meadow. “If a person … puts more cattle on a common, the food which they consume forms a deduction which is shared between all the cattle … , and only a small part of it is taken from his own cattle,” Lloyd said. If other farmers do the same, the public space gets overgrazed, and the whole town suffers.

Lloyd’s insight, dubbed “the tragedy of the commons,” is still relevant today. You’ve probably heard it applied to commercial fishing or pollution. Or you may have heard your colleagues muttering the phrase when the copier breaks down or conference rooms are overbooked. But have you ever thought of “commons” applying to employees and managers?

Scott was a misused common “good.” People weren’t “consuming” him well; they were asking too much of him and using him for the wrong things. He had become an overtaxed resource. His life was dictated by others’ needs. This was bad from an organizational point of view, and it was bad on a personal level.

Creating Chaos

On the organizational level, Scott’s involvement in minutiae created two problems. First, it slowed decision processes. While some appreciated his participation in the prepaid-card discussion, we could see how it threw the conversation into chaos. The originator of the thread tried to get things back on track by saying this was a side issue that could be dealt with later, but there was no stopping the unraveling of the discussion. It devolved into fragmented conversations.

Second, Scott was depriving his employees of challenges that would allow them to grow and was limiting the freedom that is a critical component of experiencing purpose and engaging fully in work. Scott wasn’t micromanaging, and he would have told you that. He wasn’t transferring pressure from above (which is where micromanagement often comes from). Instead—and this is one of the critical, novel findings of our research—Scott’s desire to help and his network’s response to that desire is what short-circuited employees’ opportunities.

Because every problem could be resolved by going to Scott, there was no point in employees making the effort to come up with creative solutions independently. Ergo, they had fewer chances to show off their capabilities. They felt unable to progress through the organization, and their work was no longer exciting for them. Without realizing it, Scott was blocking his employees from following the kind of route he himself had taken through the company.

It was becoming much easier to understand why engagement scores among Scott’s units were dropping and resentment was growing. Employees of a manager like him tend to experience high levels of frustration.

At the Breaking Point

This slow-motion train wreck was painful to observe. But by far the most distressing part was seeing what was happening to Scott’s home life.

On the personal level, Scott was being worn down and used up. His upbringing in the lakes region of Minnesota had been idyllic. He came from a churchgoing family, was an avid athlete in high school, and spent most of his spare time hiking with friends. But after he joined the workforce, he found that between commuting, working long hours, and taking business trips, his physical activity fell off. Trying to stay active, he joined a basketball league, but he sprained his ankle so badly that the injury dogged him for years and led to further inactivity. The more he stayed away, the rustier and more out of shape he got, until he finally lost contact with the league, which was a loss for his physical health and for his sense of camaraderie.

He married and had children. Church, a big part of his identity growing up, became an insignificant aspect of his life. “I lost all the groups and hobbies that I loved,” he said.

Then he and his wife made the kind of decision I call “the step too far.” They bought a house in a better school district that was a longer train ride to Scott’s office. The move wasn’t a product of greed or materialism. It was just the kind of move a responsible provider makes. “You justify all kinds of sacrifices, saying, ‘I am doing this to take care of my family,’ and it felt like we could buckle down and make this happen like every other step,” he said. “But suddenly I was getting home so late at night that I barely got enough sleep and would use naps on the train to catch up.”

Scott kept trying to summon new levels of energy for his rising demands, but there was no more energy left. Brute force wasn’t doing the trick. He didn’t have time to rest or recharge. He couldn’t find a minute to think about his long-term career goals, much less strategize about how to reach them.

As all this was happening, he began taking blood-pressure medication; he had become prediabetic. His wife became resentful of his absorption in work, so home was no longer a safe haven. One day she informed him, to his surprise, that the marriage was in a bad place and that she was thinking about a separation.

Needless to say, the outside stressors only added to his sense of being overwhelmed. Scott told me he had been having persistent thoughts of just giving it all up and quitting the company. His departure would have given him relief from the stress, but it would have wrecked his family’s finances and would have been a severe blow to the organization, considering the extent of his knowledge and his networks.

Scott’s diagnosis was collaboration overload. Was there a cure for this? Scott understood that his life was way out of balance, but his attempts to fix things by using existing time-management guides had failed. Most of the standard recommendations for time management assume that people like Scott operate in isolation. But we’re not atoms; we don’t work in isolation. We work in collaboratively complex environments; we are fully embedded in networks, which funnel work and collaboration to us at a pace and level never seen before. For Scott, and for so many people in my research, the killer was not one or two big things but rather the death of a thousand cuts from collaborations coming from all levels and all areas of life.

Collaboration overload strips us of the interactions that help us clarify and pursue our own priorities—capabilities we want to be distinguished by and values we want to experience in our careers. This is a widespread problem. Roughly 90 percent of the hundreds of leaders I have interviewed—successful women and men, by all external standards—described losing years of their working lives to collaboration overload. During these stretches, they frenetically worked eighty-hour weeks, feeling that they were doing the right thing, only to wake up one day to some form of shocking realization that, like Scott, they had been in an echo chamber—constantly hearing and repeating the need to work at a breakneck pace for financial rewards and a nirvana-like future that seemed to be perpetually just over the horizon. No voices offered alternative points of view on ways to live life or what is truly worth doing, until some jarring moment of recognition when people would recognize they had let large portions of their life slip by on autopilot in a way that was not meaningful.

Scott did finally find a cure. His problem was solved through an intervention that altered the beliefs, structures, and behaviors that had put him into this situation and kept him there. The solution enabled Scott to buy back time so he could make smart investments in essential collaborations that helped him identify and move toward his professional and personal priorities—and thereby grow and develop as a true leader.

I will thoroughly explain this approach to addressing collaboration overload in the coming chapters, walking you through the solutions by providing interactive “Coaching Break” exercises and chapter-ending features that will help you focus on one or two actions you can take immediately. And, in chapter 4, I will return to Scott’s story to show you how it all turned out.

For now, suffice it to say that Scott, of all people, should have been the first to see the need for these solutions; after all, the effects of collaboration overload were becoming more and more apparent to him every day. The things he had put on hold were piling up and becoming problematic, and his performance was suffering.

Unfortunately, like most of us who find ourselves overwhelmed, he couldn’t see it.

The Satisfactions of Dysfunctional Collaboration

There was an additional dimension to Scott’s situation that I find everywhere, in companies of all kinds, and even in myself: Scott really liked to be pushed to the limit. He liked collaboration overload.

Until overload becomes a problem we can’t escape from, we don’t feel it as a negative. That’s what’s so insidious about overload: it feels good until it doesn’t. For one thing, we have an aversion to not being fully booked up. When we don’t have enough to do, we get concerned. What am I doing here? Why don’t others need me? If I’m not needed 24-7, what is my value? Do people notice that I have time on my hands? If so, do they think less of me?

But it’s not just fear of sitting around that drives us into super busyness. The reality is that the times when we’re pushed to the limit can also be some of the most satisfying moments in our careers.

It’s a great feeling to have every ounce of brainpower and stamina focused on a collaborative task. You feel certain about your contributions. You’re needed and appreciated. You are energized and exhilarated by getting things done at a blistering rate.

The people around you are energized too. They’re thrilled to see you at the top of your game, and they reinforce your behaviors. They tell you how much they appreciate your help and how smart you are. And they make it clear that they expect you to continue to be the hero every day going forward.

You don’t have time to worry about awkward, uncomfortable, nonwork things—you don’t even have time to feel guilty about not worrying about them. Your all-encompassing tasks block out all distractions, giving you that seductive sense of frenetic tranquility that we’ve all known and felt drawn in by.

I admit that I do this too, despite my awareness of the dangers of overload. I’m so driven by the need for accomplishment that if I see even a sliver of time—just ten minutes—opening up in my schedule, I rush to fill it with more than could possibly fit.

So, while it’s true that the collaborative demands of today’s knowledge workplaces are greater than ever, a big part of the problem is within ourselves. On a deep and often unwitting level, we don’t want to free up time. We created the overload, and we don’t want it to end. And people in Scott’s situation, and companies like Scott’s, are often completely unaware of the missed opportunities that are caused by collaboration overload.

I recognize, therefore, that my first task in helping you move beyond collaboration overload and into essential collaboration is to convince you that you really do need—and, equally, want—to escape from overload, and that the rewards of taking back a day a week and reinvesting it in essential collaboration vastly outweigh the satisfactions of extreme busyness.

To that end, I will try to show you the kinds of initiatives and achievements you and your company may currently be missing. As we will see in the next chapter, there is a world of possibility once you unlock from collaboration overload.

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